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I recently met with a potential client to discuss how they wanted to engage their audience. While they’ve been around for several years, they’re just now getting into social media.

But that wasn’t why they were meeting me. They have an executive staff member who had done the research and they chose to focus the bulk of their efforts on Instagram, because that’s where they connected with the largest group of their ideal clients.

They’re looking to expand that reach and that’s why we were talking, but the good news is they’ve already figured out a big portion of the equation.

Numbers Don’t Lie

They launched their Instagram account around Thanksgiving of 2018. By December of 2019, they had 10,000 organic followers.

That sounds like a solid track record, especially for a company… until they told me the next part. From Christmas of 2019 to our meeting on January 28, 2020, they had added another 5000 followers. Again, they didn’t buy these people from some click farm or mailing list. In one month, they had doubled their previous 6 months of growth.

Another key point – their post engagement rate. Average influencers engagement on Instagram is around 3%. Anything above 6% is considered very high engagement. The company I met with? Their engagement averages 20% or higher; and this is without utilizing some of the expert re-engagement tools I talked about in a previous post.

They built their Instagram audience the same way they built their unique customer base:

By Building… Community.

You may recall hearing about the results of a study Cigna conducted back in 2018.  The study got a lot of attention for one statistic in particular – that experiencing ongoing loneliness was roughly equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In fact, loneliness shortens your life-span more than obesity.

Even in this world, where we appear more connected than ever before, more than half of all Americans feel isolated and alone. The study found that social media, contrary to what some believe, can help ease loneliness. But not enough – People crave community.

And not just any community. Churches, schools, social groups are finding more and more fragmentation as people search for their tribe, even if it’s next to impossible to find the perfect one. One size no longer fits all. So businesses, especially small businesses and solopreneurs, need to narrow their focus and find the niche that they serve best, building out from there.

According to Loyal founder Sarah Judd Welch, “At its core, community is a group of people and the connections formed between them.” So the key is finding and fostering those unique aspects your customers have – even if they don’t see them.

This is where strategy comes in. For years, Grow the Dream has taught our students and clients to figure out who their ideal customer is, what they are looking for, and provide answers to their problems.

But Wait, There’s More…

Strategy alone will help you establish a stronger presence and visibility. The potential customers you can deliver the most value to will find you more readily. In turn, they provide your business with more value.

But building community takes everything up a notch – you create a symbiotic relationship with your ideal customers. You help them and they help you, in several ways:

Advocacy & Trust

It’s no surprise these days that people are much more likely to trust a recommendation from a friend or trusted business partner than any random advertising they see. Word of mouth, online reviews and personal referrals drive the bulk of successful businesses today.

Building a community makes that even more relevant, and broadens the scope of that outreach. To use a simplified example – from whom would you rather buy Girl Scout Cookies? Some random girls outside the local grocery store – or the daughters of the couple in your Bible Study group?

Nike found that they engaged their customers more and brought in greater revenues when they rolled back their focus on celebrity athletes and starting building community. While two of their three mobile apps don’t generate straight income for the company, the community that arose around Nike Run Club & Nike+ Training brought people together and built brand loyalty as they allowed users to track their progress.

An Accenture study discovered that approximately two-thirds of customers will spend more on brands to which they are loyal. Community bolsters loyalty. And keeping current customers engaged can be just as important to most businesses as gaining new first-time users.

Lower Ad Spends & More Repeat Business

By building community, you’re not only engaging your existing customers more, you’re expanding your marketing reach. You remember those old ads for Fabergé Organics shampoo – or maybe one of the many spoofs of it? “I told two friends, and they told two friends…”

You save money on advertisements (which, again, are less effective), while getting more – and more relevant attention when you build community. Plus, if you are advertising a special sale or launching a new service, you have a more interested, engaged audience looking to accept and embrace it.

The Glossier makeup brand estimates that some 90% of their revenue comes from repeat sales to already happy and engaged customers.

Who Needs Focus Groups?

One of the newest discoveries in the community building trend is honest customer feedback that leads to improved products and services.

While focus groups have largely been a part of testing advertising and new product launches since the 50’s, more recently their vitality and reliability have been questioned. The so-called Hawthorne Effect is the trend of people in focus groups not being completely honest because they’re in a focus group.

The Hawthorne Effect originated in psychological studies, where workers tested for productivity improved in the short term as a result of being observed. More recently, the effect has been tested with focus groups. They found that even subtle, inadvertent hints from the person interacting with the group are picked up by the group and the results he or she expects reflected back to them to some extent.

That is NOT the case, however, when people share on social media. In fact, most of us have some contacts on social media that use those outlets to be more openly critical and rude to people they aren’t seeing face to face. Even people well known to each other in the real world indiscriminately flame each other in an online setting.

Better Producing Through Community

Even before you launch a new product or service or upgrade, you can do what Microsoft doesn’t – listen to the community you’ve built.

Just like the community replacing traditional focus groups, the honesty of your existing customers can let you know what they want, how they want it and how much they’re willing to spend.  No need for guesswork when developing strategies and policies – in a community you KNOW what the customers want and need most. And what their expectations are.

A community can be your built-in beta test. Before you spend a lot of money to create a new product or service, send out samples or try to engage new business, you can test the ideas with your existing community.

In an even weirder turn of events, psychologists describe an engagement phenomenon called the IKEA Effect, where labor leads to love. The fact that the consumer builds their own furniture makes them value it and the company that “allowed them to help” create it for their family. IKEA’s loyalty program – IKEA FAMILY – bolsters this unspoken connection.

Helping Hands

An engaged online community can also help solve its members’ problems. A space on your website, or a group on Facebook, provides an open forum for your clients to ask questions and help out by supplying other customers answers. People help each other by solving minor concerns and build camaraderie.

Adobe was one of the first companies to make serious strides in this area, although both they and Microsoft were outdone by other third party user groups (like Creative Cow) that are far more effective and responsive than the big brands.

Still, the forums build stronger bonds for the people in your community, and offers a place, on your own site, for customers to get answers to simpler questions. That leaves you more resources to apply to larger, more involved customer service issues and problems that may arise.

There’s one huge advantage that most businesses don’t even consider, but should. In fact, this one type of engagement is actually the basis for Web 2.0 and the rapid growth of social media platforms:

User-Generated Content

User-generated content is the content that your audience makes online. It can be as simple as their posts on social media, reviews on Yelp or their own sites, and blog posts about your products.  This is free exposure for your company, and has added cache of coming from “real” people. But, of course, you should make the time to engage with and comment on these posts.

This user-generated content is just as effective on other sites as it is on your own. If you have a place and accommodate guest blogs and referrals, of course this will make your site rise. But you can just as easily, and sometimes more effectively, leverage content on other sites.

I believe ALL of GoPro Cameras content is generated by their customers using the devices to create material. Red Giant does something similar, but curates it a bit, reaching out to specific media creators to use their equipment to create their short films, like Seth Worley’s “Spy vs Guy,” starring my friend Steve Taylor.

Apple even got ancillary attention from various independent film sites by hiring John Wick director David Leitch to shoot “Snowbrawl” on the iPhone 11 Pro. Then aired it as a commercial. The spot has been viewed more than 21 million times on YouTube, not to mention the behind the scenes making of video, that’s generated nearly 900,000 views of its own to date.

Selling In Spite of Yourself

As you’ve probably already gathered, brands need to build true communities that go beyond selling a product and provide value and support for members. But it also has to serve your needs. After all, most of you reading this didn’t go into business just to change the world, but to earn a living while doing it.

So just like everything else in marketing, we start with a strategic approach.

  1. Start with your business goals. What do you want to accomplish with your business? And how does community enhance and interact with that? Thinking about this ahead of time will also help you gauge how much time to budget and whether it’s more efficient to build the community on a site you control or within a social media platform like Facebook or LinkedIN.
  2. Plan how to meet those goals, which means you need a way to identify success. If you have no measurable metrics, you’ll never know if you are truly succeeding with meeting your goals and serving your customers. Identify your Key Performance Indicators and track them.
  3. Remember, the community should reflect your values and, just like your business, should be about solving your bullseye clients’ problems or alleviating their pain. We’re looking for a win-win here, or as Zig Ziglar used to say, getting what we want by helping enough other people get what they want. So create a community that your ideal clients will find useful and worth making time to interact with.
  4. Put processes and resources into place to keep the community healthy and growing. This will almost definitely cost you more up front. But once it’s established, the return on the initial investment will pay off, and the costs to maintain the momentum will decrease. You’ll want to also think of this as similar to your sales funnel. You need to move new customers from creating a login to becoming full-fledged users and evangelists for the community. A little nurture now will pay off in spades down the line.

At this point, creating a community may seem daunting. Especially if you’ve just read this entire article. But it is a valuable asset for your small business, and will almost certainly be necessary for success over the next 10 years. Do it now, before you’re forced into figuring it out later.

Like the old adage goes, you eat the elephant one bite at a time. Start with establishing a strategic approach for community building, and if you haven’t yet, for all of your business’ growth. If you need help with that, please reach out. Grow the Dream was built doing just that, helping others build their small business dreams – we’d love to help you with yours.