As marketing becomes more competitive, more brands are turning to community building to give them an edge. Fostering a strong customer community is an effective way to keep your audience engaged with your company organically and communicate with them in a less sales-driven way. Plus, it can help with customer support and marketing - generating content that businesses can re-use on their social media, for example.

Therein lies its power. When done well, communities create a participatory experience for its customers that helps to form a genuine connection. Instead of cultivating an “us and them” relationship, communities create a “we” one. It can be incredibly beneficial to your bottom-line, with customers found to spend 19% more when part of a business’ online community. Plus, it gives your brand more credibility. 85% of customers trust reviews from other people as much as a personal recommendation.

Customer communities also offer an opportunity to gain insights on your customers. You can collect behavioural data such as their preferred communication methods, when they are online, how they prefer to shop and what topics interest them. This can inform your marketing, sales and product development.

Plus, you may uncover some of your brand’s biggest fans. The people who engage the most within your community, who always have something great to say about your products, can be motivated even further to provide reviews, images and videos.

Many businesses have realised the potential of customer communities. However, not all communities are the same. There are many different kinds. The one that you settle on will depend on your business, your audience and your resources.

Customer connecting

Some brands cultivate a community where its customers can swap their experiences, ideas and tips. Sephora’s beauty forum is one such example of this. Customers can post questions on products or how to apply makeup, to be answered by the community. Competitions such as Sephora’s homegrown influencer programme #SephoraSquad are held to generate votes and comments. Customers post their product hauls, images and videos that can be repurposed by the beauty brand’s marketing team.

Kayla Itsines’ BBG community is an example of a business that was borne out of a customer community. Kayla Itsines began her current career as a fitness influencer, encouraging her followers to post photos of their progress and workouts. Eventually, this became a business known as The Bikini Body Guide and the community has an estimated 30 million women signed-up.

Tapping into your customer network in this way will organically generate marketing content for your brand. It works well for visually driven brands, like retailers, beauty, and creative companies.

Idea generation

Generating ideas usually falls to your product development team. However, you can take a weight off of their shoulders by using your customer community to brainstorm ideas. Lego has gone down this route with Lego Ideas, a forum for customers to submit design ideas. People can vote on their favourite ideas and the winners are awarded a percentage of product sales.

Of course, asking your customers to submit ideas that you then take to market is a surefire way to boost their loyalty. This tactic will help them to feel invested and part of your business. At the very least, they will feel listened to.

Customer support

Any business is only as good as its customer support. To ease the burden on your support team, you can offload some common enquiries into a dedicated community. Xbox has a forum where more experienced players (who have a minimum Gamescore) can help others with common support issues. They can also offer advice on creating YouTube or Twitch videos. In return, these gamers are offered exclusive perks by Xbox.

Salesforce Trailblazers is a B2B example of an online community. Members of the forum can take online certifications to earn different ‘Trailblazer’ qualifications. It contains Q&A sections where members help each other and official Salesforce employees can weigh-in from time to time as well.

Cisco, SAP, LexisNexis and EMC are all in on the act too. Understandably so, as online communities are the third most common digital engagement channel to gather customer feedback and support. It’s only trumped by email and website - and ranks higher than social media, apps and live chat.

For networking and mentorship

Communities work best when they offer value to their users. Something that they can only get from engaging with the community. The Bank of America’s Small Business Community, for example, is targeted specifically towards small business owners. It offers a space to obtain expert advice, network with other customers and swap their experiences.

For a social cause

Having a social purpose is vital in today’s environment, with more consumers expecting brands to take a stand on major issues such as climate change and plastic pollution. Tangible change won’t occur without a community driving it forward. Gathering people who are united by a common cause, spearheaded by your brand, is a great way to build a long-term relationship.

TOMS is a brand built on social purpose. One day, it ran a campaign titled “One day without shoes” and tapped into its strong online community. 3.5 million consumers took part, posting photos of their bare feet to highlight the struggle of poor families.

Lessons learnt

Communities can take many forms, but have some commonalities. They all foster a stronger relationship between a business and its customers. Communities create shared experiences, especially when built on the same values.

Whatever version your community takes, it will only work if it is tailored for your customers. Salesforce’s community works for its audience because it offers technical advice and best practice for using the tool. TOMS community has its foundation in social change. Discover what your customers have in common and build your community based on this.

Lastly, it’s important to dedicate time to grow your community. Successful communities take a while to get going and will need a degree of oversight and promotion. Give your community the best chance, by investing the time and resources to get it off to a flying start.

Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash.

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