Build Your Business by Starting an Online Community
July 17th 2023
Our reliance on the internet for information has dramatically changed how we buy products and services. Easy access to friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, classmates, vendors, and potential customers has increased the time we spend online. And because we collectively spend more time online, more business than ever is being done online.
However, deciding to sell online isn’t as easy as slapping up a website announcing what you’re selling. Sure, that is one way to make it easy for potential customers to find you, but a website in and of itself is generally insufficient. Today, you need to do more to connect with and attract more business.
Part of the cultural shift has to do with where consumers and businesses turn for information. More than ever, buyers are looking for recommendations from people they respect. According to Fronetics, business buyers conduct online research to gather information, investigate company websites; and then check what they find out with peers and colleagues. Recommendations and feedback from those peers are vital to the purchase decision.
Which is likely why more online communities are popping up. Online groups of people with similar interests, qualifications, information needs, or goals are useful for buyers and business owners.
The value of a community
Where businesses benefit from having people who have a connection to their products, services, or brand in an easily accessible online group, members then have access to like-minded people. It’s a win-win.
It’s also free to set up.
Creating a new group on platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn costs the organizer nothing. It’s also relatively easy to do. In Facebook, click on Groups in the navigation bar on the left side of your profile page, and then click on the “Create a new group” button. Similarly, on LinkedIn, click on Groups and then “Create a group.”
Decide which platform you want to host your group by considering where most of your target buyers spend their time. Are they most active on Twitter? LinkedIn? YouTube? Facebook? Go where they are already spending a lot of time, so that participating in your new community becomes an added activity on the platform where they’re already engaging.
Creating the group is probably the fastest, easiest step in this whole process, but don’t rush it.
Before you claim space on the internet for your community, think about its purpose. That is, why are you setting it up?
Are you trying to acquire new customers? Perhaps reduce the cost of acquiring those new customers? Are you trying to improve engagement and satisfaction levels with your existing customers? Do you want to be able to tap into a community for market research? Do you want to build a pool of brand advocates?
Think hard about the primary benefit you hope to achieve by creating a group. That “why” should then drive the name that you choose for this new community.
For example, if your group aspires to bring together female public relations professionals, you may want to select a name that is clear about who belongs there, by using keywords like “women” and “PR.” If you have a YouTube channel for online resellers, your community name should include words that let resellers know they belong there.
This assumes that the group you’re establishing is free to join, rather than a paid membership. (You can certainly set up a paid group, however, there is more involved to connect your payment processor to Facebook and manage memberships.)
Because you only get one chance to make a first impression, you’ll want to prove to folks who join the group that they will get value from participating. To do that, you’ll want to fill the feed with useful information before sending out invitations to join.
You can do that by:
- writing blog posts and sharing the link in the group
- adding reference materials, such as in the Files section of a Facebook group
- sharing business leads in the news feed
- recording short video tutorials
- welcoming new members as they join
The key is to have useful materials and information already posted in the group before anyone joins. You need to demonstrate the value of being a member the minute they gain access to the group.
Filling it with members
After you’ve walked through all of the steps the platform requires for you to set up a new group, it’s time to start inviting people to join.
One way is to invite all of your current connections to join, by sharing a link to the group itself.
You can also announce that you’ve created a new group and share the link to join on other platforms, like Instagram, Twitter, or Threads, to get some exposure to people who aren’t already connected to you.
You can ask permission to announce your new group in other groups. You’re more likely to have success if the groups do not compete. If they are complementary, such as retailers located on Main Street or pet-related businesses in your town, you’ll probably have more luck receiving permission.
Inviting new members should become another one of your regular tasks, either daily or weekly. Identify people you’d like to have in your community and invite them. Repeatedly remind current members that you’d like to keep expanding the group and that they’re welcome to invite people in their circle of friends whom they think might find value in the group, too.
Once your group has at least 300 members, you can consider starting to make sales offers, if that’s part of why you established the group. Those offers might include special members-only deals on your products and services, such as 30% off this weekend only. You could also hold live workshops that lead to an offer at the end, which is more subtle. But make sure that you don’t suddenly start selling 24/7 or your new members will immediately leave.
They didn’t join to be sold to.
Yes, you can bring up product information casually, such as when you recommend a great new online tool you just found that you wanted them to know about. But don’t do that daily or the value of membership will decline.
When you make recommendations, be sure to include your affiliate link (as long as the platform you use allows affiliate links), so that you can earn money if anyone in your group buys something.
You can also create training programs and courses that you offer to your group that you believe they would be interested in.
When you bring like-minded groups of people together and provide them with information they want and value, you’ve created a business asset you can monetize and leverage, if that is your intent. Communities can also be valuable for the market research they provide, as well as becoming ambassadors for your brand.
Just be sure you are clear about why you’re creating a group before you set it up and that you’re ready to make an ongoing commitment to engaging with members and sharing information they will find useful.