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How to Build Communities Online and Leverage Them

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.


If you go the route of setting up a private branded community online, like a members-only forum or a company-managed social network, how to you build that user base into a community? And how do you leverage that community to produce actual value?

Keep It Small

If you have a million followers on social media, your branded community should be tens of thousands. The exclusivity heightens the engagement and value of those who are involved. You can share the link to this community on your corporate social media profile to show what link is the legitimate one, but don’t give access to anyone and everyone who requests it.

You want the feedback of a small sample that resembles the customer base.

You want the feedback of a small sample that resembles the customer base.

Invite the Right People

Those in the community should be your ideal customer so you can better understand them, your greatest fans who you could use as brand ambassadors, your company representatives who can interact with the community members without being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of questions and requests.

You need a broad demographic base that reflects your customer base, such as people from around the country if you’re a national brand. If you have a wide age range buying your product, your private social network can’t just include the younger people most likely to sign up from a social media notice of it.

Solicit the Honest, Hard Feedback

Ask them what they like and don’t like about the brand. Where is your branding inconsistent? What campaigns do they hate? Remember that the truth is somewhere between the best of what your enemies say and the worst of what your allies say – and the negative comments from this group are far more accurate than the generally positive feedback marketing is likely to bubble up to management in their reports. You don’t need more praise unless it reveals new market segments or uses for your product unless they are giving you good reviews online somewhere else. In the latter case, positive reviews are SEO gold and improve your product’s odds of being selected when others will buy it.

When you get the mixed feedback, you can take this information (minus personal identifiers) to your broader user community to solicit general advice on how to fix it, information on how others are getting around it, and who sees it as a major problem as compared to an annoyance.

Design feedback from people who want to improve your product is an invaluable resource.

Design feedback from people who want to improve your product is an invaluable resource.

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Use Them for Testing

What do you think of this slogan? What images and associations do you have of this product? Why bother with an expensive general market research campaign when you can ask your existing in house consumer base to give you feedback.

This type of user community outreach requires having clear disclaimers that what people see on your website is proprietary and should not be shared on other sites or discussed. These types of disclaimers are a necessary legal step for prosecuting anyone who leaks such marketing information, but it can also help members feel like insiders, that they have special knowledge others don’t, thereby deepening their relationship with the company.

Content Generation

You can use these user communities for a source of content that gets vetted by your team before being published by your company and publicized via social media.

Let people know that you’ll use their ideas and any advice they give. This protects the company if they then sue because you used their tip for how to use the product in content elsewhere. Give the individuals who generated the ideas a tip of the hat, and ideally rewards through the user community, so that they become promoters of the content and brand ambassadors instead of feeling used.

You can consider photo contests with the user community with rewards for those who submit the most engaging images of themselves with your product or using your service. However, you cannot use these images in your own marketing campaign without clear legal notice upfront that you are claiming the rights to the images when posted to the member forum. A legal disclaimer when people sign up may be valid in court, but you’ll generate ill will from the people most likely to propagate bad news if this isn’t clear.

Find that Common Ground

Any social community needs to be centered around more than the brand. What are the common issues that people are solving by using your product or service? Marketing has to know this for the basis of any broad marketing campaign. For a brand like Pampers, the common basis is obvious: parents of young children. They are able to market their diapers and other baby products to parents inside the content on the forum about dealing with newborns, toilet training toddlers, and other challenges parents face. If the content goes over well with the insider community, you know it will work well on the internet.

Determine their shared interests so you know what causes or issues to address. Determine their relevant shared characteristics so you know how to market to them. This helps you avoid major problems companies face when their marketing goes contrary to the image and even the values of the user base.


What are the unusual uses for your product? You want to know these things so that you can create new content that capitalizes on these types of queries and provides value added advice to your general users. You should also ask them for leads like “Where do you want our product or service sold?”, “Where is the product not adequately serviced?”, “Which service providers aren’t doing a good enough job?” The intent of this effort is to find out what problems need to be addressed before they lead to a lot of bad reviews online or missed business opportunities.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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