We've all heard about online community being used as a way to "attract eyeballs" and make Web sites "sticky," but from a small-business perspective, there is a whole other world waiting for us when we use online interaction to connect and communicate with our customers. So for a minute, erase the images of GeoCities and giant aggregated megacommunities. Think of your community of customers.

This might be a smaller, more focused community defined around the communications needs of you and your customers. First, what kinds of communications do you and your customers need or want? Make a list on the left side of a piece of paper. Mine starts like this:

  • General marketing (in all its forms)
  • Introductions and assessments (can we meet each other's needs?)
  • Proposals and pitching and defining a project
  • Planning
  • Drafts and revisions and reference materials
  • Meetings, events, calendars

Now, on the right side of the paper, list the online interaction spaces that could be used to enhance each type of communication. These may or may not be exclusively online functions, but you might be surprised about what you can achieve online with customers.

Communications Tasks Online Possibilities
General marketing (in all its forms) Web site, discussion space, e-mail newsletter, scheduled chats
Introductions and assessments (can we meet each other's needs?) Discussion space, e-mail, Web site-based qualifications, résumés, references, customer list
Proposals and pitching and defining a project Posting of proposals on Web site, virtual tour through a proposal, discussion space to allow a customer to ask questions
Planning Web-based project management tools, tracking, discussion space, scheduing, e-mail reminders, and listserves
Drafts and revisions and reference materials Web-based library of project reference materials, private password-protected pages for customer materials
Meetings, events, calendars Web-based scheduling and online synchronous or asynchronous meetings

Online community (or online interaction spaces, as I like to call them) offers small businesses an additional set of communication tools. When used with common sense and skill, it can enhance and streamline communications processes, saving time and overcoming barriers of time and distance. One unexpected benefit I've discovered with online tools is that they have created a transparency in my work -- my customers can see where I am on a project and what I am doing. This assures them that the project is progressing and allows them to offer suggestions and corrections along the way. If you have a team-focused business, this is a huge plus.

On the flip side, if online interaction tools are used inappropriately or sloppily, they can get you into trouble.

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