Secrets and insecurities. We all have them. Yet most of us only discuss them with a trusted confidant like a best friend or spouse, or behind a veil of anonymity such as in a blog post, comment, or discussion board.

But disclosing them to a brand in an open forum? That's scary stuff.

For more than a decade, that's precisely what men and women have done in private online communities--even with highly sensitive topics such as handling personal bankruptcy, having difficulty making ends meet, coping with a serious disease, or even struggling with something embarrassing.

In one community that my company, Communispace, built and managed for a leading personal care brand, it was critical to create a safe environment in which people could reveal personal thoughts and experiences. Recently, one member suggested that our community facilitators go a full day wearing adult diapers to fully empathize with what it's like living with incontinence. Our intrepid team was up for the challenge and spent the day commuting, working, and socializing wearing the undergarments. The next day, the tables in the community turned, as members became the facilitators, asking our team questions about how their day had gone.

The exercise was profoundly eye-opening and members' questions revealed genuine, candid truths around how it feels to be an incontinent adult and allowed the brand to fully understand their needs. Let's face it, incontinence is as personal as it gets.

So how can brands successfully get closer to their customers to create products or services that truly address their needs? From working with hundreds of consumers every day, here's what we've learned about getting them to open up and share some of the most intimate details of their lives.

1. Build trust by being yourself.

A trusting, open, honest, and respectful relationship--be it with a loved one, a friend, or a customer--is a two-way street. For brands, it's the road best traveled to reveal (often unexpected) consumer-inspired "aha!" moments that fuel innovation and new approaches to business. For example, U.K. telecom giant Everything Everywhere (EE) invited a small group of consumers to a collaborative workshop where everyone was encouraged to share "oh no" moments when they lost or damaged their mobile phone. These honest accounts revealed that it was the data inside the phone, not the phone itself, that was most precious. As a result, EE created the Clone Phone, a service that will replace a lost or damaged phone quickly, with all personal data intact.

But people will never be willing to divulge their innermost thoughts and feelings without a safe, secure environment and a trusted partner that is along for the entire journey. To elicit meaningful revelations, brands have to be willing to engage in a two-way conversation with consumers. "To get closer and dig deeper, I share my own real struggles," says David Ricaud, senior consultant and a team storytelling lead at Communispace Health. "The result? People see me not as a facilitator but rather as a trusted equal who, like them, has problems. My members appreciate knowing the real me--everything from my cat's name to my romantic experiences to the ways my friends drive me crazy! My openness helps them open up."

2. Step aside and let them build meaningful relationships.

When a woman in one of our communities tragically lost her husband, she turned to others in the group to help her cope with her loss. In another community, one woman traveled across the country to meet up with other members to socialize and share stories in person. There are even member-arranged trips, including one group that worked on a Habitat for Humanity project.

Such strong bonds--formed digitally and in person--not only enrich people's lives, but for brands, also yield insightful and unintended consequences. Stepping aside and letting consumer relationships evolve organically over time gives brands a unique window into the whos, whats, whys and hows of their customers, and shows where the brand can be of most value and create the most impact.

In communities dealing with very personal topics like money and health, it's the long-standing member-to-member relationships that often reveal people's struggles, frustrations, and deep-seated worries. Just by listening to people talking and bonding with one another, companies in financial services, health care, and other industries can tailor products and services to better serve their customers and create messaging that resonates with customers' real-life situations.

3. Treat them as partners, not respondents.

People in our communities want to be engaged as strategic partners and brand consultants, not "passive purchaser X" or "bucketed consumer Y." Each brings their particular perspective and opinions, and you'd be astounded at just how deep and how far they're willing to go to be heard.

Raela Ripaldi, vice president of client services at Communispace, told me about Skip, a member of a food brand community: "Skip really embraced the community and was the epitome of an über-member. He would start a ton of activities, and would jump in and facilitate," she says. "At one point, he actually analyzed his results and sent us his own 'report.' It was great, and the client loved his passion."

Whether it's Skip, a first-time mom who documents every step of her pregnancy through her newborn's first year, a teenager who films his own soda commercial, or a woman who releases her inner Don Draper and inspires elements of an actual ad campaign, some of the best and brightest insights come from our community members. They're the ones who often do and ask the things brands themselves would never think of.

Brands have an opportunity to create amazing innovations with the help of consumers--things that can change lives, shift opinions, and make the world a better place. Empathy is at the core. It all starts by encouraging openness and honesty, creating safe places to connect, allowing people's unique voices to be heard, and yes, sometimes even trying on an adult diaper.

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