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STARTUP

4 Secrets to Building an Online Community for Your Business
 

You don't need a storefront on Main Street to create a cozy community for your start-up; you can do it online. HootSuite's community manager explains.

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These days, the Internet is our town square.

That means, for entrepreneurs, it's now as important to build a solid community and good reputation online as it once was to foster excellent small-town relations when businesses were more likely to have Main Street storefronts and returning locals as customers.

How do you re-create that sense of small-town coziness with your online community, considering they may be spread from Seattle to Sarasota and, well, can't just pop in to ask to borrow a cup of sugar? Social-media management company HootSuite has suggestions.

The company's community manager, Sharif Khalladi, shared his secrets for fostering an online community around your start-up at Social Media Week Berlin, and coworking publication Deskmag was there to round up his ideas. Deskmag's Anna Cashman laid out four key points:

Be extraordinary. Give the members a reason to be there. Your community centers around the product, and if it is not amazing, the people won't come. Invest time into developing an extraordinary product, with all of your developers in the same room. Beyond the product, there are many things that a company can do to stand out from the crowd. For example, HootSuite created HootSuite University, a learning portal for users to access information about social media platforms.

Invite customers into your company's family. HootSuite often receives [messages] from users telling them how much they love the product. Rather than just thanking and forgetting them, HootSuite established an envoy and ambassador program, inviting people from all walks of life from all over the planet to be involved in the company. "They are already evangelizing the product!" These ambassadors and envoys can organize HootUps, manage a country's twitter account, or contribute in anyway they feel they can.

Make your community-members feel special.  Appreciation and fan-mail should go both ways. If a user tweets about your product or compliments you, show them that their feedback is valued by sending them a token of your appreciation. HootSuite often sends enthusiastic users stickers or t-shirts.

Love all equally. Love all of your community members, regardless of how involved they are in the company. Whether someone is a free user or has a pro account, Sharif stressed that they are all part of the same community. Each member gets good treatment.

For more detail on these four tips--plus, a fifth tip for Web-based businesses with an eye on global markets--check out Cashman's complete post. Or, if you're looking for more suggestions on how to keep your small-town, small-company values as your business grows, check out this post rounding up ideas from the book Small Town Rules by Barry Moltz and Becky McCray.

Do you have any other suggestions on how to make distant customers feel like they are part of your company's community? 

Last updated: Oct 2, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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