By Abhi Golhar, host of Real Estate Deal Talk and managing partner of Summit & Crowne.
If you want to get your online business off the ground, you need to create your own community. Logos and business cards are important, but your ability to cultivate relationships will determine whether you make money and fulfill your mission.
For the last few months, I've been working on a new solution for medical doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners. In growing the business, I've reaffirmed there's no one-size-fits-all formula to growing an online business, and the nature of your business will suggest how you go about building your individual community.
Fundamentally, you're bringing together like-minded individuals to fill a need and create a solution, while they make connections and enjoy a shared experience. Your community defines your brand and enables you to communicate with your stakeholders. While that path will look different for you than for the next entrepreneur, there are some basic principles and best practices to keep in mind.
You may already be worrying that you don't know enough people to be able to start a community. Relax. It doesn't have to take big numbers to get started. Like most things, quality is preferable to quantity. Strong relationships leverage growth. In addition to the contacts you already have, focus on influential people in your target area. They can help you build credibility and reach others.
Choose your platform.
Just because you're building your own community, it doesn't mean you necessarily have to build your own platform. A free Facebook group may be adequate for your purposes. That's especially true if you have limited technological expertise, and you're starting out with a small budget.
You might have heard the old saying that warns you not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. You probably can't afford a fancy research firm to conduct a national survey, but you can still talk with a sampling of the kind of people you envision using your products and services. Listen to what they have to say, and incorporate what you learn. You can also reach out to other entrepreneurs who may be willing to share their wisdom about how they dealt with challenges similar to your own.
At an early age, you probably noticed that not everyone is going to want to hang out with you. Having a specific case statement means some people will opt out of your community, but you'll strengthen your appeal with those who feel like they belong.
Carry on two-way conversations.
You can't just post updates and send out newsletters anymore. You have to humanize your brand by expressing your personality and starting up a dialogue. Spend at least as much time listening as you do talking. Collect information that allows you to personalize the customer experience.
Of course, content still matters. It's how you get your voice across and build trust. Find the knowledge gaps that you can fill. Understanding your community will help you to recognize what's relevant to them, and create natural channels that allow you to find a balance between delighting them and promoting your business.
Giving is at the heart of any community. Share your time and expertise, and give away free items. Make sure you calculate the costs and think through the benefits you want for your business.
Get together offline.
Online communities are wonderful, but so are face-to-face connections. Keep in mind that different members will probably seek different levels of participation so events are a great way to engage the members so enthusiastic they want to be there in person with you. If you're concerned about the time and expenses involved, consider hosting small satellite events in between major happenings.
There are no shortcuts to building a community. It requires patience and passion, and it's worth the effort. If you listen to your community and show it that you care, your community will drive your business success.
Abhi Golhar is host of the daily radio show, Real Estate Deal Talk, and managing partner of Summit & Crowne, a real estate investment firm.