Growing your business by creating community
How can you grow your business when your business environment is being transformed under your eyes? The old Industrial Age, with its emphasis on mass production and mass print, radio and TV advertising, is no more. It has been replaced with the Learning Age, which emphasizes services and the use of the Internet to grow individual relationships.
Before, we did forecasting, long range planning, and product development. Today, because of constant change, it makes no sense to do long range planning. Instead, we must concentrate on making the company adaptable to change. The best way to do this is to create a community.
WHAT IS A COMMUNITY?
A community consists of people getting involved for a common purpose. A common purpose provides cohesion. But it's not enough to make a community. It's the degree of involvement that matters most.
Think of people watching a movie at a movie house. They come temporarily, for a common purpose. But, you will surely agree that attendees are not part of a community. Similarly, AltaVista, EBay, and other popular Internet sites are not communities.
If the auditorium were used for a prominent speaker, an Olympic planning committee meeting, a political convention, or a charity fund raiser, these are more likely to be called communities. Especially, the latter, because of the greater degree of involvement of participants.
The following are the major characteristics of the four levels of community on the Internet, from the weakest to the strongest:
1 - INTELLECTUAL DISCUSSION - Forums and lists, where people discuss ideas or people they are interested in.
2 - PRACTICAL DISCUSSION - These may be lists or hubs where the exchanged information has practical use. Included here are product-oriented lists which help members use the given device or software better, such as Excel-l (EXCEL-L- Request@PEACH.EASE.LSOFT.COM); lists which expedite referrals, such as Consulting Tools (http://www.referrals.com); and hubs which expedite linking, such as Chemdex (http://www.chemdex.com).
3 - ACTION - A group gets together in order to do something. Two excellent examples are the Linux Open Source group, which designed, wrote, critiqued and modified the Linux Operating System (http://www.linux.org); and the Cooperative Business Bookstore (http://www.capital-connection/bsbookstore.html), where several authors got together to sell their wares cooperatively.
4 - EMOTION - A greater binding factor than either discussion or action is emotion. People who are emotionally involved in what they do make a powerful community. A good example is the alt.support.cancer Usenet group, where members offer emotional support to help members cope.
HOW TO BUILD COMMUNITY
To build a community, you need first and foremost, a helpful and cooperative attitude. Among the techniques are:
1 - CHOOSE YOUR MEDIUM - You may use a website forum, a newsletter or an email discussion list. Both the forum and list require more active participation and thus are better vehicles for building a community than the newsletter. Get to understand your chosen medium. Give your group a meaningful and catchy name.
2 - ENTICE LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE TO JOIN - Get people to subscribe from your site by setting up a simple subscription form. Enter the name of your group into universal directories and search engines, plus directories devoted to discussion groups. Also, exchange reciprocal links or reciprocal ads with others who have similar groups.
3 - ENCOURAGE DISCUSSION - Maintain interest and stimulate excitement. Forbid blatant selling and caustic personal exchanges. Maintain your focus on a specific subject area, and don't allow members to wander off course. Offer suggestion, present controversial ideas for discussion, and compliment members who offer good posts.
4 - INTRODUCE COOPERATIVE ACTIVITIES - To gain greater involvement, try to get members to do something. At the very least get them to spread the word about the group. Encourage members to request help, and for other members to provide the help.
5 - BUILD EMOTIONAL SUPPORT - Unless your group deals with emotional problems, this is difficult to do. But it's worthwhile trying when an emotion-laden situation arises. Whenever possible, try to build empathy among members.
ADVANTAGES FOR SMALL BUSINESS
Small Business can build community easier than Big Business. Big Business is encumbered by big markets and mass audiences. It's hard to see how they may get all those people to relate to each other in a community. Small Business deals with smaller audiences and is skilled at developing client relationships.
Here are 3 important advantages of creating online communities:
2 - DEVELOP LOYALTY - You are daily in a position to demonstrate what you can do for your clients. You learn about their problems and support solutions.
3 - GAIN NEW BUSINESS IDEAS - A community discusses all sorts of things you'd never dream of on your own. Someone may have a problem which stumps you, but which another member has the answer to. Another may have a problem that can not be solved with current technology and a member of the group suggests innovations which may prove a boon to your business. You may also use the group as a sounding board for innovations of your own.
On the Internet visitors, not vendors, are in control. The best way to entice them to do business with you is to bring them into a community devoted to discussing and solving problems of mutual concern to them and to you. A good community will bring credibility, loyalty and new business ideas with which to grow your business.
Live your vision,
Paul "the soarING" Siegel (mailto)
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