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A Community of One's Own

Why social CRM may make more sense than Facebook

While the herd mentality drives many entrepreneurs to stake their claims in the Facebook community, it is important to consider whether it makes sense to build your own customer community--independent of Facebook and integrated with your company's website and customer relationship management system.

Online community software and services

Building your own customer community is not cost prohibitive, and plenty of tools and services are available to help companies large and small get started. Check out the following platforms:

. Lithium
. Ning
. Jive SBS
. BuddyPress
. Liveworld
. Leverage Software
. KickApps
. Pluck
. BlueKiwi

Yes, Facebook represents a huge potential market and offers several free community-building features, including Groups, Fan Pages, Targeted Advertising and Facebook Connect. But relying solely on Facebook or other third-party social networking platforms for community building and word-of-mouth could be a mistake. After all, you don't own Facebook. What's free today may not be free tomorrow. And everything you build on Facebook stays on Facebook, drawing traffic there instead of to your website.

Launching your own online community initiative offers several potential advantages that may help you attain your customer-engagement goals more efficiently while providing you with more control over the community you build, as well as a better way of establishing and tracking ROI:

Branding autonomy. It's your community, so you have complete freedom to brand however you like.

Improved ability to identify top influencers. You have more freedom to implement analytics to identify top influencers and target them in the future.

CRM optimization. By tying community user accounts to your CRM system, you gain access to valuable customer data that helps with customer service, support and retention.

Scalability. You set the engineering road map for your business's online community, choosing which features to include.

Reduced support costs. Customers love helping one another solve problems. This reduces customer service costs and creates a ton of evergreen content for customers to reference in the future.

Customer-driven innovation. The open forum of an online community often sparks debate that can lead to innovative new products and services along with improvements throughout the company, particularly in sales and customer service.

I don't recommend ignoring Facebook entirely. Having access to a 350-million-plus (and growing) market is nothing to disregard. However, just as I recommend maintaining a separate business blog of your own, building an independent community on your website may be vital in establishing the community you desire.

Mikal E. Belicove is a market positioning, social media and management consultant specializing in website usability and business blogging. When he is not working or ghosting blog entries for clients, Belicove can be found musing about the world on Belicove.com and can be reached at Mikal@Belicove.com.

Mikal E. Belicove is a market positioning, social media, and management consultant specializing in website usability and business blogging. His latest book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Facebook, is now available at bookstores. For more information, visit MikalBelicove.com.

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This article was originally published in the March 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: A Community of One's Own.

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