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Three Tips for Building an Online Community

Focus on the interests of your community, not just your own product, and you're likely to end up with loyal customers.

When Michael Landa launched a pet food company in 2010 to help combat pet obesity, he knew he'd be fighting a few 400-pound guard dogs. For Austin, Texas-based Nulo Inc. to compete in the $18 billion pet food market, where a handful of giants control the lion's share of sales, he needed to find a way to connect with health-conscious pet owners.

Landa's solution has a lot in common with the share-and-share-alike ways of neighbors hanging out at the local dog run. He built an online community where people can discuss pet weight loss and nutrition. Integrating website forums and social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and a blog, Landa has cultivated a loyal following. In the first four months, he estimates that he reached an audience of more than 500,000 people.
Martin Reed, founder of CommunitySpark.com, a Wheeler, Ore.-based consultancy that helps businesses build online communities, says Landa's strategy is a smart one. "Having an online community forces you to become far more customer-oriented. You can't build a successful online community without engaging with your members--this means you learn about them so you can build better products and improve existing ones based on their feedback," he says. Reed's community-building 101:

Find the right subject. People don't want to talk about your product, they want to talk about themselves and their needs, Reed says. "Building a community around car batteries isn't going to work. Instead, you should consider building a community for DIY mechanics," he says.

Have a strategy. Don't just launch and expect people to start posting. Recruit a group of initial members and create good content before you go live. New users will find immediate value in the site, which will make it far more likely that they'll become repeat visitors.

Start small and keep it simple. Launching a social network with a huge number of features or forums with dozens of discussion categories may overwhelm you and your community. Instead, create one community element stripped down to the bare essentials. If you decide to launch forums, start with just one or two categories. As the community develops, add new categories based on existing conversations so your site doesn't end up with empty threads.

 

This story appears in the April 2011 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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