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Your Startup Isn't a Community? Here's How to Change That To turn consumers into community members, look beyond profit to connect with their passion.

By Gayle Teskey Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Hinterhaus Productions | Getty Images

The final installment of the MoviePass adventure aired earlier this year, and it wasn't a happy ending. MoviePass's idea seemed promising: Customers would pay $9.95 per month, subscription-style, for unlimited access to movies at their local theater. However, for this too-good-to-be-true idea to work, the brand assumed that only a small fraction of customers would take full advantage of the offer. Instead, consumers committed in droves, leaving MoviePass to foot an unexpectedly mammoth bill.

The real failure of MoviePass was that it missed an opportunity to connect with customers about what they actually wanted. Here was a large group of movie lovers, eager to lap up as many films as they could. Look at this group one way, and you see profit. Look at it another, and you see a community of people connected by a passion. By focusing solely on the deal, MoviePass ignored the power of passion as a galvanizing and sustaining force to stimulate repurchasing and form the backbone of its own brand community.

The power of a brand's community

With the very notion of community shifting in this age of subscriptions and social media, how can brands tell when they've actually built one? Consider this: A company sends out a free newsletter in exchange for an email address and proceeds to label its readers "members." This action has a diluting effect on the concepts of "community" and "membership" and takes away the inherent value of the words. Instead, to be a true member of a community, there should be at least some two-way exchange of ideas or elements of engagement.

As a successful brand community builder, you need to cultivate two things: peer empathy and trust. This empathy -- when created authentically -- leads to a level of trust that can speak through the barrage of advertising messages consumers fend off every day. Of course, it's no crime to simply offer a great product via a subscription model, but brands that want to capitalize on the sticking power of communities must learn how real communities function and thrive, rather than just paying lip service to the idea.

Related: How Brand Storytelling Is the Missing Link to Building a Loyal Community of Followers

If you aspire to true community status, start by building opportunities for real connection and belonging into your subscription model. Here are five ways to turn your users into a community:

1. Really listen to your subscribers.

The key to turning a subscription into a community is ensuring the service feels personal. The truth is, consumers expect personalization. According to McKinsey & Company, 28 percent of customers cite a personal experience as the No. 1 reason for sticking with a subscription.

Meet these desires by actively listening to what each individual wants and needs, rather than assuming or gathering data from faceless market research. Sit in on your customer service phone lines, or better yet, personally answer some of the questions from inbound calls. This alone will help you form a better view of what is going on with your users. Finally, make sure to integrate post-experience surveys into your process by automatically asking subscribers, "How did we do today?" Take their responses to heart.

Related: Three Tips For Building An Engaged Community Around Your Business

2. Follow your subscribers' lead.

Once you effectively listen to subscribers, you'll soon figure out whether they're open to the idea of forming a community. When it comes to building community for Loot Crate -- a subscription box service based on popular themes such as Harry Potter and the WWE -- the company focuses on locating existing demand for community. By positioning itself as another "fan," the brand creates relationships with customers rather than just transactions.

Start forming a viable community by studying the competition. Find the answers to the following questions: What do you do that's the same? What can you do better? Surveys provide in-depth insights, as long as your questions are meaningful. To gauge interest, ask subscribers to rate the appeal and value of each program and service you provide (or might provide). Afterward, look at which community-based initiatives are embraced and which fall short, and then identify common reasons why consumers decide to stay or leave.

3. Speak with the right voice.

Members engage with an editorial and personal voice when they subscribe to a community, and if they don't trust that voice, they'll quickly bail. In fact, Stackla's 2017 Consumer Content Report found that 86 percent of consumers look for authenticity when deciding what brands to support.

If you want to establish a promising brand community, you must craft a brand voice that speaks like its audience, understands the needs and wants of its members and embodies the goals of the community. Start by answering whether or not you love, use and believe in what you offer. If you can sincerely answer "Yes," then you have motivation that cannot be found or crafted, so use it! Don't be afraid to show your personality in your various messages, even your opt-out instructions. Speaking in your subscribers' language brings you one step closer to convincing them to join your community (and stay).

Related: 5 Easy Exercises to Find Your Brand's Voice

4. Keep members' eyes on the future.

The members of FabFitFun -- a service that offers an online community dedicated to luxury goods -- tend to stick around for the long term. That's because the subscription is plotted to offer surprises and rewards well into the future, rather than just delighting customers in one go. The brand does this by creating fresh editorial content each day, constantly adapting offerings based on feedback and getting members excited about future boxes.

Membership and community are a long game. If you are committed, your members will be, too. To succeed, do what's right for your users, and you'll build a credible foundation over time. Confess your failures and use them as opportunities to re-center. When you can show that bumps in the road are merely part of the journey, consumers won't question your stamina and strength for the future.

5. Show your members some love.

The difference between a service and a community comes down to love. To actually love your members, you have to know them. For example, if you are in the subscription box market, it's crucial to know that, according to a Hitwise report, females aged 18 to 24 and located in college towns make up the majority of subscription box consumers.

Your members engage with you because they want to, not because they have to. So keep making them want to be affiliated with you and what you have to offer by meeting their needs and interests. Show this love by being gracious even when they leave you -- because win-back customers can be your most loyal in the long run.

A community is more than a group of people paying for a product. Instead, it's a foundation made up of the passion that connects members, their common curiosity and their wants and needs. Consider the strategies above before setting out to create your brand's own community. Then, establish a place rooted in passion rather than controlled by profit.

Gayle Teskey

CEO and founder of Membership Corporation of America

Gayle Teskey is the CEO and founder of Membership Corporation of America, a consultative and marketing services organization with a specialization in enthusiast membership organizations and affinity marketing.

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