Over the past few years, several new web startups have launched and quickly gained momentum, and there's one thing they have in common: they don't just build a brand, they build a community.

Brand vs Community

In simple terms, a brand is any company's identity, defined by a name, sign, symbol, design or combination of these things. Strong brands are able to connect with customers, evoking feelings like trust, reliability and satisfaction. You may get thirsty when you see the Pepsi symbol, or get hungry when you see those yellow arches - branding is not only about recognition, but also about creating a psychological link (almost Pavlovian) to your products.

While good branding can help you market and establish your company, building a community can help establish your brand both directly and indirectly to your users. A good community, in my opinion, should do the following:

  1. Connect your business to your customers
  2. Connect your customers to other customers
  3. Connect your business to new customers by leveraging existing customers

It may sound like a lot of work and in some cases, it is, but engaging your customers can have outstanding benefits, the most significant of which being increased customer retention.

Building a Community Around Your Brand

There are numerous things you can do to create a community for your product, many of which are quick and easy to utilize. Keep in mind that the goal is to engage customers and visitors in a way that will promote your brand, create trust and form (or strengthen) that psychological connection people form with things they like. Here are a few fairly obvious steps to take if you haven't already:

1. Start Blogging

Blogging is probably the easiest and fastest way to connect your business with customers and prospective customers alike. What you write about can be an important factor in the effectiveness of blogging, but there are several great examples to study and learn from:

  • Signal vs Noise - The guys at 37signals know all to well the power of creating a community through blogging - they have a loyal following of 118k RSS readers to promote new products, updates and news.
  • Peldi of Balsamiq and Patrick McKenzie of BingoCardCreator have also built a strong following by blogging transparently about their business practices and earnings.
  • Paul Graham of YCombinator has managed not only to inspire young entrepreneurs but also build a following by writing insightful essays on startups

Replying to comments left on your blog can also make your users feel like their opinions are significant, even more so if you actually act on their suggestions. Keep in mind that blogging can essentially be a public window into your brand - take criticism with grace and always be kind to your customers, your reputation may just depend on it.

2. Create a Forum

A forum can be a great way to give customers and visitors a reason to go back to your site, even after they've purchased your product. Forums also allow your customers to connect with each other, sometimes even to the point of handling support issues. Some of examples of companies building a community by using forums are:

  • WordPress - The open source publishing platform has a highly active support forum powered mainly by users.
  • Gaming sites like Kongregate and Nonoba have busy forums that improve user retention by providing users yet another way of participating on the site.
  • Even social networks like MySpace use forums to encourage user interaction.

Interestingly enough, communication through public forums can also create a sort of moral obligation to reply and respond to messages directed at you, almost as if your real-world character is on the line. In the end though, a forum can be a valuable asset both in encouraging both user participation and creating a customer-powered support system.

3. Leverage Social Networks

Let's face it - social networks are getting increasingly popular and many continue to spread virally. It's relatively quick and easy to utilize social networks for your business and use their proliferation to your advantage. There are dozens of options but here are a few quick ones:

  • Create a Facebook group or fan page, invite users to it and update it periodically with news your users may find interesting. Reply to comments left on your wall to keep users engaged. Several companies have also started using Facebook to promote giveaways and competitions, with many accumulating hundreds of thousands of users.
  • Twitter can be just as powerful - creating an account takes minutes yet the results can be profound. Conan O'Brien is proof of the power of Twitter followers - one of his tweets led to the instant celebrity of a random user. Twitter has enabled brands and celebrities alike to connect and interact with users directly.
  • Social linking sites like Digg, Reddit and StumbleUpon provide buttons that can be easily implemented onto any website and allow your customers to share their experiences with their social circles, bringing in additional users and potential customers.

Using social media to engage your customers can be a simple and quick way to build a following for your brand. Just like blogging, what you say on these networks can have a lasting effect on the psychology of your customers - choose your words carefully and always put your business before your emotions (at least in public).

Final Thoughts

While building a strong brand can be crucial to the success of your business, building a community around it will engage your customers in new ways and can help to further spread your brand. With so many new tools and services available, many community features can be integrated within minutes, so why not take advantage of them?

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