What do you trust more: advice from a friend or advertising?

According to a worldwide survey by Nielsen Company in 2012, virtually all consumers (92%) trust word-of-mouth and recommendations from people in their social networks above all forms of advertising and marketing. This is not surprising to anyone who has recently made decisions about which mortgage broker to go with, which car to buy or what to have for dinner. We almost always rely on our friends, family, neighbors, and the three amigos: Google, Facebook and Twitter.

People are social animals. This hasn't changed with the advent of new technologies and tools. In fact, technology has only exacerbated this social itch and sped it up. It's the reason why social media has been such a catalyst for getting people online and using mobile devices. Tapping into this innate human need, innovations in social communities, forums and social sharing help to amplify its effect.

Every company I've talked with across the globe wants to grow their customer community. After having personally founded many of them, some more successful than others, here are five tried and true ways to grow a customer community no matter the size:

1. Tap into Your Customer's Passion

A key thing a lot of brands forget is that customers are not necessarily passionate about the products or services you create. What they care about is how the product helps them solve a core set of problems. The community must be built on discussions and resources that are solutions to these challenges. The problems must be grand enough that they unify an entire group of customers.

Ideally, these are challenges that incite daily exploration. An example of this is running shoes. People are rarely passionate about running shoes in isolation. They are either using them to run marathons, hike in nature, or playing a sport. What the running shoes help with is what people are passionate about. One of the communities I started, which now has hundreds of members, is for homeowners in a particular community in Baja, California. What drove people to join was a builder bankruptcy during the housing crisis in order to find a solution to the problem of getting all the homes built. What now keeps people in the community are all the clubs and groups created in the social network around interests like golf, whale watching and charity efforts.

2. Rally a Group of Founding Members

5 Tried and True Ways to Grow a Customer Community

We've all heard the 80/20 rule. Based on my experiences, the ratio of community members to prolific contributors is closer to 99 to 1. This means out of 100 community members, one of them will be your most active contributor of content and knowledge. The challenge with customer communities is that it has to happen organically. You can't "force" participation. In fact, the act of forcing it actually can doom it to failure.

Instead, if you can find those already passionate and give them founding status, it goes a long way to seed the community. Make them part of the inception of the community. Give them special privileges and status and they will help you jumpstart with useful content and help respond to questions. The founding members are also important in the formation of the community culture. For example, there is no rule that I know of that you have to post beautiful photos to Pinterest. However, the original participants on Pinterest posted only great-looking shots and, as a result, it just became the cultural norm. Make useful and constructive contributions the norm in your community.

3. Enforce True Identities

In the communities I've been involved with, we keep rules to a minimum. However, one aspect we've been firm on is that every member has to be verified and use their true identity. Many brands I speak with are concerned about starting customer communities and having to deal with an onslaught of negative comments. You absolutely want to allow all valid comments and contributions, positive or negative.

For a community to grow, it must be authentic. What you want to get away from, though, is reckless comments with no accountability. While it may add friction to the initial growth of a community by having to verify identities, it will greatly improve the quality over time, which is really want you are after.

4. Make It Fun and Easy

At parties, conversations flow easily. People love to talk about their interests. You want to get as close to this in your communities as possible. Make it as easy as possible for members to share their passions. For example, your social community tool should make it simple for members to add content and for your expert members to start communities.

What you can make simple, do. What you can't make simple, at least make it fun. Some of this can be done through more "cookie-cutter" gamification like status badges, but it can also be done through the way the digital experience is designed.

5. Never Take Your Community for Granted

Customer communities demand a much deeper level of intimacy from brands. Companies want customers to be loyal. True loyalty is ultimately based on an emotional connection of trust. Don't spam your community with the same promotion campaigns you send to "strangers”.

Provide a dedicated place online that the community can form, contribute useful content and build great products and services. Finally, trust that community members will say great things about you -- when they do, make it easy for them to share and tell the world.

If you follow these key principles and use social marketing and community tools to help scale up the management of your customer communities, they will not only grow, but thrive. It takes a lot of sweat equity, but if you are up to the task, customer communities are a powerful asset to standing out in a crowded and noisy marketplace.

Image courtesy of zing (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Hoping to read more from Loni? Check out her article: Four Web Content Management Trends in 2013 Every Marketer Needs to Know