There are more channels than ever before to connect with your customers -- and every business wants to understand how to maximize its customer-brand interactions.

But there is good news. The channels used to achieve these goals, including social media networks, online communities and customer relationship management (CRM) tools, are getting easier to manage and measure. In fact, consumers’ rampant use of social media has unleashed a treasure trove of data to help businesses sell.

There are obvious uses of consumer-facing social media: tweeting information, updating Facebook and LinkedIn statuses, sharing presentations on SlideShare and pinning on Pinterest.

However, social networks are only one approach to social marketing. The other key channel is a company’s proprietary online community. An online community does not refer to a business’ Twitter followers or Facebook likes, rather, it is a company-owned online property, such as a company’s website or part of its website.

Online communities share some similarities with social media networks, but they allow companies to take their social efforts to the next level. Furthermore, whereas social networks are relationship-driven, online -- or social -- communities are outcome-driven. How often have you used an online community to get an answer about a product or service question?

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The image at left illustrates this relationship: I’ve used Dell as an example here. The company has both a Facebook presence and an online community. Take a look at the two proprieties for yourself and you can see how Dell is positioning these two assets.

Online communities take advantage of intuitive social user experiences similar to social networks, such as forums, blogs, chat, hashtags, profiles, likes and private messages to help brands share relevant information with customers, as well as connect with, listen to and understand their audiences.

However, unlike social media networks, the company owns and manages its online community and can control the branding, data and engagement. As a result, the company can control the customer experience (plus mine the data) in ways that are not possible through social media networks.

Connecting with Customers

Online communities allow businesses to connect customers with employees and each other, provide customers with valuable content, insight and advice, and provide platforms to express their opinions and be heard. These hubs help companies improve the customer experience, increase sales, augment customer loyalty and generate increased company awareness. So how does a company achieve success? It needs to understand how its online community can support its social marketing goals and use the community to its full potential.

Remember to Share

Sharing is caring in online communities. Companies should share announcements, content and industry news with their communities. This information can include executive changes, product updates, industry awards, company events, conferences and more.

This constant flow of information allows customers to stay updated and aware of what is going on with the company. For example, if a company announces an acquisition, it can post news and plans about the acquisition in its online community. Customers can learn about the new organization and what it means for the overall mission of the business. Customers and partners can also pose questions to the company about the acquisition, and employees can ensure that customers feel informed.

In addition to what companies offer, customers and industry experts should share information within the community. Companies need to engage with experts and their customers to share their expertise to help community members stay abreast of the industry. Companies can recognize their top contributors by implementing a superstar program that rewards community members for their involvement. This promotes the exchange of information and knowledge among authorities and customers.

Offer Support, Tips

A company should use its online community as a platform to offer support and tips to current and prospective customers. When customers or prospective customers ask questions about products within the community, employees can field those questions and respond back in a timely manner. Online communities should also optimize companies’ sales efforts by delivering content that prospective customers can review as they evaluate different solutions.

Prospective customers will be interested in data sheets that provide insight into the company’s solutions, as well as customer case studies that reveal the value others have garnered as a result of the company’s product. Such information should be easily accessible within the community.

One of our customers did some analysis on participation within a community vs. non-participation in the community during the buying process. It found that people who participate in the community spend 24 percent more than people who do not participate.

Also, some members come to the community primarily for tips. Whether sharing training tips or informative resources, there should be a place in your community for members to receive relevant advice. It's also a good idea to modernize content by including video.

Businesses can take the tips outlined above to realize the full potential of their online communities and help drive the success of social marketing efforts. When companies fully connect with and understand their customers, they see returns including increased sales, better customer experience, stronger customer loyalty and greater company awareness.

Editor's Note: See what Rob predicted as major trends for 2013 in 2013: The Year of Big Data, Major Shifts & Convergence