Every department that directly interacts with customers — be it marketing, sales or support, to name but a few — is trying to deepen engagement with their target audience. And that target audience's expectations have changed. Companies are challenged to find better ways to authentically engage across the board, be it with customers, partners or even employees. People want flexibility in how, when and with whom they speak in your company. These elevated demands are creating a clear need for engagement communities.

At the same time, businesses are recognizing that communities drive real profitability improvements. Gallup found that fully engaged customers represent an average 23 percent premium when it comes to share of wallet, revenue and relationship growth, while actively disengaged customers have the opposite effect. Those are just some of the reasons companies are building online communities that promote meaningful dialogue, which in turn enhances product innovation, sales and long-term marketing. 

If your organization wants to cultivate great connections with customers, you'll want to master the following three key steps to community-building:

1. Get creative with how you draw people into the community

One way to do this is by curating and syndicating your community’s content and functionality to other channels using a tool like SocialFusion. The most successful communities will be those that project outwards and foster engagement anywhere, not just within the core community experience.

For example, what if a community blog or product review could be read, liked, shared, commented on, etc. from wherever it is encountered — whether on a corporate website, an e-commerce portal or an outside social network. This pervasiveness would nurture more organic interactions amongst people who might not even notice they are taking part in a community. It would also create an opportunity to promote your resources and draw users further into the community with additional reasons to engage, share their opinions, or buy.

Of course, it’s also crucial to cover the basics — be where people expect you to be, and make sure you stand out when they are looking for your products. Ensure your search engine optimization is solid by offering a mobile-friendly community that will boost your Google rankings. And finally, make your community a hub for the entire customer lifecycle so folks will come back again and again for every interaction with your company.

2. Gather (and act on) valuable data and insights

Your community’s success isn’t necessarily about its total membership number. It’s reflected in how much engagement you see across various channels, groups and forums, and how well this activity feeds your marketing campaigns. By augmenting your marketing automation system with insights about what users are doing in your community, you can power significantly more effective targeting.

Another valuable approach is to figure out who the movers and shakers in your community are, and pull those champions into focus groups or test new products with them. These influencers are the ones who will do the best word-of-mouth advertising for you. It’s important to know how well your company’s communications are performing across key audiences like these, and conversation sentiment analysis provides you that insight.

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In the case of marketing engagement, this can tell you what people are raving about — e.g., the combination of your product or service with another tool you hadn’t known was so relevant would bubble right to the top when analyzing conversation. Or when it comes to customer support, sentiment analysis can help you figure out which topics are incendiary enough to indicate dissatisfaction with your products or services.

3. Weave customer journeys throughout the community experience

A community shouldn’t operate in isolation. As a key customer touchpoint, it’s important that you tightly integrate your community with the company’s marketing and e-commerce programs. By bringing intelligent offers and automated campaigns from across your website and marketing automation platform into the community environment, you can increase the impact of these tactics and give users a more consistent, seamless experience with your brand.

For example, some companies blend their community and e-commerce sites, which helps people learn about products, get peer recommendations from the community, and then make purchases. This approach can drive top-line results by attracting net new customers, boosting overall participation and increasing repeat purchases.

The road to authentic, deep engagement with your customers doesn’t end with these three steps, but they will put you on the right path to success. You’ll influence important phases of the customer lifecycle – from cultivating relationships with prospects, to enabling the early success of new customers, to energizing advocates within your established customer base. All of this will ultimately create broader, more connected relationships that turn prospects into buyers and buyers into brand advocates.

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