Communities can take many forms, from overgrown message boards to areas of specialized content to consumer generated content sites. Despite the differences in communities, marketers who succeed at creating communities would probably give similar advice:

Investigate What Already Exists

We’ve become so brand-centric on our marketing thinking that we sometimes overlook the obvious. Instead of starting your own community, you might be able to participate in an existing community.

Scour the Internet for the places that your customers already congregate. Search for keywords that identify your brand or generic product names. If those communities already exist, consider having your employees identify themselves to the community and try to work with them.

Some marketers might feel that working in someone else’s community seems out of control, and that they’d prefer to manage the community themselves, but it’s a lot less work to work with a community that exists than to create one yourself. Think about communities the same way advertisers think about magazines. It’s much easier to place an ad in a magazine that your customers already read than it is to create your own magazine. Communities are no different.

Carefully Start a New Community

If after careful consideration, creating your own branded community seems the right way to go, the way you approach that task can make or break your efforts.

  • Focus on a niche. Communities work best when they create rabid followings. Few companies of any size can excite customers about their entire product line. IBM’s developerWorks community focuses only on software developers-and further breaks its content down by specific technologies of interest to particular groups of programmers. Similarly, Pontiac Underground focused only on the owners of Firebirds, GTOs, and other sporty cars.
  • Take a low-key approach. Communities don’t grow because they are heavily promoted-word of mouth works much better. You might almost say that communities succeed in inverse proportion to their marketing budgets. Communities grow because they are cool and exclusive-advertising might disrupt that.
  • Start small. Marketers can create the conditions that allow communities to form, but most attempts fail. If you start small, you can try many community ideas so that you’re likely to get a few hits. Pontiac experimented with communities on MySpace and Second Life before teaming up with Yahoo! on Pontiac Underground.

Marketers benefit from communities because they offer opportunities to sell products, but they can be more important for creating loyalty. Communities offer your best customers a chance to interact with each other and with information on their favorite subject.

What subjects can inspire communities among your customers?

Want more tips to raise your Web marketing success? Check out Search Engine Marketing, Inc., which contains a complete step-by-step program for successful search marketing for your business. For more ways to improve your overall Internet marketing, take a look at Do It Wrong Quickly, an indispensable guide to the new ways of marketing.