Social distancing. The phrase itself sounds detrimental to any hope of building or nurturing a community with shared interests. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you want followers to be trading recipe ideas for a just-launched flavor or stopping by for a visit at a virtual trade show, it is possible to build, maintain and nurture online communities—even in the most adverse circumstances. These tips should help.

1. Wishing isn’t planning.

Every organization wants to have a devoted following of die-hard fans and strong advocates. But in our experience, success ultimately requires more than just a desire for it to happen. Building and nurturing a community nearly always springs from a strong brand and carefully crafted plan. Only after conducting a competitive audit and identifying objectives, strategies, audiences and measurable outcomes should you even consider executing that virtual launch event or joining forces with a food bank or other charitable cause. Having that plan also helps identify tactical blind spots—like a need to upgrade ecommerce capabilities.

2. Things go better with best practices.

Once you’ve established your overall plan, be sure to follow some best practices regardless of what sort of community you’re trying to build. Like upping your social media game. There’s no shortage of content online, most of which is—how can we say this delicately—less than engaging. While there’s a time and place for condensing product mentions, hiring announcements or other press-release-type news to 280 characters, the only way to build an actual community online is to put the social back into social media.

3. Be the guest everyone gravitates toward.

Think of every virtual platform as an actual room you’re walking into where everyone might already be engaged in multiple conversations. You wouldn’t start by bragging on yourself. Instead, you would do the heavy lifting of engaging meaningfully with others. You might ask a timely question, introduce a fascinating topic or even find a way to lighten the mood when appropriate. Another caution: these are challenging times. Telling a thoughtless joke will only create distance between you and those you hope to influence. When it’s time for some carefully measured fun, make choices unlikely to offend—like posting pics of your company’s new remote “offices,” complete with the occasional family pet.

4. Use data and analytics to read that room.

There’s no substitute for one of our favorite topics: exhaustive research. We’re talking deep dives into industry trends, consumer behavior, the psychology of selling on social media and the latest innovations in new sectors. In other words, the geeky stuff that can lead in fascinating directions, like identifying affinity partners with similar interests among the members of your community. Think about it: You might discover many are making their way to hunting and outdoor sites. That’s great information to know when you’re putting together a content calendar or trying to brainstorm an icebreaker activity for your virtual sales meeting. If it all sounds too daunting, let us know. As we mentioned, it’s something we live to do.

5. Then, just like that, the possibilities become endless.

Ever consider hosting a virtual roundtable or coffee hour that brings in an outside expert? It’s a great way to show you’re serious about the issues your community is facing, whether it’s a financial planning expert to help family farmers better understand succession challenges or an attorney who knows the ins and outs of the Food Safety Modernization Act. And be sure you’re always liking, following and sharing content from relevant voices within your industry.

6. Build communities within your communities.

Sometimes, creating a sub-community can help zero in on specific opportunities. Do the members of your community have an interest or hobby that brings them to your brand? Have you considered hosting a platform for them? The Dairy Girl Network is a good example within the ag world. Another type of sub-community you might consider are more private sites, where members could share more personal information or ask difficult questions.

7. Think real-world thoughts.

Yes, what’s virtual today can become actual tomorrow. With the help of that rock-solid plan you’re following to the letter, you might soon find yourself inviting your community of cooking enthusiasts to an in-person cooking demonstration (or whatever makes sense for your needs). Supporting and participating in causes aligned with your community is another great way to make a real-world impact.

The COVID-19 crisis has presented many challenges, but also the opportunity to build communities that will thrive long after the crisis ends.

For more insights on creative marketing solutions, contact Doug Austin at daustin@charlestonorwig.com.

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