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4 Free Tools for Building a Community of Customers Online

Written By: Haroon Mokhtarzada

If you’re a small business owner, there is only one activity more productive than talking to your customers: listening to them. You probably don’t have the buying power to compete on price, nor do you have the ad budget to win on share of voice. As a small business, your stock in trade is your closeness to your customer base, and a nimbleness and flexibility that allows you to react more quickly to changing needs than your 800-pound competitors.

No small part of your toolkit is in your website. Lean on staff, you need to rely on your site to start conversations, answer questions, qualify leads, pique interest. Here are some tools and tactics to integrate into your website, allowing you to create productive content quickly, while at the same time giving you new opportunities to listen to your customers:

  • Surveys and polls: combine market research with regularly updated content with quick polls embedded into your site. The trick is to find the balance between interesting polls that your customers will want to answer (and see others’ answers to), and questions that give you some insight into your marketing, products, or competitors. Err on the side of interesting – a poll designed to tell you exactly what product to launch next won’t help much if only three people respond to it. (Try polldaddy.com and MicroPoll.com.)
  • Wikis & Forums: To be successful, wikis and forums need a larger community, so they’re not an ideal component of small business websites just building out their social strategies. When constructed and nurtured well, however, they are immensely valuable because they tap into the enthusiasm of your best customers to help answer the questions of your best-qualified prospects. (Have a look at WetPaint.com for easy wikis, or the Forum tool integrated into Webs.com sites.)
  • Public photo galleries: A picture if worth more than 1000 words if you have to take time out of growing your business to write them yourself. Public photo galleries allow your customers to contribute their own pictures of your products or of work your company has done. As a selling tool photo galleries are unsurpassed: they combine the tactical impact of a case study with the candid persuasion of a testimonial. (Flickr allows users to simply email photos into a gallery, which can be displayed on any website through a widget or slide show. Other sites like Webs.com or Shutterfly open photo contributions to approved members.)
  • Site membership: Many small businesses use one vendor for their e-mail list, another for their web content management, and another for RSS subscriptions to a blog. Integrated site membership rolls all of this into one place, and allows you as a site owner to distribute permission to contribute content directly to your site to anybody on your membership list. Site membership isn’t a substitute for a robust customer database, but by allowing your customers to “join” your company’s site, you’re bubbling your biggest fans up to the surface so you can tap them later for deeper feedback, testimonials, and other social contributions.  (Webs.com has full site membership features; social network platforms link Ning are based on the membership model; and Google’s Blogger platform allows audience members to “follow” specific blogs.)

The key to successful listening is vibrant conversations online. Before integrating any of these tools and tactics, there is a very important prerequisite. If you are going to rely on your customers to contribute to the conversations on your website, you have to be willing to put your customers first, and the content of the conversations second. Trying to control these conversations on your site will only stifle them. Ceding a little control will let them flourish, and help create current, relevant content on your site.

Trying to create it all yourself almost never works, despite the best intentions and most promising starts. Harnessing customers, prospects, even skeptics to contribute – using free or inexpensive tools already available – can put your business in the very center of the conversations your well-heeled competitors are spending a fortune on to merely “sponsor.”

Haroon Mokhtarzada is CEO of Webs.com (formerly Freewebs), the first ever social website platform.

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