Developing a thriving online community is a challenging task for many small businesses. But if you have a business with an offline component – a retail store or physical location, a call center, or any other offline way that you interact with customers and prospects – you can use this to your advantage. Don’t compartmentalize your thinking by trying to build your online community only with people that you reach online.
I suggest focusing efforts at first on bringing your existing (and happy!) customers into the online fold – this can really help build your community, grow your audience and kickstart organic online community growth.
Your strongest opportunities to bring offline clients online are:
1) At the point of purchase
2) In your follow-up process
Below are some ideas on ways to bring those customers into your online community. You’ll have to decide which are applicable and important for your business, how you can integrate them into your specific sales cycle, and then train your staff on implementation.
1. Ask customers how they found you.
Start with the basics! Did they “˜google’ for a specific product or phrase? Did they see you on Facebook? Twitter? Getting a sense of how people find you will give you a direction in which to focus your efforts.
2. Have email sign up lists at the store counter or point of purchase.
This is a great opportunity to let customers know that by giving you their email they will receive more special offers, or whatever your chosen incentive is. Your staff will have to manually transfer that info into your database if it’s a physical sign-up list, or where possible, integrate email capture into your computer system when processing a transaction, or taking a phone order.
3. Combine contact information with social information to get a complete picture of your customer.
Many CRM solutions are adding social features and integrating social profile information into their databases to make it possible to connect with customers and prospects online by including fields for Twitter usernames etc. You could also use a tool like Flowtown which matches email addresses with social profiles.
4. Use location-based services like Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places to offer “˜checking – in’ incentives, and advertise those in your physical location as well as online.
5. Tell customers about your Facebook Page and what incentive there is for them to “Like” you – perhaps there’s a coupon exclusively available there, or maybe there’s a monthly contest for customers who go there and leave feedback on their experience.
6. If your business is on Yelp or any similar review site, incentivize customers to go there and leave feedback.
7. Make customers aware of any online ways that you offer customer service and support such as via Twitter or your Facebook Page.
8. Create compelling referral incentives through online channels.
For example, incentivize customers to “˜tag’ your company page in their Facebook status updates, photo/video uploads, or reward those who forward your email newsletter or coupon to friends.
9. Encourage Creativity.
Reward customers who get creative with your product, or express their satisfaction creatively by uploading funny pictures, video etc.
10. Highlight your best customers.
If you have regular customers with whom you’ve developed a great relationship, consider featuring them on your blog or FB page.
11. Remind customers of your online communities and incentives when you follow up with them via email or direct mail. Go beyond the typical “˜follow us on….’ directive, by talking about your most recent Facebook contest winner, or the great prize you gave away on Twitter.
What has your experience been with getting offline customers connected to your online channels? What’s been successful for you, or where do you find hurdles?
About The Guest Author: Lucy Beer is an online marketing professional of more than 8 years. She consults small businesses to help them develop effective online marketing strategies on the blog Web Training Wheels.