This is a guest post by Martin Edwards.

Building an online community takes time.

You’ve worked hard, you’ve built a good-sized following, and the likes are growing nicely.

But something’s not right.

You post links to your content regularly and even pay for ads to keep the likes building.

But no one is visiting your sales pages.

Signups on the email list are sluggish.

You’re tweeting your heart out but no one seems to notice.

Why doesn’t your “community” seem to care about your brand?

What You Have is Not a “Community”

Social media can help you build a huge collection of people around your brand.  You’re plugged into the global market, after all. What you’re hoping for is a crowd of devoted fans who will share your message with the world.

People can be quite obliging with the like button in return for a free T-shirt, but they may well be wearing your competitor’s T-shirt tomorrow.

You can get followers. You just follow a bunch of people and they’ll follow you back. You’re impressed with the number of key influencers with a Klout score to die for in your network.

So why isn’t anyone even sharing your content?

It’s your “community.” You built it; you own it; so why can’t you influence it to do your bidding?

Tinu Abayomi-Paul’s recent post The Value and Meaning of Community in Marketing explained why attempting to command a community is fraught with pitfalls.

Tinu on community

Real people can be cynical, critical, capricious and fickle.

One foot wrong and it falls apart.

The fact is, in the cold light of day, you can’t own a community.

What you have probably isn’t even a community.

Likes and follows do not a community make!

The Crucial Insight That Holds the Key to Influence

To influence your community, you must build trusting relationships with the influential leaders of other communities.

Your community is not just your immediate fans. It’s far more than that. Understanding what actually creates a community will help you share your message several layers deep into the social ecosystem.

Think network rather than broadcast.

Just before you go rushing off to grab the latest Klout scores of everyone you know, you must understand how the complex trust structure of community decision making holds the key to influencing them.

Online Communities are Complicated

When we look at online communities, we tend to be looking at interest groups that are led by an authority.

The members of a community refer to authorities when they make decisions.  They calculate the level of trust they hold against the risk from the consequences of getting the wrong advice.

When trust exceeds risk, these authorities will be influential.

In the world of social media, these interest groups can be created at a moment’s notice by a trending hashtag for instance.  An authority may be influential for a few days when the conditions are right, but as the context changes, attention moves elsewhere.  Perhaps a development reveals an ulterior motive.

Trying to pin down this complex, constantly shifting pattern is a challenge.

An authority only becomes an influencer if they can create the desired action.

The “Paths of Influence” That Lead to Your Sales Funnel

So identifying influencers is not just a matter of looking for authorities with a large number of followers. You must study the deeper structure of their trust community.

Customer influence and advocacy

For a large campaign, you could analyze the conversations around a particular buying decision and try to target only those who are open to influence. With current Big Data analysis tools, this is feasible if expensive and a tad intrusive.

As a more sociable alternative, you can look at the behavior of your audience. Those that engage with their audience and share your messages may well have the desired influence further down the path. There will be several people who overhear a discussion, read a post and put in an order or they may just re-share your message. You are revealing these paths of influence by testing your community’s reactions to various stimuli.

An influential leader may be a useful starting point, but the real influencers will almost certainly be further along the path of influence.

Wouldn’t it be nice to create these paths rather than having to find them?

The Secret Sauce That Creates Paths of Influence

In our social media connected world, the way we do business is changing rapidly.  You can make thousands of connections and build them into trusting relationships. You can present your brand to the world and make it easy for people to buy. You remove as many of the disruptors from the sales funnel as you can.  At the end of the day though, you can’t possibly cover all the bases.

Fortunately there is a way of amplifying your efforts so that the people who want to buy can put their hands up, the ones that want to share have the support and motivation they need and you get a community to work with.

Teamwork!

Talk to people, engage and collaborate.

That is what the social bit in social media is all about.

People like to test their trust bonds in safer waters. Every opportunity you get to prove that you and those around you can be trusted, the stronger those bonds will be.

The following are a few examples that will help you get people joining in:

  • Start a Twitter #tag group, set up a blog to go with it and have set times for participation.  The blog will help crystallize the best contributions and provide topics for discussion. Get people together to share their knowledge. To see an example drop in for a virtual coffee at #elevensestime sometime.
  • Invite specific people to write guest posts for your blog; they will bring all the people they know to read, comment and share.
  • Set up some collaborative games – Firepole Marketing recently mounted a successful scavenger hunt that encouraged entrepreneurs to cooperate on many of the challenges. It was a free and public learning experience and really consolidated their community.
  • Publish interviews with some of the people who are most active in the communities you want to work with, and set up a Google hangout once a week to discuss a live issue.

All of these activities will build the trust that establishes your authority, but more importantly they will build the authority of the people around you.  These are the ones with the right attitude. These won’t be the big shot celebs — they’ll be too busy being awesome elsewhere.

No, these are the people who engage with their communities.

Data visualizerThey won’t necessarily be in the market to buy your product, but they will share your branded content if it covers an area of interest they are comfortable with.

Publish or share a wide range of content and these people will come to you.

Make it easy for anyone who has an interest in your content to get to the edge of your sales funnel and your community will do the rest.

So Let’s Get Together and Build That Community

Community spirit is a wonderful thing. There’s a world full of examples of people working together to make a difference. Some are genuinely altruistic; others sponsored by brands for the publicity but still doing a service to the community.

It’s up to us to decide what we are comfortable with.

It’s easy to be cynical.

People may doubt your motives as the brand at the center of an initiative, but authentic collaboration and a willingness to share the risk by engaging with your audience will win your community’s affection and trust.

People may say,

Real marketing is about targets and ROI.

or,

There isn’t the budget for this sort of approach.

This is true. It’s going to be tough to measure in the short term.

The real value of collaborating with a trusting community will, like a fine wine, take time to be appreciated.

And just like a fine wine, it is well worth the wait!

Martin EdwardsAbout the author: Martin Edwards is a web developer and social media consultant with The Canonbury Consultancy, helping writers, entrepreneurs and start-ups build lean & agile businesses using the wealth of low-cost tools that are now available online. You can get to know more about Martin at his blog MartinSocially.com and on Twitter, G+, and LinkedIn.

image: Kurt Qvist

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