Where to start if your brand wants to build an online community

One of the most common mistakes brands make is the goal they set for themselves once they engage with social media. “How do we reach 1 million followers in 12 months” or “What’s the fastest way to get to 200,000 Facebook fans?”

Brands do this for several reasons. They are competitive – as they have to be. They see other brands with large numbers of community members. They make the mistake a treating social media as another broadcast medium.

While it can be argued that social media is broadcast word of mouth marketing, to treat it as such is to overlook the key to social media success. Words like ‘community’, ‘dialogue’, and ‘engagement’ quickly become meaningless buzzwords when they’re bandied about by marketing pros (guilty as charged!), but in this case their meaning is critical.

Brands like Zappos, Starbucks and Ford have large communities because they talk tirelessly to their fans or followers. At Zappos, CEO Tony Hsieh is constantly in conversation with its community. Starbucks (mystarbucksidea.com) asks customers for everything from new drink suggestions to how to improve their stores. Ford’s Scott Monty has given a very human face to the brand. That takes patience, a listening ear and a genuine interest in what their customers are saying as well as what you’re selling.

Such attributes don’t sit well with brands in a hurry but that’s the point. The fastest way to get “there” (whatever the magic number may be) is to focus on being “here” (listening and talking to the community in front of you). Any other shortcut may create the appearance of a community with high membership numbers, but you won’t have any influence over them, loyalty won’t increase and efforts won’t translate to the bottom line.

A great example of effective community building is the Gates Foundation. They are tweeting daily, retweeting others, thanking people for retweeting them, championing the work of other people and institutions, posting photos, offering a community page, partnering in creative projects like the GOOD Magazine MDG poster competition, writing blog posts, hosting new thought leadership events like TEDxCHANGE, and altogether creating an engaging, dynamic and multi-dimensional experience for community members. The Gates Notes provides a deeper look at everything from what Bill Gates is thinking about to his travels to conversations with experts in different fields, plus he posts twitter updates at @billgates and the Gates Foundation’s site offers even more information.

If a brand wants to build a large, engaged community that actively serves a cause, embraces an issue or buys a product, it must offer a multi-dimentional experience with myriad touch points that are all in the service of their community. In short, you must start by talking to the person in front of you instead of looking over their shoulder somebody(s) else. Then give them many ways to interact with the brand so you can deepen the relationship. It’s more work up front and a little slower build but the results will be an authentic, organically growing community. Plus the brand won’t make the mistake of mis-characterizing social media only to get disappointing results.

Here’s how to follow the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates and TEDxChange on twitter and Facebook.

Do you agree that brands too often focus on how many members they and not enough on the quality of the relationships? What other examples do you know of brands doing it effectively?