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Do you love your neighbors, your customers, your partners, your employees, and your vendors?

If you are building out a digital community, you'd better. There may be no situation in modern business that requires such a blatant need to be unselfish and to put others first. But the rewards can be well worth the effort.

In 2014, I began working on a "social community" plan for trade partners. I believed that the commonality between partners and ourselves (Universal Parks, at the time) required more than a shared Facebook or LinkedIn Group could offer. I believed our clients would respond to something more customized and personal; I felt people would appreciate the connection to others with the same interests and affinities.

As the project's executive sponsor, I received substantial pushback and resistance at the time. Still, attitudes changed when COVID hit, and the community was up and running with over 75,000 members.

And by changed attitudes I mean the global attitude about digital B2B communities. At most of last year's big conferences, such as Dreamforce 2022 in San Francisco and Inbound 2022 Conference in Boston, "community" was the week's hottest topic!

How to Approach B2B Community-Building

As a sales and marketing distribution strategy, the community approach can surpass any other method for those who manage trade partnerships, sales channels, franchisees, and resellers. That is a claim backed by both experience and research.

For example, a paper published by the Journal of Business Research in September 2020 titled "Unpacking the Relationship Between social media Marketing and Brand Equity" stated, "An online brand community is defined as an aggregation of self-selected people who share similar interests and communicate with each other about a brand through computer-mediated communications."

That sums up in clinical terms what a community is, but as marketers we want to review the realities to surpass the expectations of those within our communities.

The paper also stated that "customized digital content can enhance consumer-brand bonds," and that "entertaining, trendy marketing content stimulates brand memories." When we read that as marketers, we get excited about creating content; however, that can also be dangerous and get us focused on the wrong things when building a digital community.

During my process, I used a straightforward real-world analogy to help guide the type of content in our community. We would attempt to put every question into those real community terms. We even had a visual of a cartoon village that helped us map it out.

So, what makes a particular community more desirable than another? Well, the requirements of a digital community are the same as those of a real-world community:

  1. Safety: People want to feel as if they can express themselves honestly.
  2. Diversity: It's a good sign to have diversity of all types; people don't feel excluded.
  3. Options: Dog walks, cafes, restaurants, places of worship, etc., are all different but harmoniously tied together.
  4. Education: The quality of the schools says a lot about the quality of the community.
  5. Welcoming: Are people friendly? Are those offering services accommodating?

The "place" brings people together, whether a real town or URL. You may not need everything that the community offers you, but it's nice to see it's there and it makes you feel good to be part of a place that offers those things to others.

As in a real community, things get better when all members are friendly to strangers, when people wave hello as they walk by, when people follow the rules consistently because they want to be good neighbors, and when everyone supports education and efforts to help those in need.

Those are the KPIs we use to measure the success of a digital community.

The challenge that many "digitally focused" people will point out is that it's tough to track such contributions. They would prefer a way to measure clicks and pixels or page visits or email open rates. But it's that inability to take a shortcut that makes a community beautiful.

As a company or an organization, you cannot be an absentee owner.. You must be involved in the community and pattern the engagement you hope to see demonstrated by your partners. An influential community requires your organization to be a good corporate citizen and to set an example for others.

Developing a thriving digital community cannot be cultivated only with technology; it requires real commitment and honest communication.

Determining the Success of Your Digital Community

How do you know when your B2B partners are embracing it? How do you know that your channels like what you are doing?

It's a feeling.

In a literal community, you feel it when you walk the dog through the park and people say hello. In a B2B setting, you need commonality to involve your product or service, and it helps you when your customers start talking to each other about you. Some members of your community may see themselves as competitors, so it's our job as community managers to ensure healthy competition doesn't develop into rifts that can tear the community apart.

When you see families in the park on Saturday, it makes you feel good and proud of your community. In a B2B community, you want to see the right people engaging regularly and enjoying their time together. If your clients or partners are not enjoying the community, figure out why and fix it.

Early on, determine who the right people are. Do you want owners, executives, managers, or frontline? The answer is you want them all, as long as they engage. The right people are the people that interact with your product or service, regardless of title or role.

When we meet new people moving into our community, we are happy; it makes us feel popular and we love the diversity that new blood brings. Similarly, we want a steady flow of new visitors to our B2B communities, and that new blood adds fresh ideas and invigorates discussions. In the software world you may be acquiring hundreds of new users a month, whereas in another field the new visitors may be only a few. Regardless of the quantity, new blood keeps the conversation alive and provides value for your community residents.

When we observe new independent stores or restaurants opening, we rejoice, because we all want choices, and we love signs of economic health. In a B2B community, we learn to celebrate the successes of partners and clients. We share the abundance. It can be hard for some, because a community is an opportunity to network or sell. Watch out for partners who attempt to create selfishly inclined business opportunities and instead encourage those who share tips or suggestions on how to improve collectively.

* * *

A digital community is not a website, so it feels different and serves a different purpose. Learning to get comfortable with the "feel" of an active digital community can only happen over time and when you are fully engaged—better still, more engaged than your B2B partners.

More Resources on Digital Communities and Community-Building

Communities Are the Future of Marketing | Marketing Smarts Live Show

The Importance of B2B Communities: What's in It for Marketers?

Key Considerations When Building an Online Community

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The Key to Thriving Digital Communities: Love Thy Neighbor

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image of Frank Belzer

Frank Belzer is the chief sales and marketing officer at entertainment destination ICON Park in Orlando.

LinkedIn: Frank Belzer

Twitter: @fbelzer