Gone are the days when customers were faceless names or account numbers in a system. With the advent of online communities, companies can connect with customers in very individual ways by providing care and support as well as an occasional laugh or two. These days, customer loyalty is built on a personal level by virtue of the connections that are made online. The key to building strong customer loyalty starts with the realization that individual people make up the heart of any community.

 

On the outside, building customer loyalty in an online forum looks like a daunting challenge, however, it's really quite simple. Think about the companies and products to which you are loyal. Likely it's a company or product that makes you feel something good! For example, I have an activity watch that I absolutely love. I love my watch because I feels like I have a 24/7 personal assistant for my health. It reminds me to speed up or slow down, how many calories I've burned, when to wake up and even tells me how I slept. I have an emotional bond with my watch that is stronger than almost every other tech item that I own including my phone! I am loyal to the company that makes my watch because of the emotional bond that ties me to their product. Now, I'm not suggesting you become suddenly and intensely emotional with your customers. What I am telling you is that emotional connections between a customer and a company are incredibly important when it comes to building loyalty.

 

Here's how you start: simply connect. Connect with people wherever they are, however they are coming to the party, connect with them at that place.

 

Think of the situations that your customers are in when they come into your community. Maybe you have new users who need a lot of hand-holding. Taking the time to explain how your site works and the benefits for them will pay-off in the long run. After all, we've all been the newcomer before and have needed a little extra assistance. Another common reason people will come to your community: maybe they have feedback because the product isn't meeting their need. Be authentic, give them your time and offer an apology. Commit to taking their feedback to the product team so that future improvements can be considered. The examples are plentiful.

 

4 Tips to Building Customer Loyalty

 

Here are my top four ways to build customer loyalty in a community, one customer at a time:

 

One person, one answer.

Let's face it, a community manager will never be able to answer all of the questions that people post in a forum. But they can select some key conversations and connect with individuals there. Engage additional experts in your product to look for the conversations where their expertise can add value. Encourage experts to share their experience and how they solved the problem. And always, coach all of your community experts and advocates to give the customer understanding and empathy for whatever they are experiencing. Want to make it even more powerful? Focus your responses to the posts of newcomers since early interactions between people tend to carry more weight, allowing you to build loyalty with fewer, more meaningful interactions.

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Interacting with someone directly builds the strongest connection.

 

Connect with a wider audience.

If you are a community manager or company leader/ambassador, you need to have a personal blog. It's a great way to share yourself and your experiences with a wider audience. Plus, blogs enable us to tell stories in a way that answering questions cannot. Do a little SEO research to find out what topics are going to be hot in your community, then write to that topic. Consider pulling in examples from your community and drawing on the customers who you've helped (with their permission, of course). Write from your own experience and use a first-person voice. Be sure to give your audience a feel for the person you are. Being human to your readers will help them connect with you, even if you've never connected with them one-on-one. If you don't want to write about yourself, consider a Featured-User blog (like our How I Work series) where you interview customers showing a day in their life.

ThinkstockPhotos-200545807-001.jpgGet on your soap box and consider writing a community blog to engage with a wider customer audience.

 

Get help from others.

There will be times when you don't know the answer to a question. Or a blog won't solve an issue that a customer is experiencing. These are the times when you'll need to bring in others to help. If you see a situation brewing, engage the appropriate experts to help solve the problem. Bringing your company experts into your community is an essential ingredient to building customer loyalty. If the customer needs help for product support, engage their support team. Ask some pointed questions to help get to the bottom of what they need, then find the right people in your company to help solve it.

ThinkstockPhotos-200226969-001.jpgHelp from others can get your customers back on track.

 

Reward your most loyal customers.

Let's face it. All customers are not created equal. There will be customers who are incredibly loyal product advocates. You'll want to go the extra mile for these people. Consider creating a Champion program, where loyal customers get extra perks... whether it's a personal meeting with your product managers or extra support hours for your product. The most vocal champions are better than any kind of advertising you could do for your product. Take them into consideration when building your customer loyalty programs. Consider early access to information or special training sessions as perks that your company can provide to champions free of charge. Be sure to assign your champion program to a dedicated employee who will give them the attention they deserve.

 

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Reward customer loyalty by making them feel like royalty. That rhymes.

 

The thread that runs through each of these tips is clear: connect with the customer. Apply a good dose of the golden rule along the way and you are well on your way to building customer loyalty. Then with some planning and committed company advocates, you can build customer loyalty in your online community through every-day engagement. And that's a beautiful thing!

 

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Managing a customer community? Check out External Communities