How to build an online community for your small business

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These days, most people think of "social media" when they hear "community building," but forums, membership sites and old-fashioned meet-ups are also good places to promote your brand, share your expertise and attract customers.

Membership Sites: Exclusive resources, for a fee

One way of building an online community is by creating a membership site, where you charge a membership fee in exchange for exclusive resources that can range from tutorials to software programs. Just make sure the information that you'll provide is unique, has high value and is unavailable elsewhere for free.

You can take several approaches with pricing. One is a fixed price, paid up front, for one year of membership. Another is a fixed monthly price. A third option is a low introductory price that will then roll over into a monthly fee.

Using a monthly rate as opposed to a yearly fee will ease sticker shock. For example, a yearly price of $199 could turn off potential customers, but a monthly fee of $19.95 may not-and with the latter fee, you would actually earn more over the course of a year. Monthly rates also make subscribers less likely to cancel their membership, since they don't see the larger $199 fee recurring once a year. ClickBank has some tools that will allow you to create a recurring fee structure for a membership site.

One site that takes a low-end approach is FounderFly, a site for online marketers that offers videos, marketing tools and forums where members can interact, ask questions and share resources. Initially, you can test the site for a three-day, $1 trial; after that membership is $19.95 per month.

Another membership site option is MemberGate, a program for managing membership or subscription sites. MemberGate itself is a subscription-based service ($197 per month with a three-month minimum) with features that include integrated shopping carts, credit card processing, discussion groups and support for numerous membership plans. Businesses that use MemberGate include publishers, trade associations, hospitality firms and nonprofits.

Finally, if you're comfortable with WordPress, you could WishList, which will let you integrate a membership component into your WordPress site.

WishList, which has a one-time cost of $97 for a single-site license and $297 for unlimited domains (with updates available for an additional $47 per year), also offers shopping cart and autoresponder integration, flexible membership options and affiliate program integration, as well as secure RSS feeds.

Forums: Learn from, share with peers

Warrior Forum

Online forums offer an opportunity to learn from and share your expertise with peers. The Warrior Forum, a popular destination for Internet marketers, gives users a place to discuss topics such as coding and marketing and to share special offers with the community. The idea here is not only to make sales but to entice people to sign up for your list; once they do, you can market more expensive products to them.

A useful technique for communicating with potential customers in an online forum is using signature files, which typically includes text and images about a product or service and a call to action.

If you participate in numerous forums, this is a great way to increase your visibility and generate interest in your brand. A quick online search will point you to the forums that apply to your market-or you can ask your peers to recommend the sites they frequent.

Next page: Didn't think we forget about social media, did you?

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