How to build an online community for your small business

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Social Media: You can't build an online community without it

Social media sites are an obvious target for any brand--large or small--trying to build a community. Sites are free to join, so membership is huge, but that also makes the sites breeding grounds for social media scams, so small business owners need to keep online security basics in mind as they increase their social networking endeavors.

Helping people on LinkedIn can also help you build a following. By working with freelance writers on several LinkedIn forums, I built a list of 70 new subscribers in a single week. I did this by answering questions and directing users to a squeeze page where, they signed up for my email list in exchange for a free report.

Another good community building strategy is to build a community-that is, to form a LinkedIn Group. Launched in 2009, LinkedIn Groups are communities based on common interests, experiences and affiliations. If you are willing to put the time and effort into cultivating a group related to your professional expertise, a LinkedIn Group, over time, could become a significant source of contacts and revenue.

Facebook business pages encourage interaction.

Facebook is popular among many marketing professionals for promoting their products and services as well as participating in Facebook Groups that pertain to their interests. These groups can have quite a wide reach, too; the Internet Marketing Super Friends, for example, has more than 4,200 members.

As for promoting and building your business on Facebook, services such as Get 10,000 Fans and FB Profit Method may be worth a look. Tread carefully, though, and avoid any service through which you "buy" followers, since those new followers could be fake Facebook accounts, spammers or worse. It's better to have a small, active and loyal group of followers than a large number of followers who aren't real.

The same goes for Twitter, which is also popular for community-building, posting information about products and services and sharing information about your particular industry. Quality followers who will engage with you (and your followers) are better than fake, spam or porn accounts.

There are a couple other ways to use Twitter to for branding and community building. One way is to have conversations, or Tweet Chats, on a regular basis about a particular topic. All you need to do is designate a hashtag-a phrase with a # in front of it-set a time and spread the word. Another way is to schedule an offline event, known as a Tweetup, during which nearby Twitter followers can meet you in real life at a coffee shop, restaurant or other spot where it's easy to have a casual conversation.

Even Pinterest now has business pages.

Additional social media sites to consider include Pinterest, an "online scrapbook" site that recently unveiled Pinterest Business Pages, and Google Plus, a social networking site tightly integrated with other Google products such as Blogger, Picasa and YouTube.

As you use various online marketing tools to build email lists and communicate with your customers, you'll start to see support for social networking sites. With iContact, for example, you can send a message to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn followers in addition to your list.

As you can see, community building requires legwork both online and off. Depending on your business model, one or more of the strategies listed here-likely, a combination of several-will work best for you. Be sure to research the websites and strategies discussed here before you get started, both to use the tools more effectively and to avoid costly or embarrassing mistakes.

This story, "How to build an online community for your small business" was originally published by CIO.

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