Start a social community for your business

Today it is commonplace to find large companies such as Reebok's and using white-labeled online communities to engage consumers and draw them into brand-specific conversations.

Why can't your business do the same? The Internet's strength lies in its being able to accommodate relationship-building to a greater extent than any other communication medium. Your business can benefit from this capability by creating a targeted, personalized brand experience to engage in a meaningful way with your respective audiences to nurture relationships between your company and potential brand advocates. Here are some tips to get your organization in the game the right way:

First, identify goals that are connected to a business objective. What exactly are you hoping to accomplish by building an online community? More efficient customer service? Increased awareness of your company's philanthropic initiatives? Assess the value of a unique online community to your brand, then let those factors guide the decisions that shape your network.

Get familiar with your consumers' social-commerce needs. People visit websites expecting to be drawn in by interactive, engaging content. Your online community should inherently be social—set up in a way that allows for personalization. In addition to becoming content publishers, website visitors want the networks they visit frequently to "remember" who they are, or store their preferences. Make sure you have mechanisms in place to collect this data, but be careful not to abuse personal information.

Choose your approach and assemble the right technology platform. There are three popular options for building a social community:

1. Using on-premise software that is integrated into your other online channels, such as the corporate website and e-commerce site. This option gives maximum control and flexibility in terms of technology integration and allows for sharing content and users between the platforms. It also takes more time and effort to launch.

2. Using cloud-based software technology to launch the network. This option also allows flexibility in the administration of the platform, allows you to control look and feel, features, and content, and is quick and easy to launch. However, long-term costs may be higher as the community grows and bandwidth demands increase; integrating with your other channels can be difficult.

3. Choosing a public social network such as Facebook. This is usually the first option that small businesses consider. When they comprehend the lack of control, branding, analytics, and integration such sites offer, they advance to one of the first two options.

Once you have a platform that fits your immediate needs and can scale as the community grows, you can start thinking through what capabilities, features, and functionality you would like to integrate.