By David Bashford, Director of SITEFORUM

With the number of hits for social networking sites surpassing even those achieved by Google, there is an increased sense of urgency amongst businesses to create Facebook pages and attempt to engage with millions of individuals now using the site. However, although there are benefits to a well-managed Facebook page, what businesses should really be thinking about is creating communities of their own around their business, products or services.

Why would a brand/business want an online community?

Social communities are the evolution of homepages, websites and portals, the biggest challenge of which is the ability to convert visitors into registered users. Facebook pages present few opportunities for a business to understand exactly who their customers are — after all it is Mark Zuckerberg that owns all the data. But by creating your own community you have a greater opportunity to turn visitors into registered users, capturing more detail on your customers and prospects as you go and creating a database of customer information that your business owns.

For a business it makes sense to want your customers to talk about you, particularly in a world where online presence is vital, and businesses now recognise that people will talk about them and their products online regardless, mentions on social networking sites can be monitored, but with multiple conversations, they can be difficult to track.

So, why not host these discussions and at least be aware of them and have a chance of dealing with things that come up? When it comes to negative commentary in particular, it is much more preferable to have such discussions take place on your own platform, rather than elsewhere. Businesses want (and need) to make customers part of the process and make them feel as though they have a direct input - by giving customers a voice you are allowing your company to become more transparent.

It may be argued that this is already achievable with established social networking sites, however authenticity is a contentious issue and one which a bespoke online community developed specifically for a business will not face.

Online communities allow for regulation of content and for businesses to learn direct from customers in order to improve on quality of service whilst providing continuity. Any organisation, from retailers to publishers, can benefit from creating an online community specific to their own business and can take advantage of a variety of benefits including; lead-generation, promotion of products and services, efficient and cost-effective news broadcasting, boosted revenue streams and the opportunity to become thought-leader in a particular industry.

Getting into the practicalities

So, just how simple is it to create an online community for your business? Here are some recognisable milestones that will help your business on its journey towards building a successful online community:

· Create a portal which will allow the publication of high quality and personalised content.

· Find prospects by bookmarking and increasing SEO with specific buzz words which customers a likely to search online.

· Convert visitors into registered users by developing a simple registration process which will ensure users supply personal information in order to personalise communication accordingly. This will not only benefit your online community in terms of managing different types of customer and encouraging discussion, but email campaigns and other marketing messages will benefit from extra data.

· Convert registered users into buyers and subscribers by offering the option to opt in to certain extra services and direct users to online shops with personalised and relevant offers based upon the data that each user has supplied.

· Build up a community by encouraging users to complete profiles and attend virtual events.

· Engage social media and create user magnets such as blogs, forums and wikis. Develop groups which users can join and interact with other users.

· Start promotion through RSS feeds and regular newsletters to registered users as well as visitors.

Once you have developed a vibrant community, you can start to build an ecosystem around it, bringing vendors and advertisers in so that you can begin to make money. Virtual events are a simple way to maintain momentum and engage with your online community as well as providing a further revenue channel.

Everyone wants to get involved in ‘social media’, initially brands were keen to simply join the conversation and gain exposure. However the opportunity to host a conversation, rather than just take part, is becoming an increasingly attractive prospect to many businesses. Furthermore, the recognition that it is possible to achieve a return on investment with social media when you create your own online community is leading many businesses to explore the potential of developing online communities.