Marketers have become increasingly knowledgeable and skilled in social media strategy and tactics. We’ve dedicated resources to creating content for social media, shifted our percentage of media spend to favour digital executions, and spent hours culling through page views, shares, comments and unique visitor data.

But the problem is that we don’t “own” those interactions. And frankly, our customers are less likely to read and react to content on those channels. They’re going to trust others like themselves before they trust “marketing speak.”

Marketing trades have been abuzz with terms like “content marketing” and “real-time marketing,” causing us to rethink what and how quickly we share with the world (thanks, Oreo Super Bowl tweet!), but we’re still trapped in our “push” mindset. It’s time to reevaluate how we interact with our customers, not just create content that we feel is more compelling for them. It’s not about consumption; it’s about co-creation.

The way to create customer loyalty is to facilitate conversations in a vibrant community for your customers. Customers go to Facebook to interact with friends, not to read the latest on products. However, if you provide a stimulating community wherein they can interact with other customers when looking for information on your most recent products or to learn best practices from their peers, they are more inclined to come back to this value-added engagement.

How Many Channels Are Too Many?

At this point, you may ask – “Ok, there are social networks, my marketing website and now you’re adding another community? How do I keep track of all of these? Who’s going to do that in my marketing org?” These are fair questions and what we’ve seen in the market is a convergence of these channels with your community as the anchor. Your community is a branded house that welcomes guests and your existing customers alike.

Ideally, that community integrates with social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Similarly, if your guest wants more official information on your products, it’s easy for them to navigate to your marketing site. However, most likely, your prospect or customer just wants to find someone else that’s successfully used your products in a particular way.

By having all of these interactions under one roof, you can monitor and co-create a more tailored experience with prospects, customers and champions.

But You Still Need Content…

No one likes coming to a party without drinks, snacks and music. You need to seed your community with some official content, but your most important task is enticing people to mingle, have meaningful conversations and share their expertise.

Take, for example, the Eloqua Topliners community. It’s clearly branded Oracle | Eloqua, but also carries its own moniker – Topliners – to differentiate it from other properties. It feels familiar, but yet unique to community.

In terms of structure, its layout and navigation match activities that customers and prospects can engage in on the community. Similarly, to entice members to contribute to the community, Eloqua integrates game mechanics (gamification) and leaderboards, recognising and rewarding interactions that drive the vitality of the community. Ultimately, Eloqua curates, but does not dictate what happens there – like the ultimate host of a party.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Well, no. Building an online community, just like building loyalty offline, takes time, care and good community management. If we’ve learned anything about our first forays into social channels, letting difficult conversations linger without a response inevitably leads to a #fail.

However, on Facebook or on Twitter, you’re mostly limited to answers coming from official or company sources (of which many customers may not trust); whereas, the community gives you greater flexibility to crowdsource responses.

Again, crowdsourcing responses may make some marketing brethren anxious, if not immediately on the phone to legal. Table stakes for communities is the ability to moderate member-generated content and for others to report inappropriate content. However, the true measure of the strength of a community is how often people who aren’t on your payroll answer questions correctly for you.

Through game mechanics and good community management, you can easily determine who your customer champions are and who’s proven they have deep knowledge about a product. Why not recognise and cultivate that expertise? In the event where an official answer is necessary, someone from the company can step in. But, ultimately, your community will thrive with you on the sidelines.

Becoming customer-obsessed starts with us doing a 180 in marketing. We shouldn’t talk about content marketing or real-time; we shouldn’t focus on singular channels or media. It’s not about your audience receiving a message; it’s about developing fellow actors who will become as fiercely passionate about your products as you are to deliver the best performance anyone has ever seen.