Online communities have been around for years, but we now have more tools for building them. The options include Weblogs (blogs), wikis, forums (bulletin boards), email discussions and online chats. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

In forums, any registered user can start a new topic, with others responding. The content in wikis is open to the community for adding, editing and deleting as a collaborative effort. (See Wikipedia for a large and well-known example that's done well.)

With blogs, the bloggers control the conversation as they post the topic while customers or others respond through the comments or trackback feature. Only the authors have the ability to modify the original posting. For example, BzzAgent, through its Beelog blog, opens its doors and lets visitors see the inner workings of the company. Such topics have covered the process of hiring a new employee, with the employee introducing herself and writing about her first days with the company. And Marqui has not only its own blog but also a program that invites other bloggers to write about the company.

AbsoluteWrite and AWAI (American Writers & Artists Institute) use forums. Both cover writing-related discussions where writers help each other by giving advice, feedback on content and potential market information. Since AWAI's forums consist of students taking its courses, they often discuss assignments, post study-buddy requests and share drafts for input.

Every one of these communities has success stories, but how do you choose which tools to use in your business?

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This Week's Dilemma

Building a customer community

We are a new incarnation of a previous analytical instrument company. Our customers are a relatively limited group of chemists and other scientists. I like the idea of a Web-based medium for exchanging information and developing an ongoing relationship with customers and prospects. However, I'm not certain whether a blog, forum or wiki format makes better sense, given the small size of the community How do you determine which format to use for your community?

—Mike K., director of marketing and sales

Previous Dilemma

Mixing and matching marketing tools

I work in a high-tech company and lead a marcom team that produces marketing collateral for hundreds of products for businesses. Which marketing tools are the most effective in a sales cycle, especially when selling to other businesses? How does a company determine which collateral format works best for particular activities, or to target specific decision makers?

—Josie, product manager

Summary of Advice Received

Before determining which marketing vehicle is most appropriate, understand that successful B2B marketing starts with the premise that business people buy when they trust that the perceived value is applicable to them and comes from a stable company. Our responses mirror the four main points of this mantra:

  1. Earn trust.
  2. Show value.
  3. Establish relevancy.
  4. Demonstrate stability.

Once you understand this concept, determine how it will best fit within each of your activities. Doing so should help you decide which particular collateral format works best. Below, you'll find a chart based on information from our readers that lists which particular marketing vehicle is best suited for specific situations. Josie, we hope this will make your selection process easier!

1. Earn trust

The following four steps contribute to building trust with your customers:

  • Know your customers.
  • Be a credible source.
  • Speak from integrity.
  • Build a community.

Knowing your customers provides you with information about the problems they need solving. When you help them close the gap, trust builds. Why should they believe what you say? That's where credibility comes in. Offering expertise from your company and industry experts shows you have your finger on the pulse of the industry.

"Thanks" to spam and phishing, marketing has a chink in its armor. But companies with integrity come through naturally through their words and actions. This column depends on the MarketingProfs community. If the answers to readers' problems come from just the two authors, the answers would be limited. Having the whole community involved allows you to get many perspectives.

2. Show value

Make sure that your marketing methods are about your customers, not you. Your customers don't care if your stock soars. They don't care if you hire a new person. They don't care if you land a big client. Only your stockholders want to know about such things.

Your customers have a problem that you can fix. When you repeatedly save them time and keep them informed, they eventually see the value in the services or products you offer.

3. Establish relevancy

The mantra continues: know thy customer. If you wear a blindfold while playing a game of darts, how do you think you'll do compared with not wearing one? You'll have a greater chance of scoring high when you know your targets and their interests.

If you have a coffee-related product, it may make sense to market tea. But you'll increase your chances of hitting the mark if you upsell with coffee grinders, mugs, coffee makers and perhaps even a book on the topic. Try marketing soda to the same crowd, and you'll be in trouble unless you've lucked out by having a coffee-'n-soda market.

The lesson: the marketing vehicle should be relevant to the users' wants and needs. Determine how you are going to solve their problems.

4. Demonstrate stability

After many Internet-related businesses crashed, and with companies continuing to merge, stability has become an issue. Who wants to buy a product from a manufacturer that's going out of business and won't be around to help with repairs? In the same way a company builds trust, it can prove its stability through its actions.

Implementing the Strategy

Now comes the hard part. How does a marketer implement this four-pronged strategy? By paying attention to the marketing vehicle most appropriate. Developing marketing materials that tie this mantra into the steps of a sales cycle makes for successful marketing.

The steps of a business-to-business sales cycle help a person move through a natural buying cycle, from prospect to client. The following table aligns the step in the sales cycle with an appropriate marketing activity. Each marketing activity must address one or more of the four points of our mantra.

Sales Cycle Step Definition Marketing Activity
Suspects Have a business problem Tradeshows, partnerships (other companies), alliances (associations), public speaking, articles, newsletters, purchasing lists
Prospects Express interest in solving this business problem Newsletters, seminars, webinars, white papers, PR
Leads Express interest in having your company solve the business problem Response to a "call to action" within any of the above, or an ad
Qualified Leads Spend a considerable amount of time and/or share their specific business problem with your company to determine how you can help solve the business problem AND they have a budget Qualification questions, quiz, survey, consultative conversation, NDA
Client Signs contract with your company to solve their business problem Draft Proposal, final proposal, contract, NDA

Determining what tools work best in the sales cycle means looking at how you can make the four steps happen. What efforts allow you to earn trust, show value, establish relevancy and demonstrate stability? Answer those questions, and you'll know which marketing vehicle to choose.

It takes a village to address many problems and a community of 200,000 MarketingProfs readers is right here to lend a hand.

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Hank Stroll ( is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.