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The ground is shifting for marketers, and that reality is most noticeable in the way marketers think of their customers or prospects.

Traditional definitions, demographics, and ways of operating don't apply for businesses in today's landscape. From the largest brands to those in the long tail, businesses are choosing to develop their "customer base" into a "community," recognizing that creating community generates more loyalty than any incentive program.

When your customers feel that they are part of a community, they visit your website more often, provide feedback, and recommend your products and services to people they know.

They do so because they now have a significant relationship with your company that surpasses brand awareness; they are now your greatest champions. Why? People want to be a part of something—they want to feel included and important.

Changing individual customers into a community isn't simply a matter of semantics; it is a change in your attitude toward the people who frequent your business.

Customers are individual transactions. Community members are a part of a social group in which you are the center. By understanding your community, you can create relationships and more-effective marketing campaigns, enjoy viral distribution and word-of-mouth, and develop more-effective content and products.

Here are the basics on how you do it.

1. Ask

You need to understand who your customers, members, or users are and what they like about you—and what they don't like. It is about segmentation based on interest rather than on traditional demographics.

You can  find out about their interests through questions on your blog and in email newsletters, or through online surveys and polls. This first step is important; it will inform what you must subsequently do. It will keep you honest and on track with your content, services, and products.

2. Watch and listen

Find out where your community members hang out online and why. What sites (besides yours) do they frequent? How do they like to get and share information?

You must also read what those users are saying about you on your forum, on Twitter, and on other social networks. That second step will affect the way you respond and otherwise communicate with them.

3. Create

Develop the proper type of information—content—based on their interests. Prepare the right news, informational tips, applications, video or audio files, etc., for the interests of the segmented groups that constitute your community.

Encourage those users to gather and share by giving them forums that are easy to access and use, such as chat rooms on a community toolbar or a branded social network on a social platform such as Ning.

4. Act

Deploy that information where they are: Use media channels, the browser window, blogs, community toolbars, social networks, syndication tools, etc.

You don't have time to wait for your community to come to your website, so push content out to them where they congregate with likeminded people. For example, consider TwitterMoms, which accumulated 18,000 members within 10 months of launch by using a blog, a custom social network, and a community toolbar.

5. Maintain

Each of the above steps requires an ongoing effort; therefore, the most important part of maintaining the process is to identify easy-to-use tools that can simplify your updating process.  

For example, you can update all your social networks simultaneously using Ping.fm. Encourage your community to help you spread the word by giving them sharing tools such as ShareThis and Digg, right on your site and blog. 

* * *

Converting customers into a community is easier than you might think, if you are not afraid to hear their thoughts and if you appeal to their interests.

By looking for trends among your customers, not just individual revenue streams, you will identify what makes them a community. You will become more relevant and trusted. And that makes for a better bottom line in the long run.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Boyden is president of Conduit (www.conduit.com), which powers apps for Web publishers and offers a platform to enable publishers to create apps using their own brand and content.