Working in any industry, you’ll have clients that expect to have fairly direct access to your client-facing employees. Yet, it’s unlikely all of your employees will have the chance to interact with your customers on an ongoing basis. Isn’t that why you have client support and relationship management teams? These channels tend to be responsive instead of taking an active approach to managing a social marketing effort. Even with social networks, there’s a certain limitation that companies have when interacting with clients through their sites because people still generally identify the site with Facebook or LinkedIn, for example. But a company-owned social community provides a marketing opportunity that is difficult to replicate exactly.

What’s the key difference? According to CMSWire, most social networking sites focus on developing relationships, whereas online communities are far more pragmatic. In other words, online communities provide concrete answers to questions about merchandise or services. Put another way by Harvard Business Review contributor Sarah Judd Welch, there are online gathering places that are informal and others which seek to provide information. The computing giant Dell has established both types of Web presence, but its highly informational online social community deserves a fair bit of attention.

Differentiate by Providing Value
The technology firm Dell features its TechCenter Community, which invites those in the information technology field and who utilize Dell hardware and software to join. However, instead of having one giant community – remember, this is a company that operates largely business-to-business, so each company will have anywhere from 1 to 100 clients – Dell has roughly 25 online communities that clients can choose from. These range from application management to virtualization, and these portals allow customers to interact with each other, sharing their thoughts and opinions.

But more importantly, they give Dell employees – people with product and service-specific expertise – the opportunity to form a relationship with their clients and address any comments or concerns they might have. These continuous interactions help companies build client loyalty through social marketing that feels less like a slap in the face pushing you to purchase their products or services, and more like a confidant encouraging to keep returning to the trusted brand because it has your interests at heart.

Recognize the Potential of Social Marketing
On the other hand, the athletic brand Nike has just recently invested in an online meeting place called the Nike Community Forum. If you haven’t heard of it, as Welch suggested in her HBR blog post, it’s not surprising. The problem with the Nike forum is that the company has removed much of the social interaction from the online experience. Welch indicated users are able to track their distances and post information about the races they’ve run by connecting information aggregated by the Nike mobile app.

What’s missing from the online community is value for other members. Like the individuals who turn to Dell for answers to their quandaries, athletes would likely jump at the chance to have many of their sports health-related issues answered or learn more about specific products that Nike provides for people training for a marathon. The big picture that the company is likely missing is that visitors to their online forum could transition from casual joggers to a dedicated runner with the right encouragement and support, which would result in more opportunities for Nike to upsell to these converts and achieve a lasting relationship.

In a separate article, HBR Associate Editor Walter Frick explained it’s important for existing online community members to engage newer ones so that it becomes a meeting place that fosters growth instead of detracting from the client’s experience with the brand. This is a good reason to set up a posting policy for your online forum so that each participant knows what to expect in terms of decorum and posting patterns. There is also an opportunity here to create incentives around sharing and bringing in new participants. If available to you, cultivating communities of practice among your peers, collateral professionals or your clients can be a valuable way to create a unique learning environment and enhance thought leadership. The “soft power” marketing provided by these online resources is often underutilized but often worth the effort.

For those of you out there who do not have the resources to build and facilitate your own online social community, it is important to consider how you have leverage the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn pages or groups to engage your community in a unique way.