In the Flight of the Conchords song “Carol Brown,” Jemaine’s attempt to serenade a love interest is thwarted by a choir of his ex-girlfriends.
As Jemaine sings his own praises as a would-be lover, the choir sings Jemaine’s many faults: “He doesn’t cook or clean; he’s not good boyfriend material.” (“Ooh, we can eat cereal,” he counters.)
Contradicted and drowned out, Jemaine laments, “Who organized all my ex-girlfriends into a choir and got them to sing?”
Poor Jemaine. One lone voice doesn’t stand a chance against a choir singing in harmony.
A Choir of Clients
Place your agency in Jemaine’s shoes. You’re wooing a company you hope will hire you. Instead of ex-girlfriends, though, the choir is made up of current clients.
When you start singing, does the choir back you up? Or does it warn the potential client to make like Carol Brown and take a bus out of town?
You can stack the odds in your favor by organizing the choir yourself. Build a strong, vibrant community for your clients — something that gives them a real sense of connection and value — and they’re much more likely to sing your praises.
By forging meaningful bonds among your clients, you become their common ground. As you foster connections for them and add value on all sides of the equation, they’re drawn closer to you.
A community of clients also prevents your agency from being pigeonholed. When your clients tell one another about the customized services you provide, they’re helping you by painting a complete picture of your agency’s capabilities. This leads to opportunities to engage them in new ways.
From your client’s perspective, the community provides added value in the form of:
- Networking. For clients, new connections broaden exposure and increase referral sources.
- Pooled resources. The community can afford shared experiences that would otherwise be out of reach. (An individual client might not be able to afford to hire a top-notch speaker, but the community could split the cost and reap the benefits together.)
- Collaboration. It’s natural for a group of like-minded people to gravitate toward helping one another. Some might collaborate on a project; others may share resources and best practices.
Keep in mind that the clients may need help to mix and mingle. Create small discussion groups around a guest speaker, or divide them into teams and have them accomplish something together. Give them a reason to get to know one another and learn about one another’s work.
This happens all the time at my company. When the agency owners all get together, they often talk about how I interact with their businesses. One owner will tell a story about how my consulting helped them get through a situation or make a decision, and the next thing I know, I’m booked for more consulting gigs.
Taking the initiative to create something valuable for your clients transforms your relationship with them. You’re no longer just a vendor; you’ve become a partner in their growth. And when you help clients grow, they reward you with loyalty.
The Pillars of Community
Building a community of clients can be particularly beneficial to digital marketing companies. SEO is one of those things that many clients buy but don’t really understand. They know they want Google to recognize and rank them for their relevant keywords and phrases, but beyond that, it’s black magic.
Any time a client is buying something they can’t really judge or evaluate, having someone they trust sing your praises makes the sale much easier. A trusted referral can also come in handy when a client expects instant results from a marketing initiative — which is never very realistic. Clients who come to you through a connection with another client are much more likely to be patient rather than push for instant results.
To help accomplish this, Springboard Brand & Creative Strategy brings clients together every year to share ideas, work through challenges, and exchange resources. Sitewire does something similar. At the annual Sitewire Expert Series, clients enjoy intimate access to high-profile speakers, as well as training sessions with Sitewire’s digital marketing experts.
But both Springboard and Sitewire know it takes more than an annual gathering to build a real and sustained connection among clients. Here are a few guidelines for creating a vibrant client community:
1. Have a Clear Agenda and Vision
People don’t have time to belong to something without structure. Be clear with your clients about why you’re bringing them together and what they stand to gain from joining. Align their expectations for both vision and details.
2. Be a Connector and an Instigator
You’re going to need to prime the pump, especially in the early phases. Be aggressive in connecting people and helping them recognize how they might serve one another. Demonstrate the behavior you want your community members to adopt (e.g., start online discussions, share resources, etc.).
iCrossing created its iCrossing Collaboratory to provide a platform for its clients to work through problems and establish opportunities. The Collaboratory connects clients with best-in-class technology companies to enhance their agility and ability to experiment, and it’s a direct way for iCrossing to exemplify the behavior it expects from its community.
3. Create Opportunities to Connect in Person and Online
Bring your community together to meet face-to-face at least once a year. Entice them with an amazing speaker or special offer. Nothing can surpass human connection in building a community. In many ways, achieving this face-to-face interaction is easier for smaller agencies whose clients may be closer geographically or may all gather for a specific industry conference.
Between gatherings, be sure to foster and sustain the connection digitally through email and social media. You can’t force anyone to take part, but if the conversation is valuable and dynamic, your clients will engage and make it their own.
SponsorPitch provides a network for buyers and sellers to find qualified leads more quickly. The network encourages proactive decision-making by community members through a feature that allows them to drill down to the best-fitting brands for their opportunity; its Proposal Requests help community members reach people from a specific demographic or location.
4. Shine the Spotlight
Create a rotating newsletter feature that highlights different members. Through social media, give clients a chance to lead discussions, share articles they’ve written, and demonstrate their expertise. If clients know the spotlight will eventually shine on them, they’ll stay engaged. iModules’ newsletter features events and showcases client work; it also fosters client communities and provides networking opportunities.
The Need to Belong
One of the fundamental components of any community is a sense of trust. If members don’t trust one another, they won’t share or engage fully. For that reason, you won’t be able to build a community of clients who are competitors. However, there’s no conflict of interest if your clients are in the same industry but occupy different markets. It works even better if they could potentially be one another’s customers. This also works better for service businesses — if you sell a product, they may not have much to say to one another.
Again, trust isn’t something you can force, but you can create the conditions for it to emerge organically. When it does, the community will take on a life of its own. At that point, your role evolves into that of a facilitator, providing guidance and information to your members. They’ll be the ones driving the community forward and shaping it to fit their needs.
As Seth Godin says in “Tribes,” “Human beings can’t help it: We need to belong.” Help your clients fulfill this need, and they will sing your praises.
This article was written by Drew McLellan and originally posted on Moz.