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Lead Your Community with Trustworthy Content

Becoming a thought leader isn’t something that happens overnight; for many companies, it doesn’t ever happen. However, in order to achieve the status of “go-to-resource” for a particular industry or market segment, your company will need to work day-in and day-out on its concerted efforts. (For background, read Michael Brenner’s piece on what thought leadership is and why you need it.)

The most common way for companies to reach this enviable position is with a concrete content marketing strategy that’s designed to build trust with your target audience.

How daunting and elusive does that feel, though? Build trust? How do you even start?

Trust is something that can be built through education, engagement, and content. One way I’ve seen companies succeed at this is by building a content-driven online community packed with the valuable information your audience seeks in the ways they want to consume it. Here are some content steps a community-manager can take to host a site that builds trust and establishes thought leadership:

1. Don’t be a show-off (it’s all about them)

The challenge with managing an online community isn’t necessarily getting people to your site, but keeping them there (and getting them to return). If someone visits your site and is immediately bombarded by your branding, ads, or marketing promos, they’ll be gone before you can say “community bust.”

Think about your online community and where it’s positioned in your 3-pillar marketing strategy: It’s part of the structure but not the core. The core should be quality content. If people want to learn all about “you you you”, they’ll visit your company website. To get them engaged on your online community, it needs to be relevant and interesting — and all about them.

A great way to show your visitors just how much you appreciate them is with surveys and polls: Use their opinions to drive the continuous evolution of the community. Ask your audience, “If you could add one element to this online community, what it would be?” Or  give them a rating scale to rank certain content pieces or discussion topics. The more you engage your audience’s input, the more they will want to return to your site to see their ideas and suggestions brought to life.

Adding incentives or promotions is another way to get your audience engaged: Offer a reward to the “top blogger of the month” or “best video submission” as a way to not only get content ideas from your audience, but also to show them how valuable they are thus building their trust in you. But don’t be too aggressive with your promotions as if you’re trying to buy their relationship. Centering promotions on content makes it a trustworthy exercise around community building rather than just a numbers game.

2. Educate openly and honestly

Each online community has a different objective, and many managers have taken to “gating,” or adding a sign-up form before certain content assets can be viewed. Though I understand the need for protecting intellectual capital, I think there’s a balance that needs to be reached when cultivating an online community.

In order to build trust, some content must be given willingly and freely. For example, case studies, videos, eBooks, data sheets, articles, and discussions are all things that are available openly and freely on the web; if a community visitor is looking for information that you won’t give openly, chances are they’ll look somewhere else for it. For your research reports or white papers, provide enough information that’s valuable (Marketing Sherpa does this pretty well), such as graphs, full chapter excerpts, or a summary of findings. This way you’re giving your visitors some information and establishing your credibility before asking anything from them.

Educating openly and honestly also means being the go-to-resource for industry information. This means (gulp) talking about your competitors on your community and keeping any feedback — bad or good — about your own services “on the table.” The more you have this information available on your site the more you’ll be perceived as  a confident and secure company to communicate honestly with your audience.

3. Be a nurturer

Using content to nurture your audience is a powerful way to build their trust in you. For example, a regular newsletter is a great way to collect and distribute your community content and keep visitors educated during the time they aren’t able to engage directly within your community.

A newsletter is also a way to provide community updates, welcome new members, or highlight popular discussions or contributions. By being a nurturer, you’re making the community all about the visitors, helping them view you as a company that truly values their input.

4. Go beyond education into socialization

Anyone can go online and find an interesting article or press release. But can they easily find all the conversations happening around the latest industry news? Integrating social media into your online community is a great way to establish a strong relationship with site visitors and break down the “company–customer” barrier. Aside from the incredible content your community provides, your customers will appreciate the open and honest conversations, the ability to comment, and the opportunity to interact with other site visitors.

In addition to including your Twitter feed and mentions, use a widget to show how many people “like” your company on Facebook and stream the latest comments. You can also use popular LinkedIn discussions as fodder for online community blog articles, and always be sure to give shout-outs to top contributors. Though this takes time and effort from you, the community manager, it’s worth it. By giving people props for contributing to your site, they will be more likely to share your content amongst their social networks.

At the end of the day, it’s all about openness. The Internet isn’t a secret abyss anymore, and along with all the content out there comes more opportunities for people to talk about you, good or bad. If you own the conversation, nurture your community, and give them the information they seek in an easy-to-digest manner, you’ll be well on your way to achieving that thought leader status.

What content practices have you seen work on an online community? What hasn’t been very successful? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.