Building A Happy Community With Social Media

{ I realize that this post and the one before it are likely more appealing to other small business owners, entrepreneurs and the like, as opposed to some of the other topics covered on this blog.  However, one of the great things about the community I’ve seen form around Trek Light Gear is that there are a lot of people who follow along, regardless of whether they even own one of our products,  simply because of a shared desire to follow their passions and maybe even one day start their own business (or grow an existing one).   Since this blog is ultimately an extension of what I enjoy and what you as readers are interested in, I hope you find these posts valuable.  As always, let me know what you think! }

When writing the previous post “The Cheers Effect: Why Social Media Works For Business And How To Use It”, I ended up removing a few paragraphs I had written for the sake of brevity.  Looking back on the post I realize that I ended up leaving the ‘Why’ of the title intact but took out much of what I wanted to say about the ‘How’ when it comes to using social media, so I decided to follow it up with this post (I highly recommend reading the initial post before this if you can).

The message I hope was still intact: ‘how’ you should be using social media is to foster a happy community by creating a personal or emotional connection between you and your customers.  Sure, social media can be used solely as a marketing tool to bring in new customers, but community is what drives a movement, speeds up the viral spread of information and at the end of the day I believe it’s those connections and relationships that make us happy on both sides of the bar.

So, how does a business go about creating that personal connection between themselves and their customers?  Opening a physical bar like Cheers is one thing, but how do you achieve that Cheers Effect with only 140 characters at a time, a profile page, a blog and a keyboard?

To answer that question I’ve decided to break down what I’ve learned and practiced since starting Trek Light Gear and my hope is that sharing it will help to create more positive communities online and hopefully create some good conversation along the way.  These social media guidelines are specifically rooted in building a passionate community and spreading happiness - if your first goal with social media is figuring out how to get a YouTube video to go viral, you’re going about it all wrong. If you’re looking to start a business, getting ready to take the plunge for your existing business or non-profit, or just curious about social media and online community in general, start here….

Logos and Companies Don’t Have Friends, People Do: Be Yourself

This is the absolute first and most important step in using social media to create a connection between a business and a customer and something you’ll probably hear in just about every social media book, lecture and blog post for good reason.  As I said in the first post, you need to ask yourself:  why in the world anyone would want to be online ‘friends’ with a business? Would the Cheers Effect happen if everyone behind the bar was named Cheers and said the same corporate messages to every customer?

Being yourself may seem obvious to many of you, but believe it or not this is the step that prevents most businesses from succeeding in using social media.  It doesn’t mean you should be tweeting from your corporate account about how drunk you’re going to get over the weekend, but you’ve got to show people that there’s a real person (or team of employees) worth connecting with, following along with and getting to know.

Finding your online ‘voice’ can be harder than you think and it’s okay if it’s something that develops over time.  When most people start blogging or tweeting they realize that their first posts were a lot more rigid and dry before they found a way to be themselves behind a keyboard. And the opposite occurs just as often – a lot of small biz owners and employees need to learn to incorporate a bit more of a filter in order to maintain a professional brand image.

Do you remember seeing your teacher at the supermarket for the first time when you were a kid and suddenly realizing that they’re real people who do real things outside of the classroom?   Being a brand online can be a lot like being that teacher in the supermarket, you need to remind people as often as possible that there’s a real and fun person behind the curtain.   Use your name, your photo, your identity and your personality whenever possible.

Even in a larger company there should be some type of identity or identities behind the social media efforts.  Having a corporate account for your business with a logo as its profile picture may be crucial for branding and I’m not advising against it in any way – but you can also setup separate accounts for important individuals on your team so the personal connection is still available to your customers. One size doesn’t fit all and one account doesn’t always fit everything you’ll want to accomplish with your social media efforts. I’ve found that our Facebook page works best when represented with our logo or a product photo while our Twitter page is my photo and my ‘voice’ at all times, it’s all about striking a balance.

Only when we know the people behind the counters and behind the logos can we can actually develop a human relationship - which is vastly different than any relationship we can form with a brand. Open the door and start making real connections simply by being a person, not an avatar.

Be Honest, Be Transparent And Ask For Help (You Need It)

This ties in closely with being yourself and having a personality, but it’s one step further and often gets missed.  It’s easy to confuse the idea of having a great personality as a brand with actually letting people in to form a connection.  Having a sense of humor in your corporate tweets or marketing efforts is a sign of personality, but it’s only the first step. Never lose sight of the fact that social media mirrors real life social interaction - think of the friend you have that’s always joking and making people laugh but at the end of the day you feel like you barely know them as a person.  Open up. People appreciate the struggle, the realities of who we are as business owners and employees and what we’re trying to accomplish - we need to share those realities in order to form meaningful connections and create real community.

When I blog, tweet or post on Facebook, I don’t try to hide the fact that Trek Light Gear is a small business that is still trying to ‘make it’ and needs your help to do it.    If you’re following along with me you know right away that Trek Light Gear isn’t a faceless brand run by wealthy number crunchers somewhere.  It’s a passion, a labor of love, and something that YOU can have an extremely direct impact on just by participating in it.  I truly need your help and support to spread the word and I've done everything I can to make returning that happiness back to you an integral part of the DNA here.

By not just marketing and selling and instead using my online presence to share who I am and what I do outside of the office (mainly via my Twitter feed but also on Facebook) I’m giving people the chance to get to know me as a person so I can actually form real connections with people.  By also sharing the ‘behind the scenes’ stories, the fun (and not fun) struggles of running a business and not being afraid to ask for help when I need it, I’m also giving people a chance to want to support Trek Light Gear simply because they support me as a person and entrepreneur and that’s an extremely important distinction. [I’ll write more about that distinction in the next post]

Fact: It’s not easy to be honest and transparent as a brand. You always want to create an image of stability, strength and size when you’re building a brand image.  You want large companies to want to do business with you and you want your competition to fear you.  Struggles, what struggles?  Our office is huge! Our staff is endless!

The answer lies in striking a balance between building your brand and not getting lost in it.

Branding is an extension of your imagination, it’s how you want people to see your company.  So go ahead and do everything you can to make your company seem bigger than it really is, it can certainly help and will likely even manifest itself as a result.  I’ve had plenty of people contact me thinking Trek Light Gear is a huge company just based on seeing the website alone.  I’ve got an 800 number (which more often than not routes straight to my cell phone) and there are plenty of times when I’ll say ‘we’ when what I really mean is ‘I’.  It’s all a perfectly acceptable way to build your brand image and your brand.

But, at the end of the day real relationships don’t come from hiding behind who you want to be – don’t forget to be honest about who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish and you’ll find that your community, much like your friends, will actually work to help you get there.


More to come!  In an upcoming post I'll expand on the subject of supporters vs. customers that I touched upon above.  It's fascinating to me that social media has made it possible for a business like Trek Light Gear to have an amazingly loyal and vocal subset of our community that hasn’t even purchased a single product from us (yet!) and it should be a fun topic to explore.

Please let me know what you think and of course if there are any topics regarding social media, community or running a small biz that you’d like to hear more about.   And in case you forgot -  Hammocks!  

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