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@NYTBIZSUMMIT: How to get customers through community

Savvy social-media marketers know that the real point of social tools is not to get the most “fans,” “friends” or “followers” but to convert those virtual contacts into real-world customers. What they may not realize is that many people involved in online communities are creating and developing offline communities to do just that.

Offline communities present an often-untapped opportunity to get people engaged and bring in new business, says Meetup co-founder and CEO Scott Heiferman, who was part of a panel on “Leveraging The Digital Space to Grow Your Business” last month at the The New York Times Small Business Summit.

Just like everything in social-media marketing, it’s nothing new. These get-togethers are simply be organized through a new medium. Back in the day, Heiferman said, his father reached out to their community and advertised his business by sponsoring a little league team.

Today, you can still do that, but you can do even more with social media.

First, you can find communities that relate to your business¬† and already exist on Meetup — or other sites such as Craigslist or Facebook — and get involved with them in some way. You could offer to sponsor their website, give a free gift to new members or offer exclusive discounts to existing members, said Heiferman.

For example, if you own a sporting-goods store, you could find a local hiking group and offer them 15% off of hiking boots, day packs or clothes. If your store is centrally located, you could also offer your parking lot as a place for them to start their caravan for hiking trips. Whatever you do, you’re getting involved in their community and strengthening it while giving them a positive experience with your business.

If you can’t find an existing community related to your business, or the one that exists is small or weak, that’s an opportunity for you to build something from scratch and tie it to your business, Heiferman explained. Just because a group doesn’t exist doesn’t mean people wouldn’t be interested in joining one if it were available.

Here are some ideas that come from off the top of my head:

  • A car-care group that meets at the local service station.
  • A cake-decorating group for a store that sells kitchen supplies.
  • A mom-and-baby walking group tied to a children’s clothing store.
  • A foodie group that meets in the off-hours at a restaurant.
  • A sewing group tied to the local dry cleaner.

The point is, Heiferman said, that you have the power to “connect your customers to each other and create communities.” And that power can help you make sales and expand your business.

Image credit: wingmar, via iStockPhoto