Community is a word used all too often in the social marketing world, but what does it mean exactly?

What are the different kinds of community that companies are building or assisting online, and how do they contribute to business goals?

We discuss the answers with DJ Waldow, the author of Econsultancy’s new series of reports on the topic.

The first report, Starting a Community, is available now to Bronze members and above.

First, can you describe what “community building” means?

Sure, but first, let me be clear about what I mean when I say “online community.”

Essentially, an online community is the 2012 version of a chat room or forum of the late 20th century. Social networking sites like the Big Four (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+) are today’s main online communities.

They are places where people gather, virtually, to share ideas, gather information, and voice their opinion around a common topic. Community building is the process of growing, developing, and nurturing these virtual gathering places.

In this first part, we get introduced to some of the benefits of building a community. What would you say is the most common goal?

As you’ll read in the Starting a Community report,the benefits of community building are plentiful.

If I had to pick the most common goal of building a community, it would have to be engaging with current customers by providing a place to offer support and customer service.

Online communities can foster an environment for your customers to bond with each other, to share ideas and experiences, to sing your praises, and to commiserate over what they do not like.

Ideally, this turns your customers into advocates.

You’ve talked about customer engagement, but what about more directly revenue related activities?

As I said, there are many benefits of building a strong online community. Lead generation can certainly be another positive outcome.

We’ll go into more detail on how to leverage your community for feedback, support, and of course sales, in a future report.

Suffice to say, a well-run online community can definitely be used to increase leads and…dare I say, sell!

What’s the number one way in which companies stumble in the early days of community building?

The biggest “stumble” early on is usually is the result of community moderators (administrators) trying to keep too much control.

It’s one thing to moderate and keep the community on track, ensure there are no personal attacks, etc. However, there is a fine line between being involved and being overbearing.

Once the community members feel like the administrator has taken over, the online community is in a risky place, one that can be seen as self-serving.

Remember, the community is not about you, it’s all about the members.

Taking a look ahead, what does the rest of this series on community building cover?

In future reports, we’ll be digging into ways to engage, grow, and leverage your community.

Specifically, we’ll share some tips and tricks to carry on conversations across multiple platforms, discuss how email marketing can be the digital glue of online communities, and detail how to use your community to gather feedback, offer support, and sell!

Tell us about your experience with community building…

Well, first off, I’m a very social person by nature. I think that’s one of the keys to community building / social media participation in general.

You have to like (love!) people. I mean, online communities are all about people, so if you don’t love people, well … you get the point.

Prior to starting out on my own, I held the title of Director of Community for Blue Sky Factory, an Email Service Provider. In the capacity of Director of Community, I was in charge of all of our social media efforts including building, growing, nurturing, and selling to our online communities.