I gave a presentation recently to a client on social media when I was confronted by an interesting question. My presentation was designed to educate the group on the concepts, technologies and behaviors that prevail in today’s social web. I wanted to lay a foundation to help us brainstorm ideas on leveraging social media to make an impact in their business. About half way through the presentation, when most of the foundation had been established, I was asked: “So what?”

It is a fair question. Let’s face it; we don’t need to know that someone plans to nap during his train ride into the city. There is a lot of zero value information being shared in the social spaces. But what marketers must not ignore is the changing behaviors. We are all sharing much more information, thoughts and opinions with our networks and communities than we ever have before.

While you take this behavior into consideration, think about your own resistance to sales tactics both online and off. Think about how frustrated you get when you hear a sales pitch. Do you really want to hear the salesperson’s opinion whether or not this new TV is the best on the market? Why do you have to buy this car today? Your agent keeps telling you this insurance is a good fit – but how can you be sure? Wouldn’t it be nice to hear a few customer opinions to help you make an informed decision? Not references. Just to hear what a wide range of experienced customers have to say.

My clients often hear me say, “Nothing sells a product better than a happy customer.” If you believe in the quality of your brand or service, then build a customer community and allow your customers to share their experiences. Will there be a range of opinions? Yes, and that is okay. A blend of both positive and negative opinions will give the conversation greater credibility. In addition, your existing and potential customers will become even more loyal to your brand as you show your willingness to accept criticism.

Depending on your product or service, your customers can also serve as a valuable resource to one other. They can share different uses for your products, assist one another with technical questions, and offer opinions and guidance. These are all benefits of building a user community. The Open Network by American Express is a great example of this – and there are many others. By building a community in which people can share their thoughts and opinions about your products and services, you can gather the information you need to take action. Assisting an unhappy customer by using a public forum can, in fact, build enormous brand loyalty.

Another benefit to building a community is the emergence of brand ambassadors. As the community develops, you will find some customers love you even more than you thought. They will want to share their experiences with many more people than you imagined. These brand ambassadors will help your customers solve problems and encourage the undecided buyers to select you. Without realizing it, you have just expanded your sales force.

So what do you need to know before building this customer community? Again, first do remember that this is a conversation. Don’t use this forum as a podium for sales. Make your strategy one of offering assistance by volunteering useful information. Answer questions.

And be transparent. If you make mistakes, admit them. If you do, your customers will feel better about doing business with you.

Finally, if you are a thought leader in your market space, this is a splendid place to showcase your forward thinking. The ideal strategy is to offer thoughts and opinions that encourage a dialogue with your audience.