There’s a wonderful quote from a mediocre film; “If we build it, they will come …”

Field of Dreams wasn’t one of Kevin Costner’s best (I much prefer The Untouchables) but the memorable line has been quoted and re-quoted ad infinitum. Indeed, it is the quote that should be forever inscribed on the tombstones of the dotcom failures of the ‘90s.

It should be remembered that this was nothing more than a movie, that the sentiment rarely translates into real life; and never more so than when tackling social media campaigns.

Building online communities is the latest ‘Field of Dreams’ accident-waiting-to-happen. What started as disparate and diverse individuals logging in to communicate with strangers in chat rooms has developed into an online marketing phenomenon; creating and growing ‘communities’ around a brand is the new way to build brand awareness and loyalty.

But while the mantle has been grasped by big corporate brands, smaller businesses have been slow on the uptake.

There are a number of possible reasons; whether it’s because of confusion around the terminology – community doesn’t instantly shout customer – because of the hippy dippy connotations of the word, or because they simply don’t yet understand the powerful opportunities loyal communities can bring is still being debated.

Other arguments suggest that the time taken to build a community is a factor, as is the lack of evidence that community = £££s.

The bottom line, however fuzzy, is that according to experts, online communities are ‘the next big thing’.

Allan Barr, head of digital and social media for The BIG Partnership, says there can be no doubt that the potential benefits for businesses using social media are huge. Growing an engaged community around your brand that trusts you and buys into what you’re doing is incredibly powerful.

But he still sees far too many companies jumping on the bandwagon and using tools like Facebook and Twitter purely as broadcast channels.

“Bombarding your potential customers with sales messages is a sure fire way to turn them off,” warns Barr. “If organisations are ever going to realise the potential benefits social media can offer they need to stop using the same approach as they would with advertising or direct marketing and instead engage their audience in genuine two-way conversations. Only once they start doing this can they have any hope of developing a community around their brand.”

Consider the way Comparethemarket.com has approached its social media strategy. Aleksandr Orlov – Founder of Compare the Meerkat has 757,640 fans on Facebook who are really engaged with the meerkat character. Not once is there any mention of the real company on that site – but you can bet three quarters of a million people will remember it when they come to renew their insurance.

According to Kim McAllister, there are also some great Scottish examples, aiming to capitalise on the community approach; Vodka Wodka’s Facebook page and Vroni’s Twitter presence are just two.

While both will tell their fans about any special offers or events, the majority of the conversation is general chat, photos from nights out and declarations of love – one Vodka Wodka Facebook fan said she loved the Kamikaze cocktail so much it should have its own page. The bar has reacted by planning a special Kamikaze weekend.

Vroni’s has found that Twitter followers prefer to just send a message to book the bar’s mezzanine level rather than phone. Afterwards they tweet about what a wonderful night they had and compliment the level of service – public feedback which gives the bar’s reputation a powerful boost.

McAllister, founder of Impact Online, says online communities are important in the same way real world communities are important – they bring people with common interests together but make communication between them much easier. They can share resources like pictures, videos, newspaper articles and information within seconds which means they can react really quickly and always be bang up to date.

And the business benefits of online communities are endless, whether it’s about tapping into a really savvy demographic, building loyalty around a brand or testing a product before it goes to market.

The important thing to remember is that communities only have the potential to be customers. Says McAllister whatever holds them together is stronger than just their latest purchase, it’s a broader interest in the industry or brand. Communities are a longer term consideration than a short term customer who may never come back. The challenge for businesses is giving the customer a reason to join their community.

She has three tips for businesses hoping to build a community: Firstly, think about what the business wants to get out of it, think about what the customers will get out of it and then try to put the customers’ needs slightly above those of the business.

Be prepared to provide great content, the more varied the better. Allocate a realistic amount of resources to this – don’t start a blog if you’re not going to have enough to say or the time to say it.

And finally listen! Customers just want to feel valued – a simple ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ or ‘great point well made’ will mean a lot and will go a long way to creating lasting loyalty.

Building an online community can be fun, but it will be hard work. If you want your very own field of dreams, you need to build it, but then nurture it relentlessly, or it will wither and die.

(This is an article that appeared in Scotland on Sunday, 29 August 2010)