Creating Meaningful Community Connections, with Trish Fontanilla

You can grow your online community and transform your business by shifting focusing solely on your customers and offering them value through creating meaningful community connections. We connected with Trish Fontanilla, Trish of All Trades, who shared some of her best practices on how to create valuable connections to benefit your community members.

First and foremost, from your perspective, what is a meaningful connection inside a community and who does that connection exist between?

TF: I can’t get specific without knowing a community’s mission and who are involved in the community, but I believe a meaningful connection can happen any time someone delivers on whatever’s promised to a community member. For many of the communities I’ve worked in, I consider customers/clients an essential part of the community, but I also welcome in prospective customers, vendors, and anyone that might connect with the community along a member’s journey. Because my definition is wide, that meaningful connection could be between anyone. And since the overarching theme of community is belonging, it could be deeply personal for a member, even spurring them to connect with themselves / their work in a new way. Is the “bluebird of happiness is in you” side of me showing too hard right now?

For brands looking to create a meaningful connection with their community, where would you start? What kinds of things should (they) think about? OR, if a brand is looking to foster the creation of meaningful connecting between users and other users in their community, where should they start?

TF: I’m going to go with the good ol’, “start with why”. Why are they in your community? What do they believe they can achieve by being a part of your community? Some folks like to do surveys or post open-ended questions in forums, but I’m a big fan of doing the “unscalable” so I just jump right in and start doing one-on-ones with folks to see why they’re in the community and how I can help even past the brand. This could take on any form, but for me, I very much like to see the person and have them see me. I started working at a video messaging company 8 years ago, and any time someone followed us on Twitter I sent them a video. It was helpful for the brand because I was using our product (having connections be “on brand” is something to consider for sure), but I also took a minute to look at the follower’s bio and where they were from so I could center myself on why they might follow us which is super useful. I also tried to film outside the office so while I talked about them a little bit and the company, they got to know me and saw me interact with the city which reminded them that they were connecting with a human and not a logo. I still do videos like that, but I’ll get into video chats or have in-person coffee chats as well. Connecting with people allows me to see everything that can be lost in text, especially for web-based companies. Those learnings help drive content for sure, and people will connect on their own around great content, but they also allow me to be a better connector. This is awesome for giving community member shoutouts in whatever forum I use, but also being able to think of someone to tag or introduce when a member asks a question. ABC, always be connecting.

How can brands activate meaningful value out of the connections they create in their community? Do you think that it should be a priority for brands to build a strong relationship (user to user OR user to brand) without an immediate return?

TF: If you’re looking for an immediate return, community is not it. I’ve seen companies try to spin roles into growth hacker/growth marketer roles, and it’s such a bummer because those companies are not setting their community managers up to succeed.

There’s so much in the community field that’s built on trust, and that doesn’t happen overnight. But when trust is there, when relationships are built, the possibilities are endless – testimonials, brand ambassadors, being featured in their company collateral, sales / upsells, and more.

Trish Fontanilla

I’ve even had community members that are not customers be incredible ambassadors of the brand/referral resources.

From your perspective, where do you think that a community fits into the funnel for brands? And do the connections that brands create with users happen towards the beginning or end of the funnel (or both)?

TF: I tend to nurture throughout the journey. To note, I also do customer experience work as well, so it’s a habit that not every community manager may be interested in or considering the team’s makeup might make sense. I had a CFO who actually filed a lot of my community expenses under sales, which made a lot of sense for what community can do for top of the funnel. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to potential customers and said, “Ya know, this product may not be right for you but here are some other routes you can take or other people you can talk to.” Since I’m a brand’s number one fan AND one of my work core values is “only help”, I have no problem shielding the brand from what could be an unhappy customer (trying to use a product, for example, in ways that we can’t support when there are better solutions out there) but also making sure the person finds the solution they need since they took the time to chat with me. Oftentimes when I’m that honest with folks, they still try to find a way to work with me / the company because they know that I’ve got their best interests at heart.

One gripe is people are totally missing the boat on connecting with “old” customers. There’s so much spent on the honeymoon period, and not enough around retaining a customer. Once those relationships drift towards being more transactional, it’s easier for people to consider other products or leave because they’ll feel neglected or not as tied to the brand.

Read more expert and client interviews here.

About Trish Fontanilla:

Trish Fontanilla is a Community & Customer Experience Consultant. Previous to venturing out on her own, she held roles at various Boston startups including Head of Community & Customer Experience at Freight Farms, Global Director of Community at Startup Institute, and Vice President of Community & Customer Experience at Vsnap. Trish is also the CEO of BOSFilipinos, a community focused on elevating Filipino culture through events and programming in Boston. In her spare time she volunteers through Boston Cares, mentors women entrepreneurs in the Babson College WIN Lab, supports girls in tech through Technovation Challenge and co-organizes the Customer Love Series.

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Jeremy Ross

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