When you think of online communities what springs to mind is typically a global, or at least international, gathering of people around a shared topic of interest.  It could be a group of football fans discussing the fortunes of their favourite team.  It could be employees of a multinational collaborating online across different offices, or it could be customers from around the world joining forces to offer advice or support.

Can online communities provide benefits when your participants are not seperated by large distances though?  Despite the relative proximity of customers to each other, I think in many ways local businesses have more opportunities to build csmall ommunities than larger ones, if for no other reason than the personal nature of what they do.

For many small businesses, it’s already commonplace for the owners to have excellent relationships with their customers, especially the regulars.  What is sometimes lacking however is for these customers to have excellent relationships with each other.  Of course you might have a Cheers style atmosphere in your local pub, but do you have the same in your local restaurant or local store?  Perhaps not.

Thus far, social media has tended to focus on either attracting new customers, or rewarding the better ones with special offers.  Indeed, just this week Yelp has started to sell gift certificates for local businesses through their review page.  And that’s great, but it doesn’t really bond your community together, and bonding is important because it’s one of the key drivers for all human beings.  We want to be around other people like us.

Of course it doesn’t have to be done via an online community, you might find it more effective to get your best customers together physically so that they can get to know one another, and of course you can understand better what it is they want from you.  It’s something that many businesses aren’t doing so well at the moment.  This is emphasised by the fact that Facebook is the most common tool used by small businesses for social media.  Whilst it clearly has its uses, it isn’t all that great for encouraging customer to customer interaction.

Most local social media examples I’ve seen have been very promotional in context.  Do you have any great examples of local businesses building active communities online?  Share them in the comments section.