The evolution of social networking has caused a dramatic shift in how businesses market their products and services, and the way they think about their current and prospective customers.

Conventional marketing definitions don’t necessarily apply in today’s environment. Instead of broadcasting their message to random recipients, marketers are increasingly focusing on creating communities that generate a higher degree of brand loyalty than traditional “push marketing” methods.

By building a community, you increase the likelihood that your customers will visit your Web site more frequently, provide valuable feedback and recommend your products and services to their friends and colleagues.

In short, a community offers your customers the opportunity to develop relationships with your company and other like-minded people. Once involved in the community, these customers typically become your greatest champions and provide invaluable word-of-mouth endorsements of your products and services.

Transforming your customer base into a community is more than a simple shift in semantics; it requires a shift in your attitude toward your customers and how you interact with them.

Instead of thinking of your customers as anonymous transactions, you must begin interacting with them on a very personal level. You must invite honest, open dialogue and be responsive to your customers concerns. By doing so, you will have the information you need to provide services and products that meet their needs; thereby increasing their brand loyalty and sense of community.

So how do you create a community of loyal brand champions? Here are some basic ideas to keep in mind.

Begin by getting to know who the members of your community are. To do that, you’ll need to initiate the conversation by asking about their interests, wants and needs. By doing so, you’ll get to know who they are, what they like, and more importantly, what they don’t like about your products or services. In conventional marketing terms, this will allow you to segment your community. But the segmentation is based on interests and concerns rather than traditional demographic data such as age, gender or income level.

Next, you’ll want to learn about the other online communities your customers belong to and how they like to receive and share information. Invite them to become involved in all of your online communities and get involved in those that they frequent. Pay attention to what’s being said about your business on Twitter, Facebook and other online social networks and join in the conversation.

Don’t let negative comments about your business scare you away. Instead, consider them opportunities to improve your products or services as well as your image.

Develop valuable content that responds to the wants and needs of your community. The content can be delivered as articles, tips, videos, audio files, Webinars, photos and other media. Make sure the content provides real value to your community and doesn’t simply promote your business. Often the most valuable information is not the content you create, but content from other sources that you share with your community.

Encourage your users to interact with you and with each other through other social networking platforms. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google groups are great options. Becoming involved in such third-party groups is a great way to engage your customers where they are, while simultaneously supporting your own online community.

Finally, commit to making your community a priority and devoting the time needed to nurture it. Use tools that allow you to update all your social networks simultaneously and make it easy for your users to share with the people in their networks by providing ShareThis, Digg, Like, or ReTweet buttons on your Web site or blog.

Building your community will take time and consistent effort, but in the long run it will make your business more relevant and more trusted. Over time, you’ll see that it will also improve your bottom line.