Branded communities can be a wealthy source of customer advocacy and social proof - but how do marketers make them successful?
In the age of social media, a successful brand community is the holy grail of customer engagement. At their pinnacle, customers, prospects and partners come together organically to share their knowledge of and passion for a brand or product, resulting in a band of advocates that can be far more powerful and influential than any corporate marketing activity.
The reality is, however, that a brand community is incredibly difficult to get right, and deceptively easy to do badly. All too often, a “brand community” is conceived as a marketing campaign, or a sales tool, centred around nothing more than a hashtag.
To build a successful brand community, marketers need to understand what drives a sense of community, and build a strategy around these characteristics. In this article, we’ve taken the four elements of a sense of community identified by social psychologists McMillan and Chavis in 1986 and applied these principles to branded communities.
Membership is the first element in building a sense of community, and McMillan and Chavis break it down into five attributes: boundaries, emotional safety, a sense of belonging and identification, personal investment, and a common symbol system. In essence, these are the building blocks of your community, and getting these right will go a long way towards establishing its success.
Boundaries are all the things that define who is a part of your group, including language and rituals. It’s all about setting the expectations for group members, both of how they should interact with the community, and of how the community will act towards them.
Key boundaries to define include:
who the community is for and any conditions of membership - is it for employees only, for professionals in a particular sector, or those in a specific geographic area for example?
the key purpose of the community - for example, what topics will be discussed, what type of content will be provided and how members can get involved
how the community will be monitored and governed - this could include identifying the key stakeholders, establishing moderation guidelines, or defining what is and isn’t an acceptable contribution
These guidelines and expectations also provide the second characteristic of membership, giving participants a sense of emotional safety by letting them know the community is being managed effectively.
Building a sense of belonging and identification can be as simple as welcoming new members to your community. LinkedIn, for example, allows you to send a welcome message to new group members via email, which is a great opportunity to establish a more personal connection with them. If your community is more high-end, you could even send out a welcome pack with branded goodies - this is something B2C brands do with bloggers all the time.
Of course, community isn’t just about what you can offer to participants - it requires members to make a personal investment in the success of the community. There are lots of ways to do this - liking a piece of content, submitting an email address, or attending an event, for example. The best way to get members to invest in your community is simply to encourage them - ensure they are aware of all the different ways they can get involved, and remind them to engage on a regular basis.
The final characteristic of membership is a common symbol system, which can be achieved by developing a consistent calendar of content, events and features that members begin to associate with your community. Twitter is a great example of this, with actions, phrases and memes that are common to the Twitter community - retweets, hashtags, trending topics, and even events such as #EdBallsDay.
Ed Balls— Ed Balls (@edballs) April 28, 2011
Whilst it might take time to develop your community’s own cultural symbols, something as simple consistent branding and icons across all touchpoints for your community can help fulfill this requirement in the first instance.
McMillan and Chavis explain that influence works both ways in communities - it’s not just about the influence that your community has over its members, it’s also about how those members can influence the community too.
Reddit is probably the best example of an online community where members have a direct influence on the success of the group. Members of the community can upvote or downvote any content shared on the site, allowing users to influence what is featured most prominently. This gives members of the Reddit community a vested interest in coming back to the site and engaging on a regular basis.
For branded communities, influence is all about reciprocity - if you can add value to your community members, they will in return bring value to the community. A branded community has the potential to be a great sales tool, but probably won’t be if you fill it with sales messages and try to force members into a particular action or behaviour. There’s a great quote from McMillan and Chavis which summarises this: “People who acknowledge that others' needs, values, and opinions matter to them are often the most influential group members, while those who always push to influence, try to dominate others, and ignore the wishes and opinions of others are often the least powerful members”.
3: Integration and fulfillment of needs
Essentially, this comes down to delivering on what you have promised, offering value to the community, and rewarding members for their involvement. This characteristic is one of the most important for branded communities - Susan Fournier and Lara Lee explain that “A community-based brand builds loyalty not by driving sales transactions but by helping people meet their needs.”
Jump Associates identify three main types of relationships and interactions in branded communities, as pictured here.
A successful brand community will feature all three of these relationships, and structuring your community to enable these interactions should be a key part of your engagement strategy.
A rewards system is a common characteristic of successful brand communities, and the gamification of the community membership with badges and symbols can be an effective strategy. Whatever the format, recognising the contributions of members is essential, and can be as simple as tweeting them to say thanks for their participation.
To develop this characteristic, listening to your audience is a great starting point. There may well already be communities online discussing your product or service, and identifying the key drivers of conversations, any shared themes or topics, and any influential individuals could be incredibly helpful when defining your community strategy. A conversation audit can help you with this - read our blog post to find out more about how social media listening tools can help you understand your audience.
4: Shared emotional connection
Don’t forget, the members of any brand community are not just consumers; they are people too. Relationships are built on shared emotional connections, and even professional communities need to foster these connections. In a world where the line between B2C and B2B is becoming increasingly blurred, marketers need to commit to personalisation and customer-centricity to compete in a noisy online environment. Shannon Good makes a great point about personalising your community communications: “Taking the time to communicate in a personalized format gives customers the opportunity to think of your brand as a friend or peer, rather than a product. And that kind of brand is the one that gets mentions, recommendations, and positive reviews in public places.”
Building emotional connections within your community is a lot like creating a friendship on The Sims - it takes regular communication, quality interactions, and shared experiences. A dedicated community manager who can spend the time interacting with community members across channels is an invaluable asset. As with any modern marketing campaign, your brand community shouldn’t be siloed to one channel or platform - community happens wherever your customers come into contact with your brand, so these principles should extend to every touchpoint with your audience
A brand community is not just a marketing campaign - it’s a long term strategy that can deliver customer engagement, brand advocacy and social proof.
Define the principles and purpose of your community to create a sense of membership
Your members should influence the community as much as it influences them
Structure your community to allow for different relationships and interactions between members
Listen to your audience and build their needs into your strategy
Community happens wherever your customers come into contact with your brand