Building a Brand Community

I am often accused of misunderstanding the role of social media in the modern marketing world.  I refute this allegation.

It is clear that social media is an important promotional tool in the armoury of marketing professionals but I am realistic about it’s attributes.  I have seen presentation after presentation over recent years claiming all kinds of miracles that will happen if marketers prioritise social media.  In particular, any claims that the use of social media alone will massively increase sales and profits must be taken with a strong pinch of salt.

In marketing you need a mix of push and pull marketing.  Social media alone is all pull with no push. So the use of social media should be focused on those attributes where it strengthens your position and not for reasons where it either weakens your position or ineffective.

Research has shown that social media is a poor method for increasing sales.  It strengths lie elsewhere.

Social media is good for micro-targeting (as long as you have good access to demographic data and strong algorithms).  It’s a good signposting tool to direct consumers to websites and other portals. It is good for developing ‘electronic word of mouth’ and it can be used as a customer retention tool.

However, used in isolation, social media will not drive sales and it will not build a brand or brand community.

Social media should be treated as just one communication channel amongst many. Putting all your eggs in the social media basket is unlikely to maximise your communications effectiveness.

In particular, social media on its own will not build and sustain a brand.

In The Definitive Book of Branding, comments from brand managers the following quotes are given about the creation and impact of brand communities upon marketing:

“Community is becoming the marketing plan”

“Community is the customer experience”

“Community will be one of the top business drivers”

But are these statements simply an expression of the latest fad amongst marketing and brand managers?

Building a brand community requires subtle strategies and tactics. Expecting social media alone to create that community is a distinctly unsubtle approach.

Building a brand community requires a strong understanding of the most appropriate communication channels and their respective strengths and weaknesses.

Building a brand community demands that brand managers loosen their control over both imaging and messaging.

The most important aspect of a brand community is developing consumer loyalty. Take these ‘brand fan’ comments about Apple:

“The mother company”

The (Apple) brand is not based around the machine but by a certain way of thinking”

It is clear that Apple have been successful in deriving emotional commitment from its loyal customers.  Such commitment is hard won and hard to shake. However, it takes time to build and as a result requires commitment to a long-term strategy.

Emotional commitment drives customer retention far better and for longer than transactional loyalty.

Transactional loyalty comes through tools like loyalty rewards and points, exclusive offers to existing customer groups, etc.  Creating transactional loyalty can cause real problems in assessing returns on investment.

Transactional loyalty will NEVER be as sticky as emotional loyalty and therefore it will never create as strong a brand community as emotional commitment. If you are solely relying on transactional loyalty, you will not retain customers if they perceive a better offer elsewhere.

The create loyalty through emotion means creating a shared identity between the buyer and the brand. You need to make your brand a part of the consumer’s identity and the consumer becomes part of the brand identity.  You are creating a shared identity between the buyer and the brand.

Harley Davison has a clear understanding of both its brand and its customer base.  It has created such a shared identity to such a level that the Harley Davison Owners’ Club has over one million members.

To create a brand community you must create lots of bonds between the user and the brand.  You also need to create bonds between brand users.

Many new brands are trying to create communities from the outset e.g. AirBnB.

AirBnB is a place where what is inspiring in every person, in every home, in every country on the planet, can be shared”

AirBnB created a community by building its own community forum rather than relying on social media. It has focused on building it’s own community linkages to:

  • Build brand advocacy
  • Build word of mouth communication between brand users
  • Making the customer the brand promoter.

Customer advocacy is often described as the best marketing that exists but it is not easy to create. In building loyalty it is better to have 100 people who love your brand than one million who kind of like it.

To build a brand community, you need to create experiences that make customers love the brand.

You need customer feedback and co-creation (allowing consumers to mould the brand) and both these activities require a rapid and tight feedback loop.

Community building necessitates improved customer experience through allowing community members to swap practical tips and to get emotional support from one another. You get consumers to improve each others experience and thereby creating trust in the brand.  You need a community to be sticky, you need to create ‘social glue’.

The following is a recipe for ‘social glue’:

  1.  Does the product/brand satisfy a real need? Through the brand do consumers have more fun, get more done, get support?
  2. Does the community have a  clear and anticipated purpose?
  3. Is it clear who belongs to the community and who doesn’t?
  4. Do community members feel that they belong?
  5. Is there interaction between members?
  6. Do links between members exist beyond the original reason for joining the community
  7. Is there common purpose between members of the community?
  8. Do members feel responsible for each other and the community?
  9. Are roles, responsibilities and jobs carried out by members of the community?
  10. Is the community self-policing? Does the community eject disruptive members by itself?
  11. Does the community create its own guidelines, rules, norms and behaviours?

Communities are sticky through their people and how they interact with each other.  Community is a contact sport. Interaction leads to bonding; bonding leads to mutual responsibility; mutual responsibility leads to mutual support; which in turn creates social glue.  You need to build a community commitment curve and ramp people up it.

Social media tools are useful for building communities BUT a community is more than social. The terms social media and community are not interchangeable.  Social media forges engagement but real community only comes through building your own platform.

Brand communities:

  • Have members
  • Offer a range of commitment actions (a commitment curve)
  • Members materially contribute to the community
  • Members have mutual responsibility
  • There is rich ‘two-plus’ engagement
  • Members inter-relate
  • There are horizontal relationships between members
  • Are of the members, by the members and for the members
  • Demand slow, steady sticky growth

Social Media:

  • Has fans and followers
  • Has low commitment actions
  • Has updates
  • has likes/comments
  • Relies on broadcast communication
  • Relies on conversations
  • Has vertical integration with a brand
  • Can have rapid growth but there is no set formula for developing social media virality.

So if you invest in building a community, how do you measure your return on that investment:

  1. Through revenue growth from increased loyalty and community advocacy (‘super fans’)
  2. Through cost savings.  For example, if you contact Microsoft customer services you are asked whether a solution can be found from within their community before being put through to customer service staff.
  3. Through innovation and co-creation of the brand e.g. Ugg gets fans to assist in the design of footwear and community members can get work experience at the brand.

To build a brand community you need to identify and communicate things which are shared. You need to know what unites community members.  You need to create a brand manifesto.

Then you need to enable customers to interact, interact and interact.

The best approach is to build your own platform.  Second best is to use existing platforms such as Facebook groups or white label tools such as Jive.  And, of course, you could always look to see if communities already exist and have developed without your input.