Relationships are now an important resource that the company owns along with the material, financial, human, and other resources. And since an individual relationship with each customer is not always possible, some companies solve this problem by creating customer communities or a brand community.
Communities allow maintaining an open dialogue with customers, giving them the opportunity to participate in the creation and improvement of the product. Such community engagement forms a qualitatively new type of interaction between the company and the customer. A customer community is a relationship marketing tool that allows customers to interact both with each other and with the company to create value together.
What Is a Brand Community?
There are several definitions of the brand community. This term was first introduced over 20 years ago by Albert Muniz and Thomas O’Guinn at the annual conference “Association for Consumer Research”. In their opinion, a brand community is a specialized, geographically unrelated community, based on a structured set of social relations among brand fans. It is a form of association built into the context of consumption of a particular product.
Based on this definition, there are two main characteristics of a brand community:
- First, it enables the customers to interact with each other in order to achieve their goals.
- Secondly, the members are united by a common interest in a particular product (brand). The concept of “interest” in this context is quite broad. It can be the advice on the use of a product (service), its scope, discussions on functionality improvements, competitor research, resolving any possible issues, logistics, etc.
Why Is a Community so Important?
Customer community makes it possible to:
- build trust between the brand and its potential target audience,
- build mutual and mutually beneficial relationships with the target audience,
- improve the product without investing in marketing.
A company that creates a customer or brand community solves the following issues:
- distribution and exchange of brand information;
- promotion of brand values, culture, and history;
- implementation of customer support;
- interaction along the entire consumer journey from information to after sales service and further to brand loyalty;
- innovation driven by consumer insights and feedback;
- staff workload reduction;
- identifying the interests of each specific member.
Benefits of Creating a Brand Community
The main reason why consumers become members of customer communities is their desire to identify themselves with certain brands, communicate with other brand users, and help the company become better. In such a way they form the best product for themselves, as well as define themselves and their range of needs.
A customer community allows the company to interact with customers continuously and closely, thus creating community engagement. It is important for the consumers to know that their opinion is being listened to and that the product is created for them, not for making money. No one knows better than customers what they expect from a product. A single user cannot see the entire picture and give objective feedback, so you need to create a customer community instead of receiving isolated reviews.
The key benefits of having a community are:
- Communication with the audience. They will be grateful if the company understands and solves their problems.
- Creation of a demand for a product. If customers can receive proof that the product will solve the problem and satisfy their needs, then they will gladly pay money for it.
- Having brand advocates – that is regular users who will not only buy your product but also recommend it to friends.
With the right tactics, the community helps the business save on technical support, as active members will answer questions and defend the brand’s reputation.
What Is Community Engagement?
Community engagement refers to motivating the members to remain loyal to the brand and participate in its growth. An engaged community promotes stronger relationships and member loyalty. While the members share a common passion, each community is unique because of its particular experiences, aspirations, goals, and expected value. This means that the community engagement strategy is community-specific and there is no “one-size-fits-all” strategy.
The basis of community engagement is positive relationships both inside the community (between the members) and outside it (between the community and the brand). It is necessary to moderate the community, work with objections, and raise the level of trust. If your brand has an active community, the members of which have been with the company for a long time and even have their internal jokes, then it is the sign of effective community engagement.
An active, engaged community leads to increased brand awareness of your business and also makes you a trusted source. When people are given a choice, your audience will always choose you from any other similar organization, simply because you have fostered that relationship.
One of the main tasks of community managers and owners is to maintain a high level of member involvement and consistently build their interaction with the community. They achieve this with the help of proven community engagement strategies, some of which we are going to discuss in this article.
Strategy #1: Build trust in small steps
Trust is built consistently. Regular communication with the participants helps you to build an effective community. Here are some ways to stay consistent:
- Allocate time. Write down on your calendar the amount of time you spend creating content. Based on the analytics on your platforms, determine the best times for your posts and plan them for the week ahead. Plan your work and work according to your plan.
- Celebrate your success. We are often so focused on our tasks that we forget to take some time to really see how far we have gone. When you reach any exciting goals, like 1,000 new members, be sure to share this with your community.
- Ask for feedback. Create surveys on various topics related to your product. Respond to the feedback, take action to apply the changes, and communicate those changes. This creates “life” inside the community.
- Make sure that the participants have the power to express their thoughts in the community and show them that you are always ready to hear them out.
Strategy #2: Post engaging content and encourage user-generated content
Content for community engagement includes Facebook posts, blog posts, comments, tweets, white papers, videos, and more.
Many community owners struggle with the problem of writing posts. They often think that they have nothing to say, or that what they have to say looks too simple. But as one of the rules of our life says – the simpler, the better. You take for granted what you have, but members of your community come to you for your knowledge and experience.
When planning your content, think of the following:
- What questions do you get asked the most in your community? Collect these questions and look at them from different angles.
- Talk about your community. This is another great content idea. It can include messages about upcoming events and calls for volunteers.
As your community will be growing, there will be more user-generated content (UGC) in it. This is content created by community members, “inspired” by certain products or services, and not by marketers or copywriters. UGC is good for all parties: people express their opinions and sometimes, in this way, they join the brand, which uses user-generated content to promote their products.
According to a study by TurnTo and Ipsos, 90% of shoppers admit that other people’s reviews (or ratings, posts, comments, photos, videos, etc.) influence their purchases. And half of the respondents consider UGC to be more influential than search engines, promotional mailings, and display advertising. It turns out that if a person sees a lot of good user-generated content, it’s more likely that they will buy the product.
Example: The White Cup Contest by Starbucks. In 2014, Starbucks asked its customers to doodle a creative drawing on their Starbucks cups and submit the pictures. The winning picture served as a design for a new limited edition Starbucks cup.
Strategy #3: “Grow” ambassadors and advocates for your brand
Over time, people who are very active in interacting with your content will appear in your online community. These are the activists that people turn to for advice and add them to their network. Your key task is to take care of such activists. It’s important to not only attract new audiences but also work to retain and support the existing ones for better community engagement.
It is not hard to find such people. You will see that they like a lot of your posts, leave comments, and retweet you on Twitter. They will interact with all of your content and start bringing their friends to your community. They don’t ask for anything in return, but they love being a connector, a spokesperson, a pioneer, so do whatever it takes to help them feel like that in your community.
Make sure that these people are the first to know about your new products. For example, you can send them your new products for testing or test your new delivery method. Give them any reason to talk about your brand, and over time they will become your loyal ambassadors and advocates, ready to defend your interests.
Example: Amex Brand Ambassadors. The American Express payment system has its own brand ambassador program. Within this program, people post photos on Instagram depicting the ways they can use American Express services with the #AmexAmbassador hashtag. e.g. their travel photos. Exclusive event passes and travel upgrades are among the rewards.
Strategy #4: Know the limits
One of the common mistakes made in community engagement strategies is being either too intrusive or too detached. For example, a user subscribes to a newsletter or a social media page, and you immediately offer them a huge number of different activities, many of which require time and effort. Even in order to just read and understand the list itself, they already have to make an effort. They may be asked to talk about the community and its benefits to seven people in a personal conversation, then like the latest post on the community page, and then donate money.
It also happens vice versa. A user joins the community, hoping to quickly make useful connections, get answers to their questions, and offer their experience to those who might be interested in it. Instead, they wait for weeks for someone to pay attention to them, to be allowed to do something, to receive information of interest, etc. Most likely, at some point, without receiving the desired response, they will leave the community and will advise other people against joining it.
To prevent both these situations from happening, your community managers need to think through the interaction of the community with its members from the early stages to mature participation. The user journey inside the community should be consistent and look like a straight path, not like a labyrinth.
Strategy #5: Celebrate success
Show how the existing participants achieve different milestones and successfully implement your solutions. Celebrate the small successes with the entire community.
- Create content that is most likely to drive engagement based on data you gather from the performance of various posts in the community. For example, content from certain topics can lead to better engagement compared to others.
- Check out the content formats like videos that are more engaging than traditional formats like text and images. For example, you can create online video sessions as icebreaker events.
- Create live streams on specific days or special occasions to attract community members to your brand. For example, if you are celebrating Halloween, create a live stream to keep the participants busy with your internal event.
- You can also schedule a time to hang out with members in a virtual facility via Zoom. Think of this as a digital event with all the things that a personal event would have.
- Surprise and delight your members to improve the community engagement experience. For example, a simple thank you letter along with a gift certificate for the most active or valuable participants is enough.
Example: Monument to Game Players by CCP Games. In 2014, CCP Games, a game development studio based in Iceland, built a monument with the names of all active players of their EVE Online game. At the bottom of the monument, they also buried a time capsule containing a laptop with messages from the players and game developers. The capsule will be opened in 2039.
Strategy #6: Welcome and onboard new members
Every time a new member joins your community, it is crucial that you give them a warm welcome so that they feel comfortable in the community since day 1. Just like you show the guests around your home instead of only opening the door, educate your new community participants on how the community works and how you both can help each other.
For example, you can send a welcome email or create an onboarding sequence within your app, website, or platform that hosts the community. After the onboarding, the new member will feel that they are a valuable addition to the community and this may encourage them to become more active and engaged.
Example: GrowthHackers use their onboarding checklist for the new users to become active in their community as quickly as possible.
Strategy #7: Gamify the community
Community gamification is about creating an environment for interaction and communication between the participants. This practice is most effective for highlighting influential and active representatives of the target group as well as creating cohesive groups with their own slang, indicators of success, and signs of belonging. This concept, to a certain extent, resembles thematic forums – the most active participants receive points, titles, and recognition from other members of the forum. Competition badges also create a sense of community, as they represent a user’s belonging to a specific group.
Participants can receive rewards for various contribution-related activities, e.g. writing the first post, receiving a certain number of likes and/or comments, answering a question, having the greatest number of upvotes, etc. In such a way they are motivated to become a more active community participant and thus contribute to the overall success of your brand.
Example: Spotify Community Rockstar Program, where contributing members are awarded for answering questions, writing blog posts, participating in the Music Room, etc. As a reward, they can get premium accounts and even audio equipment such as headphones and speakers.
The Bottom Line
A loyal community built around a brand is a key to success for this brand. However, it’s not enough just to build a community. To keep it alive, with the returning and satisfied members, you need to apply community engagement strategies: build trust in small steps, post engaging content, “grow” brand advocates, onboard new participants, use gamification tactics, and much more. We wish you good luck in engaging your community and spreading the word about your brand with its help.