What is a brand community?
A community is a group of individuals with similar values and interests, who are bonded by their difference from outsiders, their traditions, and their sense of obligation to each other. When a community forms around a brand, it taps into people’s fundamental emotional and social needs, creating strong bonds between the people in it and the brand they love. When they express passion for a brand in a brand community, it resonates strongly and is reflected back through relationships with other community members.
Why should you build a brand community?
First and foremost, your brand community is a powerful business tool. Imagine having a loyal group of people that you can regularly reach out to for advice, feedback, and inspiration. This group can help you make customer-driven decisions and spread the word about your business on social media and other online channels, all free of charge.
These people should in fact be your go-to source for information and feedback. Use their insights to test new product designs, share blog content, and collect ideas for improvement on your website. To get access to this invaluable information, you need to build a strong and thriving online community where members get rewarded for everything they do for your brand.
For smaller brands, especially those who are a team of 1, your business will very often be linked to your personal life. Your brand community will be your existing customers, your family, friends, followers, newsletter subscribers, website visitors that you can track, and also website visitors you might not be able to identify.
The members of your brand community can participate in one or several of these activities:
- Engage with your content by liking, sharing, and commenting on it
- Produce user-generated content (UGC) for your brand for free
- Defend your brand and advocate for it
- Publicly talk about your brand
- Recommend your brand to others
Why do they do all of that? Because they want to. And the best part is, they don’t ask anything in return. That’s what makes it organic marketing—these people are promoting your brand of their own free will. They do it for free, and often without you even knowing it.
There’s a big difference between being aware of a brand and being emotionally invested in it, and that difference is emotional connection.
What do members of a brand community look like?
Brand communities are as diverse as the brands that work with them. A community could be composed of regular enthusiastic customers, or brands can recruit a subset of creative customers to collaborate with. What tends to be the most important criteria and one of the biggest differences between community marketing and influencer marketing, is brand love; an authentic love for the brand that exists regardless of any community membership, where such superfans genuinely want to help that brand succeed.
One of the biggest sources of community power for brands is the Creator Economy. This is an economy created around over 50 million passionate and highly skilled individuals around the world who have built businesses and communities around their own personal brands online. They can range from musicians to hairstylists, to business experts, and more. They tend to be present on the main social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok, and adept at utilizing their talents to create well-presented, top-quality content. In a brand community, individuals from the Creator Economy, regular customers, and those who fall somewhere in between have the chance to interact with a brand in a fresh way.
Examples of great brand communities
Lego Ideas is a community website where anyone can submit new builds using existing Lego bricks, new designs are lightly moderated, showcased, and put up to a community vote, and the winning designs have a chance of being turned into a commercially available Lego set and earning 1% of royalties. Since 2014, this open-to-all marketing model continues to successfully the growth of a thriving community of Lego fans, as well as ethically rewarding the most creative and dedicated amongst them.
Dove’s ground-breaking marketing campaign #ShowUs is a fine example of community marketing in the social justice space. Facilitated by community technology, Dove collaborated with regular consumers who had extraordinary stories to share, in the Dove community to generate a photo library that truly reflects the diversity of beauty around the world, with the aim of improving the representation of beauty in advertising.
Although it can be tricky for brands to champion social causes without seeming superficial, Dove’s existing brand authenticity and willingness to celebrate its shared values with brand fans proved to be a recipe for community marketing success. The challenge set to creators resonated incredibly well, resulting in the world’s largest photo library of women and non-binary individuals, and winning the campaign multiple awards in the process
Building brand community
Kicking off your brand community strategy might seem like a daunting task, especially since we have been talking about how some of the best brands in the world have built communities the size of small countries. Once you have buy-in from key stakeholders in your organization, you can start small with some steps that any brand can take to kickstart their community.
Step one: Find your micro-Community
Look to your existing customers, social media accounts, email lists, and real-world connections to find your first community cohort. See if you have an existing group of customers on Facebook Groups discussing your company and product. This is a sign that you need to consolidate your customers and user-generated content under your brand. Start off with customers who have already shown that they are invested in your brand, and would recommend it to a friend or colleague.
Once you have at least a dozen of these community members, you can start to introduce them gradually to each other, and establish a line of communication that comes directly from your team.
For a B2B Saas company, this could mean adding your top customers to an exclusive email list where you can share case studies of interesting uses of your tool, and upcoming updates that target their pain points.
This step is all about learning about your existing community’s needs and behaviour. They might not interact with each other too much at the start, but this is okay. Great communities take time.
Step two: Leverage the online ecosystem
It is important to learn about your existing community and how they interact before you invest time and money into finding them a “home base”. The community could spread across the entire digital ecosystem — from the branded community to social media.
Particularly your branded community is great for autonomy, customizability, and data ownership. You can orchestrate the way you would want your community members to interact with your brand.
As an example, Duolingo has an awesome language discussion forum where members share their top language learning tips and additional resources. The other examples in SaaS (Software as a Service) space are Pipedrive and Convert kit community powered by the Tribe Platform.
Social Media is one of the most popular methods since most marketing departments are keen to set up social accounts as soon as their company gets off the ground. The key here is going beyond treating the commenters underneath your recent Instagram post as your community.
Effective online engagement can mean two-way conversations that can move from your brand community to social media sites and from social networks to your community. Holding Q&A sessions on Instagram Stories is an example. E-commerce and lifestyle brands typically invest heavily in social media marketing.
Rewards programs and affiliate programs are another, more traditional customer loyalty method. Keep in mind that this can easily be integrated with the “discussion and collaboration model” of the brand community.
Think of rewards programs as a way to entice customers to remain a part of your community. Starbucks was the poster child for this for many years with their app-based Rewards Program. Just remember that if you ever have to scale back the discounts that your customer is receiving, they will not be happy. Starbucks recently had to learn this the hard way.
Affiliate programs have become extremely popular with many online business niches. This is where customers act as an “affiliate” for your brand by promoting your products and taking a cut of any sales that are made through a tracking link that is given to them.
Even though this can have similar negative trust impacts as paid influencers, for high-involvement purchases in a wide variety of niches, you can find influential bloggers to review and build your case against your competitors. Finally, third-party community platforms can be used to facilitate a community that can resemble a combination of any of these methods (and more). Since social media in the last ten years has changed consumer behaviour, it is worth considering a community software that inculcates the best practices and design patterns of social networks.
That’s where Tribe steps in. We develop integrated branded communities that blend with existing brand websites and facilitate community engagement. This is generally achieved with embeddable widgets. That said, Tribe fully supports stand-alone community sites. Tribe uses integrations with popular apps like Messenger, Slack, and more to keep the conversation going and leverage notifications to bring the members back to your community.
Finding the right platform for your community is a big decision, so educate yourself about your audience and how they want to communicate.
Step three: Manage community members
Once you have your online brand community off the ground, the real challenge begins. This is the delicate dance of deciding how much to guide the interactions that your new brand advocates are having with each other. Some of the best brand communities from major companies have evolved with a hands-off approach, where the community decides organically how the space you have created can serve them.
Sephora’s hands-Off approach
Sephora is a great example of this. In 2010 they launched their Beauty Talk forum, where their customers could ask and answer makeup questions, and upload photos of themselves wearing products that linked to the corresponding product pages for their favourite cosmetics. All that Sephora had to do was create the online community (which was in dire need after their social pages were being inundated with product questions), and watch as their loyal customers helped first-timers fall in love with the brand.
You don’t need to pay influencers to find your very own brand ambassadors – they are often waiting for an opportunity to share their knowledge.
High-Involvement community strategy
On the other end of the spectrum, massively popular fitness apparel brand Gymshark took a much more involved approach to build their community engagement strategy. Taking aim at new to intermediate gym-goers, the brand built an extensive knowledge bank of exercise tutorials, health guides, and anything else that a new customer might need to enjoy their products and fit in.
Besides, they invested in building a worldwide team of athletes to wear and promote their gear, while offering pop up shops and workout classes for their loyal. This was more than a standard “pay per post” influencer marketing play – these athletes stayed on with Gymshark long-term, leveraging the platform to build their own audiences.
This required a lot of effort both on and off-line, but it paid off as Gymshark is now a $1.3 billion brand with vibrant brand communities far beyond their UK home grounds.
Step four: Drive community engagement
Craft a plan to initiate and sustain community engagement. Start with community guidelines, moderation rules, a content calendar, and engagement activities.
For a brand-led community, here are some examples of engagement techniques:
- Gamify the community contributions mechanism. For example, you can assign points for certain actions and events — 2 points for receiving an upvote on a post, 4 points for contributing a post, 2 points for answering a question.
- Running competitions and games inside your community and rewarding the members
- Track the type of content that generates maximum participation. For example, if you see videos are working well for the community or AMAs with industry experts are generating engagement, work out a content calendar to publish such type of content
- Plan regular activities with members to keep them engaged and a reason for them to come back to the community. For example, a company in the software space could have monthly product clinics to connect the community members with the product team.
- Focus on the engagement aspect directly from onboarding. Ice breaker sessions and encouragement to post introductory posts go a long way in connecting the new members with existing members.
Step five: Track key metrics and optimize
It is always critical to establish the goal of your community, derive the key metrics, and ruthlessly measure the same. Only the ROI is proved, you can justify the investment and efforts put into the community.
Essentially, you can categorize the metrics into the following categories:
- Effectiveness of the user-generated content
- Community growth metrics
- Community engagement metrics
- Community contributions to the organization’s goal
Once you have put in the hard work of building your community and watching as they engage with each other and build their brand loyalty, it is vital to remember that your job isn’t done yet.
As much as brand communities exist for community members to build relationships with each other, it is about making the changes that they demand, and making them feel heard.
This is where your brand steps into demo new product releases, poll your customers on the common pain points that they experience, and reward them with loyalty benefits. Check out Tribe’s Virtual Currency app which allows you to incentivize uses with redeemable virtual coins.
Above all, listen to what your community tells you, and take action on the issues that resonate the most with them.