How to build true community

Expecting software to build a brand community is just like hoping a stove to run a restaurant. Even the powerful Thermomix needs a helpful human!. The secret of businesses with active follower communities lies on the team behind the apps, forums, and tools.

But how do you get started? If your day-to-day is already crammed with Zoom meetings, emails, and dashboard reviews, read below to learn the best practices to make the most out of your brand community software.

Start with strategy – what is your brand purpose?

Have you ever been to a bar after the home team loses? Chances are you will still see patrons wearing their jerseys despite the results. This is exactly what you want to replicate: a group of people that stand behind your brand no matter what.

The trick to achieve this, according to former “This Old House” magazine editor Scott Omelianuk, is to find the purpose of your brand and build a dialogue around it.

“Our brand purpose was to offer information and instruction, all the things people needed to make their house a home—and to do so like the very best neighbor would do it,” he recalls.

This Old House soon doubled their readers and revenue. Why? They were successful in delivering purposeful value to their community.

What’s the brand purpose of your favorite football team? For one, to provide excitement and entertainment during the matches. If they’re able to keep the fans engaged and on their toes until the final minute, the branded swag stays on whether they win or lose.

Many brands don’t define their purpose in a way that would attract a community or encourage true fandom. If your main purpose is to create value for shareholders, the community members are unlikely to care. However if you’re able to nail a purpose that aligns with the interests of your community, you’ve hit a jackpot in keeping your audience engaged.

Start small and take your time

While a community can end up becoming a crowd, it will take time and effort to gather the masses. It would be unlikely for a person to exit a packed subway and feel a deep personal connection with everyone who traveled on the same train, right?

According to Charles Vogl and Carrie Melissa Jones from marketing giant Hubspot, it’s all in the little details.

“Community happens in small experiences. Intentionally create what we call “campfire experiences,” which are intimate experiences where participants have proximity, permission, and time to connect with a small group.” they suggest.

After everyone has gone through these personal experiences, they are more likely to relate to the rest of the community. This is how bonding at live concerts works – all audience members have already developed a personal relationship with the artist on stage, and therefore feel connected with each other as well.

There are endless ways to create these personal experiences for someone to become a part of your brand community. Depending on your resources, you can create these entry points with useful advice forums and webinars; by organising small memorable events that make participants feel included; or by giving them personal attention so people will feel noticed and appreciated.

Communicate, listen, and listen, again!

Being personally receptive to what your customers have to say will require time and effort. The first days can feel non-scalable – and they will be non-scalable if you’re doing it right. But do not despair, you’re on the right track to creating a brand that has a personal touch. These long early days will teach you what your customers need the most from you.

Is it advice? Inspiration? An outlet for creativity? Belonging? Refine your brand purpose and find out what your clients really want.

Once you have your purpose figured out, you have the first clue towards figuring out which community engagement tools will work best for your brand. Don’t try to find one product that offers all possible features. There are no “best” tools out there – but there will be some that are more suitable to your exact needs. Some communities work well with a video podcast or a blog, others profit from regular challenges from customer feedback tools —the key is consistency and finding what works for you.

What’s my community like?

A product focused community revolves directly around your brand and products – how they work, and what can you achieve with them. This type of community is more than excited to give product feedback, and provide tutorials to other community members. The most excited product communities tend to thrive around professional tools, for example Figma software or Fender guitars.

A great example of a this practice, according to business writer Daniel Battersby, is how Lego manages a customer think tank: “The ‘Lego Ideas’ community provides Lego fans with a platform to design and submit their own ideas for Lego sets, which can then be developed and refined with feedback from other community members, in the form of votes and comments. If Lego chooses to put a Lego Idea into production, the originator of the idea receives a 1% share of total sales of their set,” Daniel Battersby explains.

For consumer products, advice communities are more common. Every product or service touches multiple topics that make great conversation. Are you building fintech? Your audience is likely to be interested in saving and investing money. Are you creating sustainable products? You might see your community get excited about recycling and green lifestyle.

If you’re able to supply relevant and interesting speakers for these topics, your community will want to keep up with the conversations and have early access to the most recent information and advice.

The concentric circles of community

Not everyone can be a top fan. Some people will voluntarily devote a lot of effort to endorse your brand, while others will be happy to be just loyal consumers. It’s important to set expectations for different levels of engagement, and also provide community activities accordingly. You can think of these parts of the community as concentric circles.

The tightest circle of superfans should obviously get a lot of attention. Some companies run a special brand ambassador program for this top 1%. You should recognize the champions that go the extra mile to arrange local meetups with the local community or live stream on YouTube as they unbox your products. Make sure they feel noticed and encouraged, and don’t be afraid to reach out to them with offers for additional activities.

The circle of active community members can be defined in many ways. These are people who consciously support your brand, giving you top net promoter scores. They can be members of your community platform or membership program, followers on your social media, signups of your newsletter, or all of the above. This is the segment most of your community activities should be targeting.

However, you should not forget the circle of general customers. Certainly there are people who have purchased your products and services, but haven’t been excited to join or follow your social activities. Give them a simple way to join when they’re ready – just don’t be pushy with it. Communities are best when 100% of the members are there because they really chose to join.

Marketing consultant Sebastian Buck also advises brands to onboard employees to their customer communities. If you think the reason is to test-drive community solutions, think again.

“Companies should not just think about building belonging with customers, but also with employees. In the U.S., 70% of workers are disengaged in their work (not involved, enthusiastic, or committed), and globally the number is even higher: 87%,” points out Buck.

Building loyalty among employees is one of the cornerstones of great community management. And getting them into the conversations with excited clients is a sure way to boost their motivation.

Focus on testing (and do not fear failure!)

Building a community is like building anything else – you need to test what works and what doesn’t. It’s unlikely to get everything right on the first try!

In other words: choose a weekly goal, create a plan, achieve, and evaluate the results. Testing constantly will also deepen your relationship with your community members. And remember, the main goal was to learn from them!

Do not try to automate or scale your own activities. The community members will quickly realise that you’re not present as a person. Your goal is to scale the community (the people), not community management (manager tasks) – and that is a crucial difference!

In order to get the resources you need for this non-scalable work, get a buy-in from your whole team early on, especially from the C-suite. In order to get the results they’re craving, there needs to be a way to differentiate superficial engagement from in-depth engagement. Figure out how to measure the results of community-building, and plan enough resources to achieve those goals.

Ask yourself: “How can we make customers actually talk about the brand instead of just liking it?”. If you find an activity that encourages people to participate and discuss, try to replicate it. Then keep repeating it until it becomes a community habit.

What if a hypothesis did not work? Evaluate what happened and try something else. Don’t forget to ask your community for ideas and feedback. Remember, the community should be about them, not about you!

The bottom line: get started (and do it early!)

Brand communities are the best chance for brands to stand out. Your competitors can steal your features, ads and messaging. But they can never replicate your community.

Peer to peer recommendations are more powerful than any advertising – so it’s more than likely that a well-built community will save you a lot of marketing dollars in the long run.

But like content marketing, community will not be a quick fix. Be prepared for a lot of manual, non-scalable effort of being relatable and mediating your purpose to individuals and small groups. But in the long run this will build you a genuine platform for connecting with people who are not only your best clients, but also your biggest fans.

How we can help

Zelos Team Management is a collaboration app for engaging large groups. From grassroots mobilisation to volunteer management, it is a streamlined and modern solution for getting things done as a community.