Brand community – how to build it right from the start?

Are you capable of listening to sugar-free feedback? Can you handle online trolls? Do you know how to address the problems of your customers? If you answered “yes” then you are more than ready to start your own brand community, which is now a must of any digital marketing strategy.

Online brand community

Starting a brand community

It’s not just opening a profile on a platform and asking people to follow you. It is creating your own space as a community.

No matter the size of your company, it is a worthwhile long-term investment to create your own community (and we don’t mean just brand ambassador programs) rather than to rely only on advertising. This will eventually radically reduce your monthly overhead, because community-led growth is the new product-led growth!

Know your community, know yourself

As far back as 2017, big tech companies like Facebook were noting the shift towards a diffuse marketing strategy more focused on establishing a relationship with the consumer than pushing through a traditional purchase funnel. This might be a challenge for business owners and marketers who are used to working with regular advertising ebbs and flows: even if you get all your customers to join your community, how do you make sure they will return after Day 1?

“For anyone building a community, trust is the most important thing because it is the foundation of their community. This really matters to us. We take very seriously our responsibility to earn and maintain the trust of people and businesses.” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO advised then.

The first thing to do is to learn if there already is any kind of dominating community platform among your customers and potential community members. Let’s say you are a paper company: Where do people in your region talk about paper? What are they talking about? Which platform are they using to communicate? How can you create a paper community that matters?

People go back to things they regard as real. True fandom is irrational and emotional, as the 1980’s New Coke fiasco proved. Stay true to your brand strategy and core values, then your followers won’t jump ship when new competitors arrive. Building a community means to generate discussions, answer quickly to feedback, and nurture -not force- engagement.

In a world of giveaways-for-likes, Ana Andjelic, author of “The Business of Aspiration”, advises to take an additional step: “Loyalty programs — that guide people into buying more of your products — are just a first step. But in the modern aspiration economy, people develop true brand affinity only when it gives them a sense of community,” she states.

Building a “Members Only” club

A true community gives a sense of belonging to its members, which lasts beyond the purchase of the product and beyond the digital. Harley Davidson offers their customers (plus their passengers and immediate family) the possibility to join the H.O.G. Motorcycle Club for a yearly membership fee. From free admission to the Harley Davidson Museum to virtual riding challenges, the H.O.G. is a great example of how brands can keep their customers engaged beyond the checkout.

How do you know if your brand community is on the right track? Siddhartha Nahar, product manager for Cleartax India, identifies three key things for successful community-led growth:

  1. The community provides value.
  2. There are clear rules and they are enforced.
  3. Brands own up to their actions.

Let’s elaborate a bit.

How your brand community can provide value

In a world full of communities, you need to provide real value for your community to thrive. Create interesting groups for your customers (or even allow them to create groups on their own!) and moderate the discussion so that it is engaging for both active and passive participants. Offer community-only experiences and events that showcase your brand identity and personality, provide insider access to your new products and connect community members with one and another.

Building a digital community in 2021 means that brands themselves need to take a step back and allow customers to direct the conversation. The way communities grow around a certain product or brand can be promoted but steering them too much can make them lose their truthfulness. As David Spinks, author of “The Business of Belonging” explains it:

The complexity of keeping a community running has become a specialized job with lots of responsibility (so don’t think you can hire an intern for this!). A great community manager will keep tabs on the conversations, host events, and do the neverending housekeeping that a community entails. Because no matter what you have prepared for, you will need a full-time person taking care of your brand community.

Setting up the rules of engagement

Although you mostly want to see engagement numbers go up as people actively participate in the community, you also want to steer things in the right direction. Rules need to be clear and enforced since not doing it might lose the precious trust of your community. This requires to take action when a member infringes a rule and to keep the rule-keeping consistent.

Even though a single manager can suffice to moderate a small community, you will need to grow your moderator team as your brand grows. In some cases, you can also recruit your community members as moderators and create a way to escalate the bigger issues to your manager.

Not sure about having rules (or being the bad cop)? Maybe this case will convince you. A popular stock market subreddit lost hundreds of members after some community moderators sold a community story to Hollywood producers. In the end, the platform hosting the community had to oust the offending mods before the 8-million community splintered or disappeared altogether.

To own up is to care

The digitalization of human relationships is also shaping the way brands relate to people. Gone are the days when brands could keep to themselves and just deliver a product. In order to thrive among the fierce competition, they will need to group and encourage their true advocates to promote their brands across forums, chats, and groups for zero payment. Not an easy task, according to brand community developer and Youtuber Outstar:

This means to advocate for your community, even when they fight back. Managing a community brand is the ultimate form of the adage “the customer is always right”. As a brand, you will need to own up mistakes when they happen and take responsibility for finding solutions and ways to fix issues. On the other hand, you will also be able to own up every win of your brand—as long as you thank your community because they are your biggest supporters after all!

The benefits of having your own brand community go beyond saving on ad spending. You can read more about how a community creates growth for your brand in our article on community-led growth, for example. In summary – beyond the ROI, having your own community makes your brand more relatable and provides a sense of closeness with each of your customers by providing a place to talk about your brand with others.