Online Brand Communities: If You Build Them, They Will Come
A brand community is a new notion in the arena of consumer behavior. It’s a community that is formed based on its members’ devotion and attachment to a specific product or brand identity.
The idea of a brand community is an offshoot of developments—in both marketing and in researching consumer behavior—which have identified a connection between the brand, individual identity and culture. It’s a concept that focuses on the efforts of consumers to establish connections, recognize common bonds and establish a shared system of values.
When we think of brand communities, the companies that come to mind almost always include Apple (with the Macintosh operating system, iPod, iPhone and iTunes communities), Mini Cooper, Land Rover (whose enthusiasts organize off-road events at remote locations all over the world—Scottish castles, Texas ranches, you name it), Coca-Cola, and Harley Davidson (whose clothing is de rigueur for owners). These brand communities are most exemplified by sharing, participation and fellowship around the brand to make up a body politic that celebrates the brand’s successes and protects it from the fans of competitors.
BRAND COMMUNITIES AND THE ONLINE EXPERIENCE
Online brand communities make their homes on websites that allow visitors to present their photos, blogs, information, videos, user-generated content, albums, news and updates to one another. Always putting the members of their brand communities first, these websites go beyond providing information as content and instead transcend the paradigm to encourage users to add personal experiences as part of their interaction with the brand. Member participation may be self-indulgent, but the likelihood is that participants are also indulging other community members with their content as well. Participation is the key to success for these brand communities, and these member contributions fuel the engine.
Empowerment is also key to brand community development for both the participants and the community administrators. Personalization translates to the ability of brand community members to control their own content. This capability presents the brand community organizer with the opportunity to provide custom content on a regular basis from a wide variety of content providers. The result is a win-win-win situation for all parties. The organization can grow its asset by investing marketing dollars in new technologies, an action that benefits the brand community members as well as the content providers. In return, the organization reaps the bountiful rewards of being able to track the success of new products, services and the information being offered.
CONTENT, PERSONALIZATION AND CONNECTEDNESS
Social networking services have evolved direct brand networking into platforms that discuss relevant subject matter, encourage additional user contributions, and provide the ability to rate other brand community members and/or their messages. Brand networks are becoming immersive destinations that use the personalization inherent in social networks to develop kinship around the spirit of specific brands, adding more building blocks to further the development of the brand community.
With the branding power available from social networking, it’s time for brands to go beyond simply advertising to consumers to actively engage them with meaningful content that they find valuable, content that repeatedly informs customers and reinforces their desire to be a member of the brand’s community. The nature of a brand community’s interactive experiences—made possible through online social networking assets, such as blogs, forums and independent profile pages— provides an opportunity to form more intimate bonds with customers.
In a world that is forever changing, the need for a brand to understand and reach its target market has become increasingly complex. Connecting your brand’s meaningful content through a holistic strategy develops a consistent channel of communication that, in turn, creates an engaged consumer base. So, when developing this type of marketing, think about content in the context of your interactive brand community; think about your online brand community as increasing the personalization and connectedness of the consumer experience; think about increasing your customer’s individualized relationship with your brand. Doing so could lead to impressive results.
WHAT DOES AN ONLINE BRAND COMMUNITY LOOK LIKE?
Providing an appealing way for an online brand community to connect and share its love for your brand involves a variety of considerations and best practices. You want these consumer advocates to have an enjoyable experience that invites participation and makes finding and sharing content easy. The following are some of the key components that can build a solid foundation for a brand community experience:
The community’s central focus
A central figure or concept is vital for every healthy brand community experience. Every brand community should draw new members in and keep current members active. This practice requires an ever-evolving central theme that is clear to all community members. Be aware that this cohesiveness will also help members stay devoted should the brand community change course suddenly.
Straightforward and consistent segmentation of core content categories will allow community members to access information and connect with each other quickly and easily. This segmentation will often serve as the primary menu or be available in the header of each and every page throughout the website. The website header should also contain access to submenu navigation points that allow participants to quickly and easily contribute to content areas such as blogs, posted stories, forums/walls and other interactive pieces.
Navigation in sync with the brand community
All primary navigation, submenus and footer links should be equally thorough and concise. This is where the content really shines. Developing a vernacular appropriate to the brand community increases the willingness and frequency of a visitor’s return. In short, members have to be able to find what they are looking for and direct others to find it, too. The footer is a particularly great place to provide more direction to content that is buried deep in the website.
Easy sign-up and login
The experience of entering the brand community must involve an extremely clear and well-considered placement of appropriate login information for new and current members. Administrators should also call attention to the ease and benefits of joining. Quick-link drop-down menus will help new members through the sign-up experience, which should be easily accessible and bolstered with Help information for members who need it.
Presentation of content, regardless of the media, will be most effective when it is clean, easy to read and reflects the personality of the brand and the purpose of the community (i.e., laid-back, focused, busy, open, friendly, etc.). The interface should use specific language and design features to tailor the experience to community member interests. This is where the experience of creativity in design and the elegance of strong programming come into play.
While the home page is no longer the only door into the community, it still provides the opportunity to summarize and tease information located deeper in the site. Providing a content RSS feed out in front will help to create a sense of fresh experience and ongoing interaction. It is important to incentivize the community experience to encourage members to participate in the brand both online and in the real world.
Easy access to audio and video content
Video and podcasting areas have become very attractive features for online communities as well, particularly when the content can be sorted to show highly relevant information. Using tags for relevant side navigation is often employed to help members find random subjects of interest and identify additional content that may be located on other pages within the site.
Spotlight the community members
Spotlighting brand community members who are contributing content to the site is a great way to build rapport. Calling attention to their work will most certainly be rewarded. Everyone likes to feel special, and in the online social space, this certainly holds true. Just look at consistent users of Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, etc. These community members are not afraid to share self-congratulation and compete over praise, and by doing so, they are creating additional content.
Using search to provide easy access to community content
With all of this content being created every minute by brand community members, it can be difficult for community members to wade through and find specific information. This is where search comes back into the picture. Whether using a localized site search or a mechanism provided by Google, Microsoft or some other third party, it’s important for brand community members to be able to quickly locate content, media and other members. A search function that is easy to find and available on every page can provide this functionality.
Helping the community communicate
A well-designed and easy-to-read brand community forum or community discussion board should be more user-friendly than technology-laden. These areas should not focus on showing off a ton of technological bells and whistles; instead, they should facilitate social interaction where different personality types may observe, interact with, support and educate one another. When creating these communities, also consider the potential value of integrating Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Flickr.
Establish a distinct community identity
Administrators should work to develop a personality to the entire brand community. A sense of culture that is kindred and welcoming is the root of solid communities. Of course, “welcoming” can have a totally different feel for a Harley brand community member than one from the Mini Cooper community. Specific community guidelines that cover what it means to be a member—both from a peer perspective as well as a legal perspective— can work well to establish this identity. Focus on what makes good sense and be authentic in your writing. The online public is adept at spotting unauthentic lip service and can be harsh in calling out that deceit.
An online brand community is a marketing resource that every brand should consider. These communities create conversations about your brand, encourage consumers who are already wired into what your brand has to offer, and attract new consumers who may have been otherwise unaware of your brand. Give your target audience a venue for sharing its brand loyalty with like-minded individuals, and you’ll be able to develop a responsive set of consumers who will provide you with support, input and advocacy in return.