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How top brands build effective online communities: Part 1

September 8, 2009 16 Comments

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Image credit: postworthy.com

Image credit: postworthy.com

Too often online efforts raise awareness but fail to motivate behavior. Yet that’s what brands need to do whether they want to sell more widgets or change the world for the better. And when those efforts fail, brands understandably become disillusioned, cynical or suspicious of online community building. Yet they have never experienced the power of a community that is set up in such a way that it grows organically.

So how do brands structure online engagement to give themselves the best chance of motivating behavior? Having worked on several advertising campaigns that involved creating brand communities that leveraged social media, certain structural fundamentals emerged:

CONCEPTUAL ASSUMPTIONS: An effective online community starts with the right thinking and that involves ceratin fundamental assumptions.

1. BOTTOM UP: A brand must start from the premise that this is a bottom up organization that will live or die on the strength of the dialogue it generates. What the community has to say is important, what you have to say is secondary.

2. SUSTAINABILITY: The site must be conceived in a way that keeps the community active and growing after each initiative or project. Too often even the best communities suffer fatal attrition once their primary goal is reached.

3. CONVERSATION: Brands often seem incapable of not talking about themselves. Rather, they must generate discussion around topics that are meaningful to the community they want to establish (whether it’s a gathering of CFO’s, stay-at-home moms or activists of any kind). Only then can their products be positioned as a relevant (and inoffensive) contributions to the conversation.

4. OWNERSHIP: The site must be structured in a way that allows members to feel ownership over the process as the community experiences success, growth and innovation.

5. INFORMATIVE: The brand must serve as a resource for members looking to learn more about the goals of the community and those already involved.

6. SELF-PROMOTION: The brand must provide tools that enable members to spread information about your community and its goals beyond the site across different social media.

7. GOALS: The goal, and therefore the site, must be structured in a way that allows for an expanded portfolio of goals that will keep the community engaged, growing, and migrating from one goal to the next.

8. MEASUREMENT AND CELEBRATION: The brand must track, measure and reward success within the community.

DESIGN FUNDAMENTALS: If you hope to create a site that doesn’t just raise awareness but motivates behavior, certain design fundamentals are essential:

1. OWNERSHIP and RESPONSIBILITY: The site must be designed in a manner that gives members a sense that they are acting for themselves and their community.

2. RECOGNITION and REWARDS STRUCTURE: There must be ways in which members are rewarded within their community to encourage further participation.

3. UNIFYING GOAL: In order to constantly reinforce a goal and maintain community focus, the brand must regularly share the emotional stories of those participating. That way the online community is consistently humanized and the emotions that motivate their efforts are reinforced.

While some of this may seem obvious in principle, I am constantly surprised by how difficult it is for brands to unblinker themselves, move beyond their own needs, and genuinely engage with their community top of mind.

Once they do, they entrust their success to those best qualified to guarantee it – a community of interested parties engaged in meaningful dialogue that will justify the need for a brand, product or service.

If you have any more guidelines to add, please do. Together we can create a valuable template that will help all our community efforts reach their intended goals.

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16 responses to “How top brands build effective online communities: Part 1”

  1. John Lopez says:

    Simon, thanks for the insight!

    Cheers, John.

  2. John Lopez says:

    Simon, thanks for the insight!

    Cheers, John.

  3. admin says:

    You’re welcome, John. More to come soon. Hope it’s helpful. Simon

  4. admin says:

    You’re welcome, John. More to come soon. Hope it’s helpful. Simon

  5. […] This post was Twitted by VegasBill […]

  6. Jan says:

    Great article Simon, I especially like the third assumption about CONVERSATION. I believe the best thing a brand can do is to facilitate a community, ideally without even mentioning it’s products. As you said the product should be a non intrusive contribution to the conversation, and in the perfect case you should not even have to put it forward yourself. Trying to convince brand/marketing managers and product managers of this approach is the big challenge.

    I hope you are well, Jan

  7. Jan says:

    Great article Simon, I especially like the third assumption about CONVERSATION. I believe the best thing a brand can do is to facilitate a community, ideally without even mentioning it’s products. As you said the product should be a non intrusive contribution to the conversation, and in the perfect case you should not even have to put it forward yourself. Trying to convince brand/marketing managers and product managers of this approach is the big challenge.

    I hope you are well, Jan

  8. admin says:

    Thanks Jan. I totally agree. It’s a lesson i feel many brands will learn only after several rejections by consumers for obtrusive behavior. And each time it will become more difficult. Power has shifted fundamentally to consumers and brands are grappling with how to engage with their audience in a way that let’s them talk about themselves. In my mind, the first step is to establish trust through authenticity and transparency – requirements that weren’t so essential before when brands held the upper hand. I feel it will be a long and difficult process for many brands and their advertising partners. But then such is the will of the marketplace. I’ll try and share ways brands can adjust in the next parts of the post. Nice to be in touch, Simon

  9. admin says:

    Thanks Jan. I totally agree. It’s a lesson i feel many brands will learn only after several rejections by consumers for obtrusive behavior. And each time it will become more difficult. Power has shifted fundamentally to consumers and brands are grappling with how to engage with their audience in a way that let’s them talk about themselves. In my mind, the first step is to establish trust through authenticity and transparency – requirements that weren’t so essential before when brands held the upper hand. I feel it will be a long and difficult process for many brands and their advertising partners. But then such is the will of the marketplace. I’ll try and share ways brands can adjust in the next parts of the post. Nice to be in touch, Simon

  10. […] first post in the series focused on conceptual and design fundamentals when planning to build an online […]

  11. Parth Rana says:

    Simon,

    that was a great article… i am trying to convince an educational institute to do the same but it is very difficult to make them understand the importance that social media holds for brand awareness……. will forward this to them ;D

  12. Parth Rana says:

    Simon,

    that was a great article… i am trying to convince an educational institute to do the same but it is very difficult to make them understand the importance that social media holds for brand awareness……. will forward this to them ;D

  13. admin says:

    Thanks Parth and good luck. I hope this article helps. It’s especially important for an institution to do it o they can generate their own community and ensure their own survival. Keep at ’em. It really is critical. Thanks, Simon

  14. admin says:

    Thanks Parth and good luck. I hope this article helps. It’s especially important for an institution to do it o they can generate their own community and ensure their own survival. Keep at ’em. It really is critical. Thanks, Simon

  15. Rob Petersen says:

    Simon, good post. The guideline of “Shared Interests” is worth considering; perhaps it is another way of saying “unifying goal,” but I believe it is different. It is the larger interest that connects consumers to the brand. For example, P&G built an online community called BeingGirl.com. The “Shared Interests” were the rites of passage for early teen girls, but it was an online community for their brands, Tampax and Always brands.

    Also, the guidelines from the study on Brand Communities from Alfred Muniz and Thomas O'Guinn, two University of Chicago socialists, are worth considering. They are that any brand can benefit from a community building their business right now if they are:

    * Able to differentiate their users
    * Locate brand advocates
    * Provide a place to engage in a public experience of the brand

    Thank again for the post.

    Rob

  16. Thanks, Rob. Completely agree. I'll take a look at Brand Communities. thanks so much. Brands have so much to offer and gain by community building.
    P&G is a great example. Thanks, Rob.

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Simon Mainwaring

Reading Time: 1 minutesSimon Mainwaring is the founder of We First, a leading brand consultancy that provides purpose-driven strategy, content, and training that empowers companies to lead business, shape culture, and better our world.

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