“We should really be thinking of creating a community for our brand.”
If you work on the marketing side of your company you have probably heard this statement plenty of times from your management team.
You might know the basics of getting started, by taking steps like growing your social media presence and offering some discounts to a select few “loyal customers”.
But is this really how great communities are born? What does a comprehensive brand community strategy look like?
How can you take lessons from success stories like Apple, Starbucks, and Harley Davidson and apply them to your unique brand?
These are the types of questions we love to answer. Today, you will learn why building a brand community is an indispensable part of your digital marketing strategy.
Read on for the Tribe guide to building a brand community for marketers.
What is a brand community?
Far from being reduced to just another buzzword, a brand community group of people who are brought together by their collective interest in your brand, products, and the values that your brand stands for.
Members of your community will recommend your brand to their family and friends, discuss products on online forums and (hopefully) open your email newsletters.
However, unless this community has a place to share information and engage with the brand, it will not grow.
Most brands already have the beginnings of a community through their social media accounts, but a part of building a strong brand community is bringing these members to a place where you can give them more opportunities for discussion, collaboration, and engagement.
That’s why Tribe got its start. An online platform is an essential part of building a brand community in the digital-first world, so we build solutions that integrate directly with a company’s existing website.
But that’s enough about us for now.
The important thing to remember is that building brand community is a customer-centric activity. Your top customers are where the “soul” of your company comes from – even more than from your mission statement or expensive new brand kit.
So give these customers a place to swap stories and make their problems known. Listen in and speak up when necessary, and always make sure that your loyal customers feel heard. A great brand must be first a humanized brand.
Brand community trends in 2021
At Tribe, we recognize that remarkable brand communities are becoming even more important than they ever have been (and we are not just saying that because we are in the community-building business).
Here’s how the business world is making communities a key strategy in 2021.
An isolated world
Many North Americans were already experiencing loneliness and social isolation before the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2020 study showed that more than three in five Americans considered themselves “lonely” which was a 13% increase from 2018.
These numbers are surely getting worse as many workers still haven’t returned to the workplace, are faced with travel restrictions, and have seen their amount of daily social interactions shrink drastically.
To deal with this, people are increasingly looking into online space to find communities of others with similar interests. To be clear: this doesn’t mean that people are looking to companies to fill the yawning social gap in their lives. They are looking for belonging; a place where they can have meaningful conversations and be respected by others.
The best brand communities are providing a space for people to get together, just like a coffee shop or co-working space – where the experience is more about interaction rather than the company’s product or service.
Walking the talk
2020 was a landmark year for social justice issues and discussion about the impending environmental crisis.
Most importantly, it was the year that brands needed to draw a line in the sand. Consumers demand to know where they stand on these vital issues. Studies show that consumers, especially from the Millennial and Gen Z cohorts, show a preference for brands that stand for relevant social causes.
A big part of this is about practicing authenticity. Cookie-cutter PR briefs and advertisements will not help you build brand community, and they could even result in your brand ending up in the next supercut video from this YouTube user, who realized that nearly every major brand’s COVID-19 commercial sounded exactly the same.
Brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s are great examples of outspoken companies that go the extra mile. They don’t just make their values clear: they take action by suing the President of the United States to protect a National Park, or paying their entry-level workers a living wage.
Your brand needs to take action to resonate with loyal customers, and this work begins before the next big breaking news story forces companies to quickly determine where they stand.
Investing in trust
Even before the events of the past year, brands were starting to see a decline in a major part of their paid influencer marketing.
In fact, a 2019 study by media agency UM showed that only 4% of respondents trust what influencers say online. Just like with social justice issues, this is much more prevalent among younger consumers.
These consumers want to hear from real people before making purchasing decisions, so grassroots-style communities give a much better bang for your buck than online influencers who demand a high cost to push products that they might not even feel passionate about.
Most consumers can see right through this type of referral. At this point, you can consider it a lost investment.
To be clear, it is still necessary to interact with influencers, “thought leaders”, or anyone who is considered authoritative in your niche. However, this needs to be done authentically with a proper vetting process.
Above all, brands need to realize that trust is becoming even harder to come by. Don’t take it for granted – or risk being “dumped” by your loyal fans. Brand communities drive loyalty and thereby boost customer retention. Consider the most invested community members as your spokespeople.
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 behavior. 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 Convertkit community powered by 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 behavior, 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 favorite 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.
Learn more from Tribe’s really long list (70+) of community engagement techniques.
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
Check out this detailed guide on how to measure the metrics and track the success of your community.
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.
Kickstart your brand community
Even though you know the basics of building a brand community, you might still have questions about how it can work for your brand. At Tribe, we have built a reputation for answering those tricky questions.