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You’ve probably heard people talk about brand communities and envisaged a big online fan club that formed organically through a shared love of a product. But in reality, that’s far from the truth. Communities take a lot of work, and while they can grow into something that becomes an organically-growing fanbase, they rarely start that way.

Illustration by OrangeCrush

Building an online brand community can seem daunting, especially when you look at those that are already successfully existing. But rather than comparing the potential of your community to others, we’ll explain how you can make your own community unique, and the steps you should take to develop it.

So, what is a “brand community”?

The phrase ‘brand community’ has been thrown around so often over the past few years that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just another marketing buzzword that you don’t need to be distracted by. But before you skim past this section of your business plan, you should hear what you’re missing.

fitness brand Gymshark’s Instagram features members of their community
Gymshark is known for its community building on Instagram, using ambassadors and customers in their clothing across their social media by via Instagram

A brand community is a group of people who come together, or are brought together, because of a shared interest in a particular brand, its products or services, its values, or its mission. In some ways, they are like brand ambassadors who will recommend and review your products online and to friends and family. But they go one step further and remain actively engaged with your brand and each other.

For this to thrive, community members need a platform, which we’ll look at in more detail later. So developing social media accounts and allowing them to become a space for followers to actively discuss what you do is a good starting point.

How to develop your community strategy

The first thing to bear in mind when considering how you want your brand community to look is that it’s actually not all about your business, it’s about your customers. Building brand community into your business strategy is an almost-essential element for success in the digital age. But you can’t control it too heavily. More on that later, but as you begin your strategy, remember that you can’t dictate the way your community— a group of independent, external people who have volunteered to support your brand—will run in the same way you can other aspects of your business.

a poster for a yoga brand’s community event
Some brand communities can form and connect in real life settings like this yoga business in London by ssnastasia

What you can do is consider how your community can help your business to achieve its wider goals. For example, depending on what kind of product or service you sell, you could factor in the different opportunities to work with your community for promotion, outreach, and events. You could work with members of your community to gather insights, test out new products, or even advertise your brand in exchange for an agreed fee or reward.

Working closely with the people who have put themselves forward as advocates for your brand is one of the best ways to get genuine feedback, both positive and negative, about what you’re doing. But don’t treat them like a free marketing tool—reward their loyalty, and your community could harness some of the most effective power for promoting and shaping your brand and reaching your company-wide goals.

Building your community

As we’ve said, building an online brand community isn’t always something that you can actively achieve yourself, but something that needs to come together organically. Start by looking at your existing advocates—customers, followers, subscribers, and even friends and family—who can become your first micro-community.

Duolingo’s community league
Duolingo creates a community by gamifying its lessons via Duolingo

It could be as few as 10-15 people who would be willing to share your brand with their own networks, join your social media pages, and interact with your posts—and ideally other followers. It’s not a process that will flourish overnight, but as more of your followers begin to see the same names popping up on your posts, they will begin to interact with one another. And so your community will begin.

Part of your brand community strategy should focus on how to drive this kind of engagement and maintain momentum once it starts. Apps with active communities like Reddit or Duolingo keep their users engaged by gamifying their membership. So with every post, like, or the completion of a task, they will receive points and votes that contribute to their position within the community.

Similarly, internal giveaways and competitions aimed at community members only can help increase membership and awareness. Those who like your brand but aren’t aware of the benefits of joining your community will be more likely to get involved if they know what’s on offer. You could also offer special events, products and other exclusive benefits as made popular by Patreon. Businesses that set up Patreon for their fans to join can offer different levels with different rewards. It’s a paid system, which might not work for all brand communities, but it sets a great example of the kinds of rewards community members are responsive to.

Managing your community

Once your community has started to take shape, the work is far from over. In fact, this is where things can begin to get challenging. It seems obvious that a community that runs organically should be the most effective, but in reality it’s likely that you will need community guidelines and rules (at the very least), and in some cases even hired moderators to keep everything in check.

managing a brand community on Facebook
You team should be responsible for managing your brand community by Q Clay via Dribbble

Though it’s unlikely that most brand communities will become too negative or exclusive, it’s important to keep your space open to anyone and everyone who wants to advocate for your brand—not just a certain type of person who fits a certain look, trend, or narrative. You should also bear in mind that the community members themselves aren’t always capable of maintaining this equilibrium, so you will need to be monitoring community discussions as much as possible.

For some brands, a hands-off approach allows their community to flourish in their own, organic way. Forums and fan pages for beauty brands are often effective in this way as they’re purely promotional and make a great space for customers to honestly review their new products.

However, for others brand communities can be seen as a pool of influencers that can become paid ambassadors and advertisers. It’s likely that this kind of community needs to be managed and monitored by internal staff who ensure that the community is reaching its desired goals. Depending on your specific business type, you’ll know whether a hands-off or hands-on approach is best when it comes to managing your community.

Keeping it positive, while keeping it real

The Porsche Cayenne advert
Porsche ran a targeted campaign based on community opinions that the Cayenne wasn’t a sports car via Pinterest

Though we’d all like to believe that our fans and followers are happy, kind, positive people who just want to thrive from the sense of community they’ve created, that sadly isn’t the case—especially on the internet. Some communities seem to be led by politics and conflict, which is why keeping an eye on the kinds of conversations that are happening can be so important.

Within some communities, ‘in’ groups form like at high school. They can shun new members or those who hold differing opinions, and generally create an unwelcoming environment that you wouldn’t want to be associated with your brand. So monitoring and moderating member behavior is very important when it comes to creating a positive community atmosphere.

An example of this was the Porsche community that snubbed the brand’s Cayenne sports car saying it didn’t meet the specifications of a true Porsche. This led to a marketing campaign by the car giant to frame the Cayenne as a legitimate sports car. It had varied results within the community but did attract new customers interested in this new model.

That said, the point of a brand community is not just to gush over how great your brand and products are. When developing your brand guidelines, be sure to define the ways in which you’re happy for your community to talk to each other… But don’t let this step into their freedom to discuss your brand honestly.

Customers should be able to use this as a space to share critiques of your brand—within the constraints of the rules and guidelines, of course—and you should see that as a learning curve. Listen to the opinions of your community, the people who know and enjoy what you do the best, and allow that to influence and alter what your brand does going forward.

Platforms for brand communities

Understanding how the people that form your community prefer to interact with one another can influence the platform you choose as your main community base. For some, Facebook Groups provide a useful space to allow open discussion. Others launch bespoke forums, some use platforms like Twitch, while others simply let their Instagram comment sections become discussion boards.

Sephora’s Beauty Insider Community website is for voluntary brand ambassadors
Sephora has a website dedicated to its brand ambassadors that make up a voluntary community via Sephora

The size of your community will influence this choice to some degree. But you should also consider how you want your community to interact. If you want them to take part in active discussions, a forum is the best place to let that play out. If you want them to interact on a more personal level, a video platform might be better suited to your brand. And if you want your community to bond over your products and boost your following by enticing more members who will spread the word, social media is one of the best, ready-made platforms for your brand community.

How your community can work for you

We’ve briefly touched on the ways in which your community can be used as a bank of influencers, and in some respects, that’s exactly what they are. They’re your cheerleaders and greatest critics who ultimately just want to see you do well—and deliver great products.

You could consider running affiliate programs that attract new community members and help retain numbers—almost like a larger, digital version of a Starbucks card. Similarly, you could use this format to reward community members for promoting your products or even driving sales. Offering an agreed cut of profits or discounts on their purchases for every successful promotion is a great way to harness the power of a community that genuinely loves what you do—so won’t mind shouting about it.

A Nike Running community post about a marathon-running amputee
A community post from Nike Run Club via Instagram

Big brands like Nike have also found ways to use their community as part of their advertising. For example, the Nike Run Club app collaborates with professional sportspeople who create challenges and programs for users of the app to benefit from. These Nike ambassadors create their own, smaller Nike brand communities within Nike’s apps, and users join leaderboards and become part of a community around their chosen program or competition.

If you find that there are any already-influential names within your following, then you’ve immediately cut out a whole load of work involved in the influencer marketing planning process, which we’ve outlined in the blog Influencer Marketing: a guide to successful collabs.

Understanding your community’s performance

Though it remains true that the purpose of your community, from a strategy point of view, should not be to further your own marketing goals but to put the customer at the core of what you do, there are still ways to track the performance of your marketing through it.

Planning for brand community engagement
Incorporate your performance goals into your brand community strategy by Vincent Staude via Dribbble

Like with any element of your business strategy, you should consider the goals and key metrics you want to see from your community before you get to work on building it. This could simply be around how fast or large your community grows. It could be around user-generated content and how much of it you hope to gain from your community. And it could be about engagement for your brand. You should also consider the different ways in which you want the community to contribute to your company’s wider goals, for example, spreading brand awareness or boosting sales of a particular product.

The flip side of this is how you as a brand react to the performance of your community. Are you rewarding them? Are you listening to their feedback and making them feel heard? Are you making changes as per their critiques? Remember that running a brand community is a two-way partnership. You might even want to run surveys and polls to test how members feel about your community, its guidelines, and the rewards they receive for their contributions.

It’s time to launch your brand community

Every brand has the ability to create a community brand strategy and develop a collective group of fans that loves what they do. But whether it succeeds is another thing entirely. Not only do your community members have to be on board, but your whole company needs to be willing to contribute to it and work on integrating the community into all facets of the business, from marketing to operations. After all, their purpose is to help you better understand what your customers want from your brand and product.

It’s not an easy step, and it certainly takes a healthy dose of humility, but with the right approach and attitude, your brand could develop a thriving community of advocates. They don’t just buy your products but they keep returning, they bring in new customers, they help with your marketing plans, and they give you insights into what you should be doing to attract and retain new audiences. All you need to do is reciprocate the engagement and support them as they flourish. Trust us, the returns will be worth it.

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