Why brands need to build better communities

By Michelle Goodall, Head of Marketing at Guild. She has 23+ years experience in community and social media strategy

People are more connected than ever. Switching between devices, while flitting between checking emails, social media, and messaging apps has resulted in brands having to adopt a smart omnichannel approach to find, reach, engage, and build loyalty and advocacy with their customers.

Years before the era of social networks, online forums provided a place where fans of a brand or company could congregate and share thoughts on its products, services, and ideas. Whether the forum was hosted by the brand or not, these communities were a veritable ‘goldmine’ for insights about what people truly loved, and hated.

There are many publicised flaws in connecting with customers on social media platforms, but today they have largely replaced forums when brands think of building online communities.

Facebook initially asked brands to build their communities on Groups. Then asked us all to create Facebook Pages in 2007. By 2018, they fully cranked up the algorithm to ensure that organic reach of posts from Facebook Pages were throttled. Brands needed to run ads to reach new and existing Page fans and followers.

By mid 2020, it has come full circle. Now brands are revisiting whether they should migrate Page communities to Facebook Groups, but also questioning whether they will need to advertise again to make their content and community visible. Facebook Inc’s ad-funded business model and history suggests that this pattern of ‘migrate and then pay’, is likely.

Google, with its now redundant Google+, offered brands a way to segment and communicate with its fans and followers using the brilliant  ‘Circles’, but neither brands or consumers really loved Google+. The platform was killed off in 2019, despite its loyal users liking the fact that Google+ Circles allowed them to cut through the noise of many other social media platforms.

LinkedIn Groups have been plagued by spammers and salespeople for many years, in fact, in a January 2020 survey by Guild, 28% of LinkedIn users said they found LinkedIn “Full of Spam”. LinkedIn Groups have largely been left to wither on the vine by owner Microsoft in the pursuit of revenue through Sales Navigator, Recruiter tools and ads to promote Company Pages.

Reddit, which focuses on community building and online discussion, has been a tough nut for marketers to crack, as there is no way of verifying a brand, and users need to build up a certain amount of karma before they can create their own community.

While there are certainly opportunities to build communities on social media platforms, looking at the number of followers a brand has is nothing more than a vanity metric. It’s all well and good having thousands of followers, but how often do those followers actually engage with your brand or even see your posts? How do you measure and track what they like, and what they don’t? Are they truly brand advocates? Or are they simply taking to social media to vent their frustration?

With forums losing out on the fashion stakes, social media is becoming more and more saturated with content while its algorithms dictate who sees what, are there any options left for brands that simply want to build a community?

The value of an online brand community

An online brand community is an owned digital asset that’s yours alone to build, manage, and engage with. Online communities are not owned by a third party like a social media giant who can decide to shutter its community features at the whim of its shareholders.

Online community platforms have evolved into a hybrid of social media, messaging, and forums. Made up of groups of individuals who share something in common AND share a digital platform to gather and communicate.

If they get it right, and choose the right online community platform, organisations can create business value and positively impact ROI, by:

  • Increasing meaningful engagement in their community amongst members and creating a sense of belonging
  • Providing valuable market or competitor research
  • Finding hidden insights about the brand
  • Driving brand loyalty and advocacy
  • Improving marketing and comms messaging and audience targeting

What should brands post in online communities?

Exactly what content is posted will vary by industry and brand, but as a general rule, online communities should never be used as an opportunity to be promotional.

If you are going to post about a product or service or ask for something of value from a community, frame it in a way that encourages feedback and discussion. Examples of this include:

  • A beauty retailer asking for users to share their thoughts on which colours should be included in their new eyeshadow palette, perhaps using a poll as a quick way to engage and collect responses
  • An airline asking for ‘hidden gems’ in favourite countries or cities
  • A supermarket asking how family mealtimes have been affected by lockdown
  • A photo app asking which filters are users’ favourites, and why
  • A professional membership organisation asking what topics their members would like to see covered in upcoming events and webinars
  • A book publisher asking fans of a literary fiction author what other genres or authors are their ‘guilty secrets’ or which book cover design they prefer, a or b?
  • A charity asking for favourite examples of acts of kindness members have seen

Community posts can also encourage ‘self-servicing’ and can help take pressure off customer service teams by posting how to, help guides, tips, and best practices.

The role of community manager or moderators is important, to triage and escalate important service or brand reputational issues, ensure that community members respect one another and that spam comments or inappropriate content can be removed.

How can brands increase engagement in online communities?

Think value over volume.

Social media platform algorithms forced brands to post ‘engagement bait’ regularly to beat the algorithm.

However, research revealed that this doesn’t work. Posting in online communities can decrease marginal returns. More specifically, after eight messages sent per month – that’s two messages per week – group-level engagement begins to fall.

When it comes to new groups or threads that are created by community members, it can be helpful to consolidate them into existing, larger groups to keep the conversation in one place. Sometimes, managing this is as simple as adding a link to an existing group where members are already engaging with similar topics on a wider scale.

Michelle Goodall
Michelle Goodall

For B2B brand communities, the emphasis is typically more focused on sharing information and networking. For example, an organisation that comprises of marketing experts could have a community that is broken down into sub groups and more niche audiences (paid search, search engine optimisation, email marketing, social media etc.) to ensure that each group can access content and discussions most relevant to them, while also being able to explore and contribute to topics on broader marketing principles.

It can be difficult to strike a balance between too broad and too niche in communities, but again, the community can be leveraged to discover what it is people want to discuss, with new sub groups or threads being formed based on their feedback.

Exclusives and incentives can also be a good way of driving up engagement, but when done too frequently, this can diminish how effective offering perks becomes.

What can brands learn from hosting an online community?

Online communities are a great way of engaging with people likely to be your biggest brand advocates. It’s crucial that these communities are planned and nurtured. They need to provide value to members to keep them interested and returning. This will ensure that marketers can make the most of the insights that can be created in these platforms.

Take the time to understand both the positive and negative conversations going on in your community. Use this data to inform marketing messaging, future releases, or development of a product or service.

Beyond identifying what people in a brand community like and don’t like about what you offer, there are opportunities to unearth other interests or behavioural signals, which can be used to build targeting audiences for digital marketing. Many brands are using community insights to deliver more targeted digital content, social media posts/ads, and messaging for sales and marketing collateral.

By really getting to know your audience in brand communities, marketing budgets can be insight driven and more focussed, resulting in better ROI and increased brand loyalty.

There’s no better place to get to know people than in the community space they share with you.