“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
—Famed Cultural Anthropologist, Margaret Mead
Brand community advocate and icon, Douglas Atkin, shares this quote whenever he speaks. As Airbnb's Architect of Purpose, Culture, and Core Values then Head of Global Community during the brand’s hyper-growth years from 2012 to 2017, he knows what he’s talking about.
“There is a power in a group that changes and transforms you to some degree in many positive ways. To bring this full circle to the Margaret Meade quote, it can empower you to change the world, if that’s what you’re looking to do.”
Business reasons for creating an online brand community
Chances are, if you’re considering building a brand community, you’ve already uncovered some of the benefits from customer retention and engagement to brand loyalty and awareness.
You may or may not want to change the world. Perhaps all you want to do is introduce a new product. But, you can engage with a specific group of people on a deeper level—in an environment shaped by both your business objectives and your target audience’s needs. (The balancing of business goals and member affiliation are at the crux of this article.)
Unlike Facebook groups and other social media platforms where interactions tend to be one-way—online communities promote two-way, and often many-to-many, conversations between members. Where social media broadcasts, brand communities engage. Instead of going viral, you want to promote slow, steady, and sticky growth.
Human reasons that make a strong brand community
In researching his book, The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers into True Believers, Atkin explored why people become engaged within a specific community. Taking it to the extreme, he studied cults. Paradoxically, he found that people don’t join cults to conform or blend in. Instead, they join cults to “become more individual.”
To be clear, we’re not advocating that you start a cult. What we are saying is to ensure that your brand community is a place where people can “become” themselves, be engaged, and take meaningful actions.
Community members crave an organic sense of belonging—and you have to meet this need right from the start. It’s non-negotiable. Successful brand communities have all these elements in place well before inviting the first members.
Start by understanding the community life stages
Generally speaking, except for the rare phenom, we all have to crawl before we walk. The image below speaks to all communities, both online and offline, social and commercial. However, branded communities must also consider what’s needed at the start, as the community evolves, and once it reaches full maturity.
Consider the community commitment curve
Like the community itself, community engagement also follows a specific growth pattern.
At first, new members will simply test the waters to see if the community is a fit. They’ll read the description and guidelines, see who else has joined, and listen in on conversations. In fact, some of these investigations will take place even before they decide to join and participate.
Early, low-friction actions include reading and commenting on content, contributing to discussions, and messaging other members. As members of your community continue their journeys toward becoming loyal customers, their levels of engagement will increase.
5 steps to take when building a new brand community
While you want your community building and nurturing of brand advocates to be organic, you have to be very strategic about putting all the right pieces in place for your business and your members. Your community strategy, marketing strategy, and every strategy has to respect and build upon the community foundations.
1. Develop a clear value proposition for your community at a business level
You’ve decided to create a brand community for very specific reasons, which need to be fully fleshed out. Think of the following bullets as an informal creative brief where you drill down to exactly:
What kind of community you’re seeking to create—Will it be mainly a support community or is it intended to be more experiential? According to McKinsey’s study of e-commerce brands, there’s a good chance you may have a mix of directive, transactional, conversational and experiential objectives. You just need to be clear about your intentions and state if one goal takes priority over another.
How will the community build on your brand values—Will it be an extension of your current values or offer a new brand voice and speak to newer values?
Who it’ll serve—Create detailed member profiles (personas) highlighting key demographics and psychographics. The more you know about your members, the better community you can build.
Why you choose this specific audience—Make internal stakeholders aware of the reasons why—including the kinds of first-, second-, and third-party data that pointed the way.
What kinds of experiences you’ll provide for members—This will be an extension of the community’s strategic goals and member personas.
As part of this process, you’ll need to assign a community manager and develop a comprehensive management strategy.
You’ll also need to engage other cross-functional teams (product marketing, digital marketing, content marketing, etc.) by setting short- and long-term goals. For instance, if you’re building a support community, you’ll want to work in lockstep with your support team to ensure they know about the community, are prepared to answer any related inquiries, and are able to help identify prospective members.
What actions you expect members to take—Recognizing that conversational, forum-style engagement is often what happens first, build a plan that starts here and gradually drives deeper levels of interaction.
How you’ll measure success—Set your key metrics and KPIs.
2. Create a clear value proposition for your community members
Crafting your value proposition for your community members means taking your business value proposition and thinking about all the key benefits from the member’s point of view. Strip out the business speak and talk to your members using simple, relatable language that says exactly what’s in it for them.
Your community description shouldn’t be all about your brand and it should talk about what the community offers its members.
Your community guidelines are essentially your community’s constitution or bill of rights. They should include the community’s values, mission, and vision, along with privacy information and behavioral do’s and don’ts. (See how to write community guidelines.)
Plan for seamless onboarding of new members, including how you’ll invite members, welcome them, and show them around. For instance, publisher Morning Brew has personalized welcome messages for community members.
Engage with early members and get their feedback so you can adjust and evolve your messaging as needed.
Identify the most active super users, influencers, and contributors so you can encourage them to engage further, share their user-generated content, and become highly dedicated brand ambassadors.
Take a lesson from what community builders have already learned on social media—the 1-9-90 rule. According to this rule, only 1% of members will be super-users, 9% will share and 90% will be observers. Focus on the 1% and empower them to help your community grow.
Here is a webinar on community engagement in which Richard Millington outlines the importance of creating and clearly communicating the value proposition of the community to the members.
3. Deliver on the value propositions right from the start
Once you’re ready to start inviting members, focus on:
Gaining trust—Members must trust that you’re going to commit to the idea of the community and deliver on your promises. Ensure that your conversations are welcoming, inclusive and inspiring so that they know they will play a vital role in building the community.
Initiating engagement—Start engaging with members and connecting them with each other. That’s when the magic happens and the trust they’ve placed in you as a community builder transcends to trust and engagement between community members.
Rewarding member contributions—In the beginning, members feel the most rewarded when you simply show interest and listen to their feedback. After all, feedback is the Voice of the Customer (VoC).
Showcasing your commitment—Share relevant content, photos, board postings, activity feeds, and incentives with members of your community.
Making changes when needed—Your community is the voice of your members. If they’re telling you something is missing or isn’t working, listen to what they’re saying, make changes and fill any gaps.
4. Choose a scalable community platform
A community platform, lik, gives you all the tools you need to build your online community all in one place. With this added functionality, community software lets you
Apply your company’s signature branding.
Scale your community more easily—moving from simple online forums and Q&As to full gamification and events.
Create both private and public spaces within the community.
Use powerful moderation tools, like a keyword blocklist and post-hiding capabilities, to keep everything safe and positive.
Integrate with other essential tools, like CRMs, analytics, and more.
Easily share content across social media channels.
Make your community content more discoverable both within the community and through online search.
When using a community platform, you’ll have access to powerful metrics that’ll give you insights into the number of members, activity levels, and top spaces. You may also integrate other apps like Google Analytics, Mixpanel, Hotjar, and more.
Comparing your reports against your KPIs will help provide objective insights into what’s working and what’s not. But, don’t forget the subjective insights! Check in with your community members regularly. They can tell you more than any data point ever can.
Brand awareness equals member awareness
According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, brand communities are an extension of the conversations that a business has already begun with its customers and brand advocates. These connections form the foundations of the community and its long-term success.
Powerful brand communities must provide a forum for sharing ideas, a sense of belonging and genuine moments of inspiration and engagement. And, as Atkin advised, your community has to be a place where people can become more individual.
Once your community gains its voice, you must continue to fulfill the promises you’ve made. Join our brand community to learn about the latest webinars and updates—and have a group of like-minded experts by your side.
Case study—WebinarNinja: Building a Community of Entrepreneurs
WebinarNinja is an all-in-one platform for webinar marketing! The platform enables independent small businesses, entrepreneurs, coaches, and consultants to host live, automated, hybrid, or series webinars.
WebinarNinja built a brand-led online community, NinjaTown, to maintain a close connection with customers and keep a finger on the pulse of their community. Their customers join the NinjaTown community for valuable tips and industry connections.
One of the main reasons for building an online community using a platform is that WebinarNinja enjoys learning about its members’ behavior, including who’s taking advantage of NinjaTown and which content and members they engage with the most.
In just a few months since creating NinjaTown, WebinarNinja has grown the community to more than 500 members plus, the community has contributed to higher customer satisfaction and improved customer retention.