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How to Strengthen Customer Relationships with Brand-led Communities

Whether you are building an online community or an in-person one, these expert insights from Jono Bacon will help you start connecting with your community and help them succeed.
Written by
Meagan Faryna
Last updated
October 23, 2023

We’ve probably all complained at some time or another about how the online world has ruined our real-world communities. We long for the ‘good ol’ days’ when neighbours waved at each other from the front porch and borrowed cups of sugar. 

However, our access to technology has in many ways actually fostered more wide-reaching and sometimes even more meaningful kinds of community.  

As a community manager, it's your job to create strong communities that feel like home. To equip you with the tools to do this, Bettermode brought in Jono Bacon for a webinar on how to supercharge your business, brands, and teams with strong communities. Bacon is a consultant and author who has helped hundreds of brands build strong communities, including HackerOne, Intel, GitLab, Santander, and more. 

This article explores the key concepts Jono taught in his webinar. By the end, you'll know how to consistently build a community in any setting, whether it's for a big brand, small business, or your local book club chapter. 

How the internet changed community development  

What makes a great community isn’t so much the product or service – it’s the outcome. Be it Wikipedia, Salesforce, or a miniature train enthusiast Facebook group, it’s the value you receive as a user that makes it a great community. 

Connectivity has given rise to new types of collaboration and shared experiences in ways we couldn't have fathomed a few decades ago. We’ve opened up our collective wisdom through:

If you take the Fitbit community as an example, people are coming on there not only to talk about the product, but to talk about the goals that the product allows them to achieve: mental health, better sleep, weight loss, and personal goals. 

Fitbit community
Image Source

It's not about what these communities offer, but the value they deliver that really matters. 

The value of communities for brands

There are a host of other benefits to establishing a community around your brand or business: 

Customer support and engagement
Users are great at helping each other solve problems and this can reduce customer service costs and improve client satisfaction levels.

Brand recognition
As members share experiences and engage with the brand, they become brand ambassadors, driving visibility in their respective networks.

Education and mentoring
Members can share insights, advice, and resources, facilitating learning and skill development which can indirectly endorse the brand's authority in its field.

Content creation
User-generated content from community members can be a gold mine for brands. This not only creates engagement but also provides authentic content that can be leveraged for marketing purposes.

Event coordination
Whether online or offline, an engaged community can ensure successful event participation, enhancing the brand's public image.

Technology development
Communities often drive innovation through collective knowledge, skills, and feedback, resulting in improved products and services.

Product feedback
Insights from customers enable brands to make data-driven decisions, often leading to better products that meet customer needs.

Lead generation
When users find value in a community, they are more likely to convert into leads and, subsequently, customers.

Building relationships
The interactions that happen within a community often create strong bonds, loyalty, and trust between the brand and its customers.

The Lego community
A thriving community benefits both the customer and the brand. Image Source 

Getting started with your community 

Start with service in mind 

The most impactful communities are all about service. When you are helping others to become successful, good things will happen to you. 

Communities, then, should be about creating a shared space where people come together to help other people become successful. 

To illustrate the power of community, think of a company that has 50 employees. That’s 50 people with entirely different sets of ideas, perspectives, and previous experiences. 

A community is like a network of brains, bringing together all that expertise, insight, and skills in a shared setting. In a community, as opposed to a company, however, you're not limited to just 50 minds. Your network can expand to 500, 5,000, or 50,000 individuals. It can grow exponentially, increasing the variety and depth of ideas, perspectives, and experiences drawn upon. Each of these minds is an invaluable asset, contributing to the overall strength and growth of the community.

Choose your community model 

When establishing a community, you should choose a model that best caters to your brand and customer’s needs. Understanding these three typical models will help you make your choice: 

  • Consumer model: This model focuses primarily on shared interest, be it Taylor Swift, PC gaming equipment, or guitar playing. These people are part of the same tribe and forming a community around them is relatively easy. Create a shared space or platform for them to gather, and generally, they'll take it from there, hanging out and exchanging ideas. 
  • Champion model: Think of this as the previous model with a jetpack attached to it. You bring customers together in a community where they can generate content, organize events, and provide support to contribute to the overall success of the group Most customer support and success organizations typically choose this model.
  • Collaborator model: This model is often used in the tech and engineering space. There are two subtypes of the collaborator model: 
  • Inner: The inner community consists of people working on the same open-source project, striving towards shared goals and objectives. The nuance in this model is to create a level playing field between the people behind the project and the people working on the project. You want to work carefully and purposefully on alignment with this model. 
  • Outer: The outer community, on the other hand, comprises people who build technology that operates on another platform — think of a plugin for WordPress or an app for an app store. With the outer collaborator model, the community's focus is to build their product or app as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Start with strategy before tactics

It’s tempting to leap right into all the inner workings of your soon-to-be new community. What’s the best platform to use? What features do we need? What are our KPI’s? 

This is probably the biggest mistake people make when they get started. Instead of getting lost in the weeds, focus on strategy and value. Ask yourself and your team: what is the value proposition for the community we want to build?

The importance of the customer journey 

The best experiences aren’t moments. They are journeys. 

Just think about it. One of the main reasons Disney Parks are so successful is due to the meticulous thought behind every part of the customer journey. From parking your car and purchasing tickets, to restaurant opening hours and nighttime events — all these details are thoroughly planned to enhance guest experiences. 

The same premise applies to community building. It's important to create a carefully designed experience that makes members feel comfortable and engaged.

Here’s the thing (and don’t shoot the messenger): only 1 in 5 of your community members will be active. So, for every ten individuals in your community, only two are likely to be engaging and participating regularly. The other eight are simply observing or lurking, albeit enjoyably. To encourage participation from these 'lurkers,' it's essential to provide them with a compelling reason to interact. When you manage to do this efficiently, you'll effectively enhance the engagement and growth of your community. 

💡 If you’d like to learn more about bringing less engaged members out of the woodwork, read this article about the role of lurkers in online communities.

What you need to do to get those people from lurking to engagement is give them a simple reason to participate. Then they are off the races if you’ve designed your customer journey well. 

The psychology behind the customer journey 

The community journey, much like any other experience, is shaped by a deeper understanding of human desires. Here are the stages people go through inside a thriving community and how you can move them along the journey: 

1. Access: Incentivize users to join and contribute. Offer something unique and valuable that they can't find elsewhere, making them more inclined to take the first step.

2. Contribute: Encourage user-generated content and interaction through polls, surveys, and responding to posts. Help users feel like their opinions matter and that they have something worthwhile to offer.

3. Self-respect: Enable members to see themselves as valuable contributors to the community. This sense of self-respect strengthens engagement and loyalty.

4. Dignity: Build an environment where members feel confident to have a real impact within the community.

5. Impact: Ensure that users can see the positive effects they have on the community, which further reinforces their commitment.

6. Belonging: Foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie. Think about that scene in Cheers, where every character knew each other and felt at home. Strive for a similar atmosphere in your community.

However, creating a compelling community journey faces an inherent challenge. Our brains are constantly bombarded with distractions and mental clutter. You need to make people care about your community over a myriad of other options. 

The answer lies in tapping into a core human desire — the urge to explore and do something new. But what makes someone want to try something new? Value. 

Define the value of your community 

The concept of value often gets tangled up with tactics like webinars, social media promotions, or content generation. But in the context of a community, value refers to the tangible benefits you consistently deliver to your members and the gains your company derives. 

Value differs quite greatly between the two and it’s important to differentiate between them as it will help you understand how to position your community while also achieving your goals as a business.

Value for the Community Value for the Company
Members typically look to do the following in a community:
  • Solve problems
  • Enhance skills
  • Develop their career
  • Have a little fun!
Companies typically look to achieve the following with a community:
  • Expand the user base
  • Develop its ecosystem
  • Remedy support issues
  • Grow the brand

You must put a lot of thought into how these two sets of values will intersect when you’re defining the value of your community. 

Finding the right value proposition for your community requires a deep understanding of your members' needs. One effective method to determine this is by identifying the challenges or pain points that your customers encounter. A simple question like "What ruins their morning?" can provide insightful responses. 

Think of it this way. If two people walked into a dentist's office (don’t worry,- it’s not a knock-knock joke), who will demand immediate attention first? The one looking for a whitening treatment or the one with a massive toothache? You guessed it: the latter. That’s because pain triggers decision-making. 

Here’s how to take a pain point and use it to define value. If the pain point is inefficient onboarding, for example, then the value could be streamlining this process or offering comprehensive training for their teams to use your product more effectively. 

The Community Participation Framework

Community participation framework
Jono Bacon’s Community Participation Framework lays out the essential elements in each step of a customer’s journey into and inside of a community. Image Source 

The above framework, created by Jono Bacon as highlighted in his webinar, captures the essential elements for all stages of a community member’s journey. 

The figure in the lower left corner symbolizes your targeted audience that you've clearly identified and understood in terms of their challenges and needs.

The onboarding journey

These are the steps needed to take someone from joining the community to an actual member. 

Why participate?  We need to give them a reason to come into the community. What pain points and roadblocks can you help them solve? 

Setup tools: Set them up for success with a clear set of steps and tools they need to actively use the platform. For example, make it clear how they register and get things started. 

Build skills: Show them around. Teach them all the basics including how they post, how to fill out their profile, how to respond to a post, etc. 

Tangible engagement: Give them something to do. The easiest first step in engagement is to ask them to introduce themselves to the community.

Solve problems: Provide a place where they can solve problems for themselves and for others.

Tangible validation: Validate with incentives and rewards. Once they’ve unlocked that first piece of value, make sure you recognize them. 

In the community management world, there’s a lot of talk about awareness and evangelism. What people don’t realize is evangelism is expensive… onboarding isn’t. Get it right the first time. 

The first piece of value 

The star signifies the first piece of value the audience gains from the community. It might be getting an answer to a question, reading their first post, or speaking at an event. The priority is to guide them to this point as quickly and easily as possible with an efficient onboarding phase. 

Phases of community membership 

Once someone has finished onboarding and received their first piece of value, they typically go through three phases of membership: 

1. Casual members

These members have experienced value in your community (let’s say they posted a question and received a response), but they are easily distracted by whatever else they’ve got going on. 

We've got a window of about two months to get them more involved- because science says it takes 66 days to form a habit. It's essential to keep things fun, easy-going, and engaging to keep them coming back. Mentorship can play a key role in making members feel welcome and moving them into the next phase. 

2. Regular members 

These are the folks you see popping by week after week for a good two to three months. They are getting accustomed to the vibes of the 'neighborhood'. It might be the right time to have a chat with them about contributing, be it writing a blog post or maybe speaking at an event. But remember, this conversation should be timely - too early, and they might not be ready to commit . . . too late and the momentum might just fizzle out. It’s important to unlock collaboration through engagement in this phase because as regular members get more involved, they inevitably enter the next phase. 

3. Core members 

Finally, we have the heart and soul of the community. Core members are the individuals who show up every week without fail. You’ll likely know them by name.  You'll know them when you see them because they are the ones who genuinely care about others having a good time. These are the selfless neighbors who know everyone by name and are always eager to lend a hand or share a smile. They are the foundation upon which a flourishing, vibrant community rests, always ensuring that the spirit of camaraderie is alive and well. It’s wise to ask how you can use the wisdom of your core members to guide your business in the right direction. 

The relationships between incentives and engagement 

Building and maintaining a successful community often revolves around a vital question: how do you encourage members to steadily progress and become more involved? The trick lies in leveraging the power of incentives. 

If you stop and think, it’s easy to recognize how incentives shape our behavior. From airline loyalty tiers (are you a gold member yet?) to coffee shop stamp cards, even little rewards activate something in our minds that makes us want to move on to the next step. This is behavioral economics and it’s important to apply these ideas in your community. 

At the heart of human decision-making are two intertwined systems: the instinctive 'monkey brain' which gravitates towards collecting and gathering and the more reflective conscious thought process that deliberates before making decisions. 

When it comes to decision-making, it’s your instinctive side that’s in the driver’s seat (as much as we like to think otherwise). Our brain is wired to search for food, clothing, and shelter which are naturally occurring incentives. The same idea happens inside a community except what we collect are things like earning badges, likes, and spots on the leaderboards. This is why incentives can be a powerful tool in encouraging both initial engagement and sustained participation.  

💡 Check out this great resource on community badges which explores all the different kinds of badges and how to use them to increase engagement. 

Gamification in online communities
Gamification in online communities

Implementing incentives

There are two main ways to structure incentives: 

Stated incentives

These are straightforward rewards that are made clear for all to see. It's essentially a direct transaction - you do this, and you get that. Engaging with the community in various ways leads to escalating rewards, encouraging members to strive for certain outcomes and enjoy the subsequent benefits.

Submarine incentives

This strategy is more nuanced, providing rewards based on criteria that are not publicly stated. This method fosters a delightful sense of surprise and social recognition, encouraging genuine engagement. It’s a good idea to set up a specific set of criteria that trigger these incentives and create automation to incentivize that behavior. The best part about these kinds of rewards is that they come across as random acts of kindness, which reflects positively on your brand. With platforms like BHN Rewards (formerly Rybbon), you can easily set up reward programs where members receive gift cards or other perks. 

BHN rewards
BHN Rewards is an example of a variety of platforms that let you manage digital rewards as incentives for engagement. Image Source

Final thoughts 

Whether you are building an online community or an in-person one, you now have the tools you need to start connecting with your tribe and help them succeed. 

Bettermode is very thankful to Jono Bacon for sharing his wealth of knowledge in the area of community development. You can read more about his book, People-Powered, here


When you're trying to move community members into the next phase of membership (from casual to regular to core), does the type of community (product, service, or interest-based for example) change your approach?

Believe it or not, the same fundamental principles still apply. When someone is in the casual phase, they are curious. They don't know what to expect, so you need to make this phase particularly engaging, interesting, and fun. The goal here is to just keep things moving. Think of how things go at a party. When someone arrives, there's a bit of awkward small talk while you look for points of common interest. After that, things really get moving. When you apply this in a community, your casual users will keep coming back as they continue to receive value. This is what transforms them into regular members, whether your community is a group of train enthusiasts or open-source engineers. 

When building a community from scratch, what spaces should you focus on first?

Everyone starts from the same point in a community: the sign-up. Because of that, that should be your focus when you're getting started. If you can't capture a sign-up, you can't engage with them.

Essentially, focus on lead generation. Run a series of lead magnets, be it webinars, social media, or other forms of content marketing. You want to build trust in what you're doing which will lead them to sign up. From there, you can nurture those leads. 

As we talk about in the Community Participation Framework above, once a member is signed up, keep pulling them in to give them a reason to participate. Run events, host chats, and in general, keep finding solutions to pain points and roadblocks. When you keep this level of service and value in mind, the rest will fall into place more clearly. 

Looking for more?

📖 Check out the following to elevate your community development skills:

Meagan Faryna
Content writer

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