Building a thriving community of your customers

In the age of internet and digital media, brands fight to carve a niche positioning for themselves and capture the attention of their target audience. Keeping the audience engaged is the biggest challenge and brands are always trying to think of a disruptive way to build a highly engaged customer base. 

Brands need to stay connected

Today, it is not only about creating awareness about a brand/ product. It is more to do with creating brand recall so they are on top of customers’ minds. Brand loyalty is limited across a range of businesses and customers end up purchasing from brands that connect well, understand the customers’ requirements and customise or personalise their offering to make it more interesting. 

With the rise of social media, brands have presence on key social networks. The brand’s digital teams post the latest developments on these social channels, and also leverage them to connect and communicate with the customers- solve their grievances and apprise them about the latest product launch. However, there is a need to break through the clutter, carve a differentiated brand and content strategy or build an innovative brand campaign that can help connect with the customers.

Building a community – Next level brand engagement

If a brand can build a community of consumers, it could help them drive the next level of brand engagement and totally solve their brand recall problem. Think of a brand community with millions of followers who are pushing positive conversations about the brand on an ongoing basis. The impact created is unimaginable!

So, what is a community?

A community is a forum for brand’s existing and potential/ target consumers, where they could connect, converse and discuss on topics of common interest. The premise of a community concept is that individuals who are passionate about the category/ hobby or feel about a cause tend to connect better together because of their common purpose or challenges at hand. 

Building a community is a high-impact and disruptive idea that has worked well for established brands in the past, during the times they were struggling to grow or survive. The Harley Davidson case study is the most popular when one talks about communities. In the year 1983, the company was facing a financial crisis. The product demand was on all-time low and the overheads were high. In the years that followed, the company invested in building a community and cultivated a group of brand advocates who connected with the brand and loved to live the Harley Davidson’s lifestyle. They built a community based on the ‘brotherhood of riders’ who were united by a shared passion. The company ensured that its team led all community outreach events so as to reinforce its community led positioning and build a better connect with its customers. The employees were encouraged to spend time with customers so as to gather insights on customer behavior and expectations. The customer-connect philosophy became an integral part of the company’s culture. Today, the Harley Owners Group (HOG), a sponsored community marketing club, operated by Harley-Davidson for enthusiasts of that brand’s motorcycles, is one of the most popular brand driven communities in the world. The brand’s business picked up really well. 25 years hence, it was listed amongst the top-50 global brands and valued at more than US$7.8 billion.

LEGO is another example of an iconic brand that has successfully leveraged the power of communities. The company started out with LEGO Ideas, an online community for people to showcase what they build using its multi-hued plastic blocks. LEGO’s community brought together the enthusiastic group of builders across age groups and also helped build a brand connect. The brand connected people with interest in bricks and enabled them to explore their creative side. The company’s Adult Fans of LEGO Community (AOFL) is one of the most popular communities in the world.

Building a powerful connected community

Just building a community for namesake will not be a successful strategy. Brands need to invest their time and resources to create a differentiated offering that emerges as a powerful and connected community. Brands need to take this as a high-level strategy in line with the business goals, and not only a marketing activity. While the strategy varies across businesses, there are some golden rules that give the community an edge. 

First and foremost, brands need to decide the focus of their community. A community cannot be seen as a brand propaganda exercise. Instead, it is recommended that the community is tied to a cause or a powerful initiative, that could be in line with the brand’s vision, its products and services. It should be relatable and relevant to your brand’s customer network. 

To give an example, in one of my previous stints with an e-commerce company, I had built an online community of lakhs of online sellers, irrespective of their industry or size of business. I had built an online content destination that was crafted to solve all their business problems, and help them grow their business. It was driven by online sellers and their experiences and was positioned as a one-stop destination for all online sellers. The portal resonated very well with the online seller base as it was the first-of-its-kind of platform for that community, during that time.

Brand communities do well because they connect with the customer and address the needs of the people who are a part of it. It could be emotional support, motivation to live a better and healthier life, pursuing a new interest or skill, or relive their childhood passions.

Here are some tips to build a successful community:

  • Build a viral community

By viral, I do not want to suggest including content that is irrelevant but can go viral. Instead, it is imperative to build a content strategy for the community that is creative and authentic. Connect with the passions and emotions of the customers and create content that can resonate well with them. Talk about the real and topical issues without trying to sell your product. For example, if you cater to retail customers, you cannot be showing your concern around business going south due to Coronavirus and suggest them to try your new billing product (when you know their business is almost nil due to lockdown). Instead, in such scenarios, empathetic and motivating content helping businesses to think and plan ahead as they sail through tough times, will be more relevant. 

  • Leverage the power of hashtags

Hashtags have emerged as an important medium for communication and search, across social media platforms. Companies are defining their own hashtags that they use extensively across all their communication mediums. You can also encourage your community members to use these hashtags.

Hashtags are important to create brand/ campaign recall, track as well as mobilise the community. They enable ‘social listening’. By searching for the brand’s hashtag, one can get a sense of the conversations taking place in the community at large. 

  • Communicate

To build a high-impact and well-connected community, it is important for the brand to have a team in place that closely monitors the conversations in the community. These could be discussions on a ‘Discussion Forum’ in case of an online community, or conversations across social media networks. Messages and requests need to be responded proactively. Failure to do so will not only result in losing out of disgruntled members, but also lead to a negative word-of-mouth publicity for the brand. 

Leverage the community platform to share the latest updates on the business- current and future trends, the government initiatives and information regarding topical issues. You can also use the community platform to give the members a VIP access to the team working on the newly launched product. Also, leverage the online platform to invite business leaders and achievers to share their story with the community members.

  • Take your online community offline

While online is the buzzword, it is imperative to design offline events and meet ups to build a stronger connect with the brand and amongst the community members. Offline events could be standalone events in the form of a full-day event, an evening wine and cheese event,  or a weekend drive to a nearby destination. Brands should ensure some of their senior members are present at these events to connect with the members and communicate the brand’s focus.

Community members can also be given privilege access to brand events like a pop-up fashion show, a launch party, photo shoot or a fun evening. It is recommended that the brand team takes pictures and crafts videos from these events, that can be shared across the digital platforms. The members should also be encouraged to share pictures, videos etc. on their own platforms. 

  • Content is the king

One of the key enablers of the success of a community is the content that is hosted on the online platform. It is not about too much content. It is never about the frequency of posts on social media channels. It is about creating content that is relevant, consumable and shareable. Content needs to be interactive and should not seem like a brand promotion exercise. The content can be a mix of brand related information, along with a host of customer stories that can touch upon various topics. 

Customer generated content can be really impactful and relatable to a higher set of audience. It is genuine, helps to create a transparent brand and also gives the members a chance to share their experiences and stories in a fun, exciting, and more engaging way.

Every brand’s customer journey is different and as customers move from the awareness stage to action, and ultimately, advocacy, there are plenty of opportunities for brands to engage them in the community. It is important to design content that is in line with the customer’s journey. 

  • Collaborate

Communities are a great medium to understand customer behavior and trends. Also, brands can successfully leverage this to get feedback and ideas from their existing and prospective customers. Brands can run initiatives and contests on the ‘next big innovation’ around their community and encourage community members to participate and share their views. The advantage of this is that brands get an in-depth understanding of customer expectations in the near future. Also, the community members feel more connected with the brand as they recommend the brand on its next product/business idea.

  • Brand advocates

A community enables a brand to build a network of brand advocates who share their positive experiences with the external world.  There are a number of lifestyle and fashion brands that have been successful because of their strategy of building a community and positive visibility driven by brand advocates.

Brands should harness the power and network of these brand advocates and build them as micro influencers with their own set of engaged audience. They can pick select active brand advocates and include them as a part of the external brand outreach when they launch a new product.

Conclusion

The community strategy can do wonders for any brand, if it is able to pull it off. It is important to note that a successful community can take years to build. Executing a community strategy requires an organisation wide commitment, willingness to go the extra mile, and may require the brand to rehash its culture. It also requires the maturity to let go of control and accept criticism and conflict. 

Branded communities are incredibly beneficial to businesses. A strong brand community increases customer loyalty, lowers marketing investments and enhances marketing efficiencies, builds brand recall and brand equity and can also lead to a set of new ideas to grow the business.  Branded communities work well to build a huge network of brand advocates that are instrumental in building positive brand image.

Brands need to identify with a cause, believe in the power of community and continue to invest in it. Constant engagement, brand commitment and support can be instrumental in building strong communities that can stand the test of time and also craft a new success path for the brand.


The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Akanksha Jain
Akanksha is a seasoned brand communications professional with over 15 years of experience in working across global/digital public relations, corporate and brand communications, crisis communications, brand and market communications domains.

In the past, Akanksha has successfully planned and executed public relations/brands campaigns across India and over 30 other countries. She is a start-up specialist and has extensive experience of working with emerging brands. She has been associated with brands like Pine Labs, MobiKwik, VLCC and Power2SME and spearheaded their PR/brand/communication campaigns.

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