Brand communities are making a comeback. Where companies once relied on their own message boards and communities to get their messages out, social media sites took over to a great degree–but now the tide is slowly turning the other way. According to Forrester’s “Predictions 2015: Marketing Leaders Mix Data, Content, and Insight To Craft Brand Experiences,” written by Luca S. Paderni and Shar VanBoskirk, branded communities will enjoy a resurgence in 2015.
“Marketing leaders will also come to terms with the fact that their brands’ Facebook and Twitter messages simply don’t reach or engage their audiences,” the report says. “We expect the brand community, often neglected or deemed too difficult to activate and maintain, to be poised for a comeback in 2015. In fact, communities can support every part of the marketing plan.”
Social media marketing doesn’t just drive conversation, it propels readers to take action–to “like” a photo, to leave a comment, or to click a link to learn more. Yet while today’s brands use social and digital communities to tease great content, success is increasingly being measured by actions taken off of these channels. Understanding how social engagement impacts awareness metrics such as site traffic, page views, and so on is critical to growth.
“The era of commodity media-where brands could only get scale by advertising across websites that conformed to standardized formats-is coming to an end,” says Sean O’Neal, president of Adaptly. “The new breed of audience platform is creating unique experiences where both brands and consumers have an opportunity to invent, create, and connect.”
Apu Gupta, CEO of Curalate, a platform that uses advanced image recognition algorithms to make sense of conversations on visual sites like Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, etc., says historically, marketers have been really good at talking about themselves and with the advent of social, marketers took a decidedly anti-social approach to communities, focusing on pushing out content about themselves rather than truly fostering discussion.
“Modern marketers are demonstrating that these behaviors are starting to change. By embracing the content that consumers create, marketers are not only putting their communities at the center of their efforts, they’re driving an entirely authentic form of engagement,” he says. “Time Inc.’s #howiholiday initiative is a great example of this, through which the publisher leveraged readers’ photos to complement their larger brand narrative. The campaign, which spanned an impressive eight publications, enabled Time Inc. to connect with their readers through dynamic content and conversations.”
Adam Padilla, president and chief creative officer of BrandFire, notes that brand communities are useful to consumers for two reasons: They allow for peer-to-peer troubleshooting to figure out the annoying glitches of a new OS or how to optimize fat loss on a new workout plan, and they provide an outlet for sharing success stories about using a product or service.
“The troubleshooting aspect is a large part of why brand communities are so valuable, but the new trend of sharing success stories including progress pics (think P90x or Weight Watchers) is turning the communities into a more voyeuristic reality show than a town hall meeting,” he says. “Hashtags like #fitnessgoals or #lifestylegoals underscore the aspirational spirit of today’s consumer. We are eager to share our successes, which bodes well for aspirational brands that promise real results and content publishers that hope to garner a lot of clicks.”
Nadav Shoval, CEO of Spot.IM, a developer of embeddable social networks for publishers, says recently, there’s been a shift in the concept of community from being something that exists solely on Facebook or other external networks, to something that a brand creates around its content and products, and which can exist on an owned platform.
“There has also been a great deal of talk about the need for brands to be authentic and personal in order for them to truly connect with their community,” Shoval says. “Because of this, we’re seeing that brands increasingly seek to not only add a social interaction component to their overall engagement, but to add the capability for them to interact ‘personally’ with their readers on their own site.” This benefits both the brand and the community, he argues, because it enables a more meaningful conversation online, improving the experience to increase page views, drive user-generated content, and enhance engagement.
“It’s clear from the success of social networks that people are looking to connect. But in a content-saturated, noisy world, they only want to do so in relevant ways. A branded community gives online connection the purpose it needs to be sustainable,” Shoval says. “Communities aren’t just a random gathering, they’re a group of people who have come together for a purpose. It’s that purpose that is the critical ingredient for making a community successful.”
From a brand’s perspective, communities allow them to develop even deeper relationships with their users and site visitors, and since these communities reside on a brand’s website or other owned “online property,” companies with branded communities are able to manage and own data about their site visitors, and reap the SEO benefits that community content tends to provide. Even more, it allows engagement between users around a central and shared interest.
For years, brands as varied as Harley Davidson and Starbucks have already been operating successful communities. Harley Owners Group–or HOG–has been around in one form or another since the 1980s and allows some of the world’s most vocal brand enthusiasts to come together without regard to distance. Meanwhile, My Starbucks Idea is a bit different. It allows customers to talk back directly to the company, suggesting changes, improvements, and new ideas. More importantly, it’s clear that Starbucks is listening, as the company has implemented hundreds of ideas that came from its loyal customers.
Michael Hussey, CEO of StatSocial, says there are many startups surfacing that are focused on helping brands curate and grow dedicated communities. “Creating brand loyalty programs is nothing new and they have a long proven track record. Leveraging the members of a loyalty program to promote the brand and drive new sales makes some sense,” he says. “It’s probably not a coincidence that there is a lot of capital being invested in this idea, so it is safe to assume a lot of brands and marketers are excited about the opportunities.”
But many of the potential pitfalls of social media are still concerns for branded communities. Content creators need to remember that every piece of content they share is open to applause and criticism. “This is nothing new, and braver companies know to weather the storm of controversy without attempting to edit the organic content, and instead overwhelm the negativity with positive feedback and encouragement,” Padilla says.
In a digital world filled with ads and other marketing content, humans are natural skeptics, so when they’re able to make an emotional connection online they’re more comfortable spending more time there. Communities give people a feeling of belonging, which people crave-making them feel connected to other people across the globe who not only share common interests, but have similar behaviors, perceptions and values. Marketers learned all these lessons on social media, but now it may be time to take those lessons and apply them to branded communities, and reap the benefits.