Building a branded online community: a long-term project

Brands often talk about their online communities, when what they mean is their branded Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn page, or Twitter feed. All of these usually start as broadcast channels for brands – you’re incredibly lucky if your Facebook fans are all engaged enough to be considered a community from the outset – but, with time and effort, can become thriving communities.

Building a community starts with the fundamental principle of marketing: having a basic value proposition that your members believe in. If people feel they are part of something bigger – a group of people with a common interest, or part of a movement – they’ll work with you to help that community grow.

Not all branded social media environments will become communities, and that’s fine. Building a community is a part of a brand’s social media activity, and won’t be right for everyone. Whether you want to build a community depends on your objectives. If you use Twitter as a customer service channel, to respond to customer queries and complaints, it’s more likely to be used on the basis of need, than to become a real community. Or if you use Facebook to post competitions and offers, you might have a very interested audience who interact with you when there’s something great to be had, but will fall away at other times.

But for some brands, community values such as trust, loyalty, engagement and interaction between members are important to the business. I talked to Lisa Barnett, eModeration’s senior community manager for Europe, to get her tips on how to approach the creation of a valuable community. Her top line advice is:

1.    Make the community valuable to you and your members.

Be explicit about the community’s value. What will your members get from it? What can they expect? Why would they want to participate? It’s not enough to say “Here’s a community, now get on with it.” Think about what value it offers.

When you’re assessing the community’s worth to your brand, think beyond the obvious: some members might not get actively involved in everything that’s going on, but that doesn’t mean they’re not listening, or that they don’t value the community. Don’t just track interactions, track whether the community is having an impact on things like customer retention, lifetime value, or average order value. And give it some freedom: don’t just talk at your members, let them talk to each other; this will help promote your community for you.

2.    Build the right community.

Your community will reflect your brand, so make sure it is built on the same ethics and brand values. Be clear about what these are; they will help set the tone of the community.

Sales might ultimately be your goal, but community members are unlikely to respond well to too many overt sales messages. But if you get your messages and environment right, they might welcome things such as previews of new ranges, or the opportunity to test a new gadget, or being able to input to product or service development. Don’t force your community, listen to see what its members want. And remember that size isn’t everything. A smaller, engaged community is more valuable than a huge, disengaged one.

Interestingly, men and women appear to participate differently in communities. Women log in more, but interact less. Men log in less often, but interact more. Of course, that’s not true in every case, but the point is to remember people behave differently.

Promote thought leadership from within your community. Your members might have some great advice for you, and some interesting views. Give them the freedom to express them. But encourage positive action, and discourage negativity: being very clear about the community’s purpose will help this.

3.    Be realistic.

Building a community takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight, so set realistic goals. Don’t try to do everything at once, but do measure the impact of each stage of its growth, and win small victories. If you can show how the community is growing and working, you’ll give your team the energy to stick with it.

The most successful communities are like gardens: they need seeding, tending and weeding. This is a long-term project, and needs time and effort.

4.    Support your community managers.

Your community managers need authority. They need the power to say what needs to be said, to be able to go directly to the right source for answers to community questions, and to act in order to solve problems or avoid issues. Your community managers should be people you trust and who have the experience to do these things.

They also need support. It can take a lot of time and energy to build a community, and if there’s no support from within the business it can be an overwhelming job.

5.    Set expectations.

If your community isn’t going to be managed round the clock, tell your members so they don’t expect you to respond out of hours. If it needs to be 24/7, then resource it accordingly. Encourage members to help each other; often you’ll find that problems can be solved from within the community.

Lay out what you will and won’t allow, and make sure the content in your community is appropriate to your brand. Weed out abusive members, spammers or persistent rule-breakers. Be clear about what you will and won’t allow. Don’t censor your members – you want to encourage them to interact, after all – but do have guidelines for things like unsolicited sales pitches, spam, abusive posts and so on.

If you set these rules early on, you’ll have a better community for it.