For years now, I have believed that blogs must be the hub of your social media presence, if only to escape the vagaries of the social media world. But, when Forrester’s Nate Elliott predicted that as social media matures, branded communities will make a comeback in 2015, I knew that this was one area of social media that I had to focus on.
Branded communities have been around even before blogs, with forums being some of the first communities. Today, smart individuals and organizations are going a step further and creating entire communities or social networks of their own.
For an example of a thriving branded community, check out the one created by Oracle for its users. Another example of a branded community is the Future of Work Community, created by Jacob Morgan and based around the theme of workplace issues.
With your own branded community, you no longer have to depend on Facebook’s algorithm changes or pay for visibility on Twitter to get the results you want. You can build a community of people who are interested in the same ideas you are, and communicate with them as much as you want, through a branded newsletter.
According to the Wall Street Journal, at a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing programs, a well-designed brand community can be used to conduct market research with very quick turn-around; generate and test ideas for product innovations; deliver prompt and high-quality service to customers with a problem; strengthen the attachments that existing customers feel toward the brand; and increase good publicity through word-of-mouth.
Creating a branded community does not come cheap, however. You will need to allocate resources, both in terms of finance and time spent, to help your community grow and thrive. Whether you choose to create a branded community on your own domain or on as a microsite of your company site, you need to ask yourself some questions before you go ahead with this initiative.
Questions To Ask Before Creating Your Branded Community:
1. What do I want to achieve with this community?
2. Whom do I want to reach out to with this community?
3. Why should anyone join my community? How does it benefit them to participate?
4. Do I have the resources I need to manage my community?
5. How will I measure the success of my community?
Once you have answered these questions honestly, you need to figure out how to build functionality into your branded community website that is relevant to your organisation’s focus, differentiates your community from others, and gives your members a good reason to keep coming back regularly.
Guidelines for Creating a Thriving Branded Community
1. Allow anyone to register, create a profile page and comment, but allow publishing articles and wikis by invitation only. Worthwhile commentators may be invited to become contributors. This will help to eliminate spam and spammy posts from clogging up your newsfeed.
2. Keep the signup form simple and the user interface intuitive. Social sharing options are a must. The website must be mobile and tablet friendly and accessible on all devices.
3. The website should also have a social networking function, allowing experts to connect with each other (and with other users) and collaborate. A number of collaborative wikis can make it easier to crowdsource ideas and information on issues of common interest.
4. Branding is best done discreetly and not in-your-face. You can display the company logo on all pages and have a dedicated section to showcase your latest company content, but keep the rest of the website free of talk about your organisation. All the rest of the content posted should be neutral, non-promotional and related to discussions on issues of common interest.
5. Put a spotlight on member participation. As on many online forums, you can create a reward system that awards those who read or comment on content, with a title or milestone. It provides an incentive for users to come back and read or comment more often. For example, check out the incentives offered by Doug.
6. Brands of authority offer expert affiliation and advice. The community site can feature content by a number of eminent experts in the domain of your choice. Content may be contributed in the form of articles, videos, infographics, PDF’s, PPTs etc. For featured experts, the community site provides a platform where they can share their expertise with a base of users interested in these issues.
7. To give experts an incentive to share their work and ideas on the site, provide a featured expert showcase on the home page, where their most recent content is displayed to all users. This showcase can be rotated to display different expert contributions every week/month.
8. You can also bestow trusted experts with administrative rights over site content and invite them to have a say in what content is displayed and how the site is run, to increase their sense of connection with the community. Making other experts feel like stakeholders in the site’s success will increase the likelihood of them contributing regularly.
9. Create a community badge that users can copy and display on their own sites or blogs. This will help them promote your community to their own audience.
10. Measure the right things. You need to build interaction and create a level of comfort among the most loyal users so they will evangelize your services. The best way to measure this might be by looking at engagement metrics like blog mentions and social shares, rather than unique visits to the site.
11. Do not try to control the conversation tightly. Don’t moderate every single piece of content before it gets posted, but check the content that is already posted and delete anything offensive or spammy. Also allow users to label content as offensive or spammy.
12. Be open to criticism about your brand or services. Part of the purpose of creating a community is to gain feedback on your brand and competitors. Allowing customers to post criticisms and complaints is a good way to spot small problems before they become big ones. Also, when complaints are handled well, customer satisfaction and loyalty skyrocket.
13. A Q&A section will allow users to submit questions and have them answered by experts, sort of like Quora.com. This can become quite a popular feature with users if executed well.
14. Send out a monthly or weekly newsletter with aggregated content from the site’s RSS feed. This will increase repeat visits and promote engagement with new content. Also promote content from the site on social media channels.
Brand communities are not corporate assets, so control is an illusion. But relinquishing control does not mean abdicating responsibility. As the Harvard Business Review notes, effective brand stewards participate as community co-creators – nurturing and facilitating communities by creating the conditions in which they can thrive.
© Priya Florence Shah