Brand Communities … Rapha’s Cycle Clubs to SAP’s Network, P&G’s Being Girl to Lego’s Lugnet, Playstation and Harley Davidson.

April 4, 2016

Brands are obsessed about their consumers, seeking to build meaningful relationships to sustain their loyalty. Yet most consumers don’t trust brands, but they do trust others like them.

In fact, one rock-climbing enthusiast loves hanging out with another, or a wine lover comparing notes with others. People are social, yet most brands don’t connect them, and in particular those with a shared passion which the brand could be part of too. It’s the same story in the B2B world.

There are some great success stories – look at my personal favourite, Rapha which brings cycling enthusiasts together in their Cycle Clubs around the world. These are actually shops, selling ultra premium cycling gear, but with fantastic Illy coffee, bike repair station, showers, and 24/7 Tour de France videos too. Harley Davidson is another great example, the world’s most tattooed brand showing a biker’s communal loyalty much more than the technical superiority of the bike. Sephora Beauty Talk is another, Traditional Medicinals, and Nike Running Club.

However, across most markets, active and engaged brand communities remain few and far between.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for brands is that building brand communities requires a considerable investment in time, and complete commitment and integration from departments across a business to stand a chance.

An HBR study on branded communities states that “too often, companies isolate their community-building efforts within the marketing function. That is a mistake. For a brand community to yield maximum benefit, it must be framed as a high-level strategy supporting businesswide goals.”

SAP Community Network, and Random House’s Underlined, are two communities that have captured the hearts and minds of consumers by providing a place to share and tips, advice, and stories with like-minded individuals. The communities are built on the three principles of feedback, advocacy, and support which were identified in a 2012 Comblu report for being the pillars for a successful brand community.

SAP in particular are operating at the very forefront of the industry in building a engaged brand community, and it stems from the technology company’s organization-wide commitment to providing a platform for social engagement. CMO Jonathan Becher spoke of the companies philosophy, in which social is seen to benefit every department, from sales, to development, support and marketing, and in which social interaction is viewed as an “enabler” and “not a goal in itself”.

Recently, several brands have been stepping up their efforts to engage consumers and build online communities. What’s fascinating about each one is that each is uniquely different, offering different opportunities and incentives for consumers to participate and engage.

Here are 12 brand communities leading the way:

1. The SAP Community Network (SCN)

With more than 2.5 million engaged members, the SCN has been called “the most extensive use to date of social media by a corporation,” by Richard Adler from the Aspen Institute. Community members range from huge multinationals, such as Disney and Bose, to innumerable small and medium-sized businesses, all of which are able to connect and mutually benefit via the SCN. The communities real success lies in the fact that many members are highly engaged and willing to contribute time and expertise to grow the strength of the network.

Community power: Huge, diverse, and highly engaged community. Users gain reputation for community contributions and there are plenty of incentives for users to continue to engage.

2. Playstation Community (Sony)

The Playstation Community has done an exceptional job at providing an online space for gamers to connect. Users are able to zone in on their specific interests, whether it be by game, interests, or the type of support they need, and it’s clear to see how the network caters for the pillars of feedback, advocacy, and support. The community is closely tied to Playstation’s linked social media channels, on YouTube and Twitter, and users are also able to experience content being generated both by brands, and users themselves.User-generated content creation is one of the great strengths of the community and with new features on the PS4 console that enable users to upload in-game clips directly online, this is only going to increase and continue to grow the strength of the community.

Community power: Virtually unlimited capability and scale in user-generated content, that both entertains and adds value at awareness building, and purchase-point consumer touchpoints.

3. Being Girl (Procter and Gamble)

Being Girl was created in 2000 as an informative resource for young, teenage girls, to connect and find out answers to the those difficult questions that growing up entails. Like a digital big sister, the community enables open discussion and the ability to ask the resident expert, Anna, for advice on topics such as menstruation, eating disorders, acne, and dating. Being Girl has been expanded to 46 countries worldwide, and its strength lies in the fact that girls all over the world can relate to each other in the trials of growing up. Being Girl was cited in the book “Groundswell“, as requiring just a 1 percent conversion rate to offer a 3x ROI built on the brand loyalty that the community inspires.

Community power: Global reach, and builds brand loyalty among potential customers for products in a competitive niche where loyalty for a brand often lasts a lifetime.

4. Underlined (Random House)

Underlined is a branded community that caters to teenagers who love to read and write fan fiction. It has more than 300,000 members who can share, create, and moderate content, as well as create awareness by recommending products. Highly engaged individuals become brand advocates giving sincere and earnest reviews of the products they enjoy, and this fulfils multiple touchpoints for other community members. It shows how all consumer-facing brands can generate branded community engagement by focusing on specific, highly engaged niches within their audiences.

Community power: Laser focus on a niche segment of brand audience, which ensure rich engagement levels, and fantastic mutual community experience.

5. H&R Block

H&R Block created a community site that connects users to a tax professional for quick responses to tax-related questions via the “Get Answers” section of their website. The real strength of the portal is in connecting users enabling them to learn and share experiences with others in the H&R Community. The community is reported to have answered 1 million questions and generated a 15 percent lift in business.

Community power: Adds genuine, and highly useful value to consumer lives. Allows user questions to build the community into a comprehensive resource.

6. Harley Owners Group (Harley-Davidson)

HOG is a special community. Harley-Davidson enthusiasts share more than their loyalty to a brand. For them, it represents a way of life, a culture, and it is one that can be found all over the world. Since the 1980s, Harley-Davidson have been diligently building up a brand community based around shared lifestyle, taste, and ethos. HOG was born as a way the brand’s highly passionate consumers to connect and engage online. With more than 1 million active members, the strength of the community lies in the openness and highly impassioned members it tries to foster and serve.

Community power: Incredibly strong and impassioned community, one that extends beyond online communities. HOG acts as a connector for enthusiasts around the world.

7. Lego

Lego Ideas is an established website and the largest unofficial community of Lego fans. Lugnet is mainly composed of adult men, who build elaborate Lego projects, sharing news and images of their creations. As a focused and niche group of users, the Lugnet community has even been recognized by the Lego brand as being a valuable source of information. As one Lego spokesman said: “It incredibly valuable insights” in hardware, software, design and usability, feedback which informs the brands product development, marketing, and much more.

Community power:  A highly enthusiastic and capable community that is receptive to working closely with the brand to provide a source of feedback which can inform product and business decisions.

8. My Starbucks Idea (Starbucks)

My Starbucks Idea works on the same principle as the old customer “suggestion box” for the global coffee chain’s 150,000+ members. In the last six years, suggestions from My Starbucks Idea community members has led to the implementation of nearly 300 innovations – from digital tipping, peach green-tea lemonade, to the hugely popular ability to enjoy free Wi-Fi. Alex Wheeler,VP global digital marketing for Starbucks, said that “our passionate customers and partners have been sharing their ideas with us on My Starbucks Idea, and we have listened and acted upon many amazing innovations that we have received from this online community.”

Community power:  Actual implementation and follow through of popular ideas shows that the brand listens to consumers, which inspire ever greater levels of innovation and ideas. A real asset for the brand’s continued progression.

9. Oracle Community (Oracle)

Oracle Community connects the millions of users worldwide who use the platform, whether for personal or for a business function. It enables users to ask questions on dedicated forums and to solve problems together. Members are able to share personal stories, form independent groups, and even build their own networks and schedule meetings.

Community power:  A great technical resource, which seeks to aid users in solving problems in any way it can. Very popular among its target audience.

10. r/Nordstrom1901 (Nordstrom)

While many brands feel comfortable on social media platforms such as Twitter, or Instagram, where they are able to maintain a level of control of the content on their channels, the majority seem reluctant to open a channel on Reddit, put off perhaps by the unabridged openness of the site, and the rawness of user-generated comments. Nordstrom, however, felt ready to rise to the challenge, a first for a luxury brand.The brand values genuine authenticity, which gives them the bravery to facilitate open conversation with customers via reddit. All initial signs point toward it being a highly positive move for the brand. “We’ve been on Reddit for about two months,” said Dan Evans Jr., spokesperson for Nordstrom, Seattle. “We hope it’s another way for us to respond to and speak with our customers directly in real-time in a way our customers will enjoy.”

Community power:   Engaging on an open forum such as reddit requires brands to commit to genuine authenticity, consumer-centricity, and social values, which ensures sentiment for the brand will win a highly positive response. Future-proof, and long-term wins.

11. Traditional Medicinals

This herbal tea brand offers wellness enthusiasts an online space for everything tea with its Plant Power Journal. Users can browse DIY ideas, recipes, herbal lore, and learn about the communities where the herbs for the brand’s teas are grown. While there’s no online forum, the site is designed to feature users’ tea reviews and encourages online feedback, which everyone can see. This makes it easy for customers to see what other people think about their products, creating that all-important social proof.

12. Sephora Beauty Talk and Beauty Board

Sephora does an amazing job of helping customers feel connected with its online community, Beauty Talk. It’s a massive, well-organized forum where users can ask questions, share ideas, and have their beauty quagmires solved by other enthusiasts. Their Beauty Board offers another way to engage with the products and the community. Users upload pictures of themselves wearing Sephora products. The photos then link to the product page of all the items used. Talk about selling without selling! The customers become instant brand ambassadors, inspiring others to use the products. Meanwhile, Sephora never had to lift a finger; all they did was create the platform for customers to share. And, the brand’s marketing team can use the forum to find out which products customers are interested in and what their pain points are. They also can respond to customer service issues, putting a lot of their customer relations work into one channel.

Why build a brand community?

Each one of the above brand communities offer a unique set of virtues that ensure their success. To varying degrees, each possesses the three pillars of feedback, advocacy, and support that have come to define a thriving community.

Lego and My Starbucks Idea offer a unmatchable resource for brands to gain feedback on their product offering and the influence of that feedback has permeated into the culture and identity of the company. Harley-Davidson is an outstanding example of how a brand can win and engender advocacy. H&R Block and Oracle Community offer valuable support resources for consumers.

Another crucial element of all of these is that all of these networks offer a unique value proposition for consumers, whether it be the facilitation and sharing of information (SCN, Being Girl, H&R Block, Oracle Community), or a platform for users to connect and share content (Playstation Community, Underlined).

Companies have come to realize that communities can serve their purposes in a variety of ways. Here are some core success metrics for brand communities:

  • Distributed customer service: Does this reduce the number of customer service tickets, because customers will answer each other’s questions? For example: the Apple support forum (“Find answers, ask questions, and connect with our community of Apple users from around the world”).
  • Knowledge sharing of super users: Are customers sharing their experiences and best practice with other customers, therefore creating a richer brand experience for them? For example: the Airbnb host community (“The Community Center is a place to connect with other hosts, share stories, ask for advice, and get updates from the Airbnb team. You can also plan or join meetups”).
  • Distributed content generation: Are customers going to actively contribute content to the platform provided by the company? Example: people translating and creating new language course in DuoLingo (See CMX: “Here is Duolingo’s Playbook for Creating Community-Generated Content for over 50 Million Learners”).
  • Shared product experience: Are customers using the product together with other customers, therefore creating a shared experience? For example: Nike+ Run Club (“At Nike+ Run Club Live Sessions, you’ll find encouragement, guidance, and a local crew of like-minded runners”).
  • Brand loyalty and retention: There is an assumption that many of these different types of brand communities share: that a strong brand community will lead to increased brand loyalty and customer retention. Intuitively this makes sense, but how exactly community engagement turns into brand loyalty, I haven’t really understood. A quick glance at some academic research points to some evidence that trust within the community leads to higher commitment and affinity, which in turn leads to more loyal behavior towards the brand: “brand community commitment was found to play a mediating role in the relationships between brand community trust/affect and brand loyalty” (Via Emerald Insight).
  • Product innovation: Are customers providing feedback on existing products or submitting new ideas? Example: Lego Ideas, an initiative by the toymaker where users can support, submit and discover ideas for new LEGO sets.

I found this overview below on the Feverbee website (which has loads of content geared towards people running online brand communities):

With interactive communities, brands have the opportunity to truly listen to the customer. They can use what they learn to help develop the next focused marketing strategy or even the next product. In an age where marketing is becoming increasingly customer-centric, online communities are merely the evolution of the standard online business website, with blog content, landing pages, and ecommerce.

Perhaps the most important takeaway, and the one which required the greatest amount of commitment from an organization to deliver, is the boldness and authenticity that enables brands to operate in a way which doesn’t require censorship. It’s a measure of how transparent a company is prepared to be, and something all brands must eventually aspire toward. The rewards for such authenticity as unmatched (having, for example, the power to transform struggling motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson in the 1980s into the multi-million dollar global brand they are today).

Building such communities requires integration and commitment across departments within an organization. HBR’s study summarized:

In today’s turbulent world, people are hungry for a sense of connection; and in lean economic times, every company needs new ways to do more with what it already has. Unfortunately, although many firms aspire to the customer loyalty, marketing efficiency, and brand authenticity that strong communities deliver, few understand what it takes to achieve such benefits. Worse, most subscribe to serious misconceptions about what brand communities are and how they work.”

It means that brand communities are not, as they are often perceived, a lone marketing or customer support objective, but a business strategy that demands authenticity as a pre-requisite. In establishing one, a brand can look to grow and evolve with the expectations and needs of its most valuable customers.

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