Communities are formed organically and often. On average, a new community is created on reddit every 2.4 minutes and 1 billion people are participating in Facebook groups every month. While each community wants to thrive and stay active for long periods of time, some lead to predictable ghost towns. Branded communities, though different from purely organic communities, are an increasingly popular way for marketers and consumers to come together, resulting in greater engagement and brand loyalty.
What makes a branded community?
A community is a group of people with unique shared interests, values, behaviors and artifacts. Once community members start communicating with each other about those shared interests, a sense of belonging grows. This can form the basis for creating a deeper sense of purpose within the community – such as identifying specific goals or projects to work towards. That sense of belonging can be driven in a number of ways:
- Interest: Connecting with members and brands around a similar interest or passion.
- Action: Connecting with members and brands that stand for a change or cause.
- Place: Connecting with members and brands based on geographic location or boundaries.
- Practice: Connecting with members and brands due to a common profession or skillset.
- Circumstance: Connecting with members and brands around external events/situations.
- Inquiry: Connecting with members and brands for educational focus to solve problems and/or share ideas.
Like organic communities, a branded community must be authentic and have genuine dialogue. A majority of branded communities are based around “interest” and are often the hardest type to develop. Consumers must have real reasons to join.
Why do members join communities?
- Looking for delightful surprises
Members want to feel like they are experiencing something new. Brands continue to leverage this through gamification and experiential rewards like exclusive expeditions. Find the Lilly, where customers look for hidden flowers in the design of clothing from Lilly Pulitzer, asked members to share selfies with clothing that has the “Lilly flower,” providing a fun game that brings awareness to the product and the brand. The VIPeak Travel community from North Face has members team up with expert travel guides to go rock climbing, hiking and share their journeys with others. Brands help make the customer experience smooth and seamless to schedule these events, classes and outings through separate dedicated websites. Integrated voting, rating and review systems help make the experience memorable.
- Excited to inspire change
Members want to take a pledge that is meaningful to them and makes an impact. These individuals like to identify with a cause and are willing to take action. Many brands leverage these desires by encouraging user-generated content, using hashtags to share photos before, during and after in-person events. LuluLemon used the hashtag #SweatLife to fuel their advocate program with pop-up yoga classes and shared stories on online message boards or blogs. Customers become advocates that are likely to encourage friends and family to join them. Madewell created the hashtag #DenimMadeWell to have loyal customers share their love for the brand and to start a movement for a flash mob. They had 500 employees, influencers and bloggers use the hashtag submitting photographs around their common interest in jeans. Photographs were featured on a social wall having a “shop now” button next to each. Brands help foster communication with loyal customers providing tips, tricks and inspiration.
- Seeking information
Education fuels the desire for members to join communities as they look to attend classes or participate in online message boards that share useful tips. Branded communities can also be for employees as companies want to help train or provide the latest on initiatives. Verizon Fios Community is an example where they provide support to customers and staff that integrates with a membership. Members can post questions about their needs to receive advice from community managers and others. When customers and employees join online message boards like these they build an emotional connection and are less likely to switch to a competitor.
How do companies keep members engaged and benefit from branded communities?
We analyzed 40+ brands across multiple industries and found positive themes and user-generated content closely correlates to successful communities. Some companies offer rewards for participation; others rely on the intrinsic value of the community. Branded communities can be a powerful complementary strategy for marketers with loyalty programs.
We found companies using many tactics and strategies to get members to engage with each other and their brand. A few examples:
- Share photos
- Earn points
- Travel the world
- Support charities
- Take a pledge
- Share stories
- Experience something new
- Learn from others
Companies use hashtags or build separate websites to show branded communities as an extension of their brand. YouTube videos are telling the story of why communities exist. We noticed brands use social walls/galleries to integrate user-generated content from social media smoothly into the user experience. Voting, review systems and message boards are driving engagement between members online. Companies are hosting classes and community outings with their members as well.
Communities enhance loyalty efforts by building trust around your company’s offerings, while also supporting bigger initiatives.
- Offline Engagement: REI Co-op reinforces their unique business model in several ways. Members get an annual dividend from the co-op, rather than receiving rewards in a program. REI hosts local activities for their members including outdoor events and nature classes, helping them celebrate every minute outside and cherish moments of excitement and discovery. #OptOutside was created to foster community by inviting members to fill every minute of a 24-hour timeline with outdoor photography in an online gallery. Members were encouraged to tag REI Co-op and add locations to each post.
- Expert Empowerment: My Starbucks Idea builds ideas together through an independent community that allows users to recommend new ideas. It includes voting and posting capabilities. Participants must be a member of their loyalty program to post and view the online message board. These ideas can turn into business opportunities for Starbucks while giving members a sense of ownership. Another example is Marriott Rewards Insider, which gives members first access to information, tips and opportunities to win points for engagement. Members can share thoughts, take polls, create content, submit and like photos.
- Charity: PetSmart Buy a Bag Give a Meal automatically donates a meal to a pet in need based on food sales. They bring members together in-store for national adoption weekends and encourage pet training classes as a follow-up.
- Social Awareness: H&M World Recycle Week originally started in 2013, when customers around the world donated their unwanted clothing. This campaign was aimed to change behavior and foster community around recycling. It integrates with H&M’s long-term goals to “close the loop in fashion.” H&M’s most loyal customers look forward to this annual event and start conversations with other members using the hashtag #HMrehaul. They also have interactive and live member events such as fashion shows to launch new collections.
- Sustainability: Tory Burch Embrace Ambition shares a powerful message aiming to re-define the word “ambition” for women, changing perceptions and taking the stigma out of the word. Utilizing a hashtag #EmbraceAmbition and template overlays to enhance user photos and share on social media, Tory Burch created a separate website where members are encouraged to take the pledge, upload a photo and change their profile pictures to support the movement.
Building communities requires a long-term commitment, but it can yield many benefits to both companies and members, driving engagement and loyalty. Communities should reinforce brand mission and message, and complement your brand’s holistic strategy. It’s important to stay customer-centric and understand what makes members engage with branded communities. As we’ve seen, customers have many different reasons for joining a community.
Well-conceived, authentic branded communities can help keep customers highly engaged, enhance Lifetime Customer Value and have great impact on your brand’s success.
Are you looking to increase engagement and brand loyalty with your customers through communities? We can help. We love to help brands build a loyalty strategy and can do the same for yours.