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What is a branded community?

A simple definition is: A branded community is a community of individuals that is created on the basis of shared values and passion for products or causes tied to a brand.

We all have passions. It may be cooking or camping; NASCAR or needlepoint; tennis or Tetris. The best way to enjoy these passions is to share them with like-minded individuals. So we join clubs and organizations to become part of a community. The online world offers exactly the same opportunity, with the advantage of reaching a much wider group. In fact, the online audience is so vast that communities easily form around a shared passion for specific products and brands, from Legos to Harley Davidson motorcycles.

A branded community can play a significant role in strengthening customer loyalty and improving business practices. From a marketing perspective, there is a strong connection between culture, individual identity, and brand—a connection that can influence consumer behavior, improve loyalty, and increase sales.

Brand community can encompass all of a brand’s prospects, clients, business partners, fans, and advocates … online and in the real world.

A branded community enhances online marketing for consumer and B2B because it can achieve goals that are not always possible with either Social or other Owned properties. When audiences spend time on popular social networks, they may briefly engage with your messaging and content … but only briefly. It’s as if they are in a busy shopping mall and they pop into your store, but there are a lot of other stores to visit and friends to spend time with at the food court. Your number-one Owned digital property, your web site, is a space where audiences come to find information, but not to share information. Just because they enter your store doesn’t mean they are talking to all the other customers.

A branded community takes the concept of a social network and engineers it specifically for your brand, adding features and functionality that are often unavailable on other social sites. Think about a branded community as being a hub that sits in the center of all your other points of audience interaction. A branded community becomes an important part of your digital ecosystem by empowering audiences to contribute to conversations that are relevant to your brand.

Harley created the HOG (Harley Owners Group), a branded online community. The people who join the group receive “benefits that are designed exclusively for members.” These benefits include roadside assistance, listings of local chapter rides, a touring handbook, a special Harley digital magazine, access to the Harley museum—the things that Harley owners want and need.

Harley does some interesting things with their online community. For one, you can see a link to it on their website’s home page, but you can only access the community if you join … and if you want to join for free, you need to have a Harley and enter your VIN number. So it’s a very exclusive club. Every HOG chapter that adds content needs to be sponsored and connected with a Harley dealership. With more than 1 million community members, the HOG is one of the big factors that helps move the Harley brand forward.

Branded Communities Enhance Existing Social Media

Branded communities enable companies to create enthusiastic audiences for their products and services. These communities build upon themselves, creating user-generated testimonials, which can increase brand loyalty and help grow revenue.

You might catch yourself thinking: But I’ve invested so much time into the social networks I’m on!

The good news is branded communities can typically integrate well with other social networks. Similar to social sharing features in a blog, posts in a branded community can also be easily extended to major social networks. You can further leverage the audiences you’ve already invested in, recruiting them to your own branded community.

Since most branded community platforms integrate with common social networks, a post in your brand community can show up in your social networks (and vice versa). Branded communities also have features that can empower key members to moderate and facilitate conversations on behalf of your brand. The value of user-generated content (UGC) that comes from your own community can far exceed that of UGC from other sources because the members of your community are essentially acting as your content creators.

Your community can function like a traditional forum, or it can include a variety of other features to encourage engagement. For example, your community can leverage email “digests” for members. These can be set for daily, weekly, or monthly distribution, and allow members to “opt out” if they wish. The advantage here is that you can deliver and share richer content than you can on other networks.

H&R Block shares content on multiple channels, including their own blog. They respond in a timely fashion to the wide variety of tax questions that individuals post on their social channels, and their online community includes a library of reference materials, a knowledge base of information from the community’s members, and a mechanism for members to interact directly with one another. This combination of “seeding” (creating a library of useful content) with UGC and non-stop interaction makes the community a valuable resource.

Branded Communities Grow Business

Many brands are reeling from decreased reach on popular social networks and increased advertising spending just to reach people who are already fans. Branded communities can act as both company- and user-owned communities that gather like-minded people in an environment that can be publicly facing or private (based purely on your preferences).

Aside from the wide range features that can be customized (file sharing, events, rewards, etc.) another key benefit of a branded community is the bond created with users. People intentionally join and participate in these networks, making engagement and loyalty skyrocket.

Consider the site RVillage, this branded community has more than 40,000 members and brings together people from around the world who enjoy RV camping. This is an interactive community where people share in real time their trips, recommendations, questions, and anything else they encounter on their journeys. In this case, the brands of several RV manufacturers and RV campgrounds benefit.

As the blog ZeeTraveler states: “What is RVillage? Picture Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, Allstays and Google Maps all put together in one package specifically designed for RVers!” This illustrates how a branded online community can serve dedicated audiences with multiple resources and communication features you could never get on common social networks.

One of the biggest benefits of creating and owning your branded community is the fact that you own the insights, content, and data that grow in this garden. It’s like the old saying, “Don’t build your house on rented land.” If you create valuable relationships on other platforms, you need to understand that you are playing by their rules.

The more you know about your audience, the better your marketing personas and archetypes. This information can be found in the conversations. There are four common types of data:

  • Transactional Data
  • Demographic Data
  • Social and Behavioral Data
  • Survey and Feedback Data

How Do You Start Building A Branded Community?

Branded communities allow you to drive greater brand reach, convert prospects into customers, and build and cement existing relationships. If this chapter has got you thinking about the benefits of a branded community, you probably want to know where to start. In our experience, a branded community needs to be nurtured and grown for fifteen to nineteen months to get to the point where it is truly successful. Here are a few steps to get you going:

Step 1. Listening research. Just as listening is critical for your marketing campaigns, it is also a key step in developing community. Use your listening tools and platforms to gauge the volume of conversation about the topic and/or brand. When you learn what audiences are saying on various channels, you can begin to map out the content, forums, features, and benefits of your community.

Step 2. Create a content mission. This is an overview of the key aspects of content that members of your community will want to have access to, share, and comment on. Consider what areas you have a lot of expertise with. Remember that the best content connects people.

Step 3. Select a platform. Creating a branded community is easier than most companies think. Communities can be started in hours with little to no coding or design skills. You can have a platform that you host, or one that is cloud-based. There are many platforms out there to choose from, SocialEngine is one in which we’ve chosen to personally invest. You want to consider:

  • Ease of use. We recommend a simple interface to build and manage your community.
  • The implementation process—is it geared toward developers or marketers?
  • Support (video tutorials, customer service, knowledge base, third-party resources/consultants/plugins).
  • Self-hosted versus built-in hosting (in the cloud).
  • Integration with other platforms (social networks, email, marketing automation, databases).
  • Analytics for insights.
  • Costs.

Step 4. Launch. You want a plan that engages your influencers and advocates immediately. When they get engaged, they can bring in a lot of other members.

Step 5. Stay engaged. Recognize that your community is new every single day. A community is a living entity where new people and new conversations constantly add to the vitality of the space. Although creating a community is easy, there are no shortcuts for growing and maintaining it. The time and resources needed to do this should be part of the overall strategy.

 

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Jason Cormier

Jason Cormier

As co-founding Partner of Room 214, Jason is dedicated to helping people and companies grow and innovate. He is a best-selling author of Transformative Digital Marketing, is on HubSpot's Global Partner Advisory Council and serves as a mentor for social entrepreneurs at Watson University. He believes in acting out of love instead of fear, connected leadership and open book management.
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