Branded online communities give your company a chance to make your brand feel like home to your customers. They provide customers, partners, and prospects with a place to organically come together to share their passions, insights, and experiences with your brand in way that results in true, meaningful brand loyalty and advocacy.
That’s according to Stephanie Mulrooney at Digital Doughnut, who explains that while branded communities are extremely valuable and seemingly simple to build, they can be deceptively difficult to set up in a way that truly maximizes their value in an ongoing, sustainable way.
That’s why she shares four key principles that all companies should employ in order to optimize their branded communities and realize the greatest possible ROI.
Social psychologists McMillan and Chavis identify creating a feeling of membership as one of the most important aspects of community building, and the same goes for branded online communities.
Not only should your community establish clear rules of membership – who the community is for, the key purpose of the community, and the expectations for group members – it should encourage a feeling of membership. This can be accomplished in a number of ways: sending automated branded welcome messages when new members join, encouraging members to discuss, debate, and share their opinions on certain pieces of content, or by sending messaging drawing their attention to interesting or exciting new discussions based on traffic and member participation figures.
As Mulrooney notes, even “something as simple as consistent branding and icons across all touchpoints for your community” can help to achieve this feeling of membership and a coherent community.
An effective and value-adding branded community should not only influence your members, but it should allow them to influence the community.
This can be accomplished by building voting mechanics into the community, so members themselves can influence which topics reach the front page for further discussion, and which are organically designated as unimportant to them. This can be tricky, as companies that wish to use their community as a strictly conventional messaging channel will find it difficult to shoehorn their members into discussing a specific piece of content or new value prop, but more important strategically, it builds lasting brand loyalty and trust. Members feel a vested interest in the health of the community, because it truly reflects their interests. And because it truly reflects their interests, and not artificially so, the insights you gain from it are more valuable and actionable.
“Influence is about reciprocity,” Mulrooney says. If you can add value for your community members by creating a community that is genuinely enjoyable to them, they will add value for you with the insights, market research data, and brand loyalty your community sources.
Your members should be rewarded for their participation in your community. That can – and should – be accomplished in a number of different ways.
The most symbolic of these is a system that recognizes the contributions of key members by awarding them badges, or “flair,” alongside their posts so other users know they are an important member. This not only demonstrates that your brand is actively monitoring and invested in the health of the community, but it provides incentives to participation for other members who want to be recognized, too.
Further, your community should be integrated with your actual business operations, and be able to fulfill actual sales requests. Abundant embedded hyperlinks, targeted banner ads, and even a dedicated customer service “member” account all help close the distance between your buyer’s intent and a converted transaction.
Consumers are human beings, too, and they naturally crave a personal connection. That’s precisely why a commitment to personalized communications and customer-centricity within your community is so important in order to compete over the noise of the internet.
“Taking the time to communicate in a personalized format gives customers the opportunity to think of your brand as a friend or peer, rather than a product. And that kind of brand is the one that gets mentions, recommendations, and positive reviews in public places,” Mulrooney says. Whether through a dedicated community manager or a clever algorithm, your communications with community members should always be more personal, more friendly, and more conversational than your generic prospecting overtures.
Anywhere your customers come into contact with your brand influences their perception of you, and nowhere is that perception more critical – or more emotional – than within your branded community.
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Branded communities present a massive opportunity to build brand loyalty and increase sales revenue on a long-term, sustainable basis. But not all branded communities are created equal, nor are the partners you have available to help you create them.
By keeping these principles in mind – and the partners who can deliver on them – brands can much better optimize the performance of their communities and realize a far greater ROI faster.