Jeff Bezos once famously said: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
Everybody has an intuitive understanding that the “brand” he’s talking about is fairly synonymous with “reputation,” but almost nobody talks about the room mentioned in this quote.
If you’re following the analogy, the “room” is where the conversation about your business is taking place. The “room” is what’s known as a brand community: a space where people congregate to discuss your brand.
And you’d better believe that the conversation is happening in a community somewhere, whether you’re aware of it or not. Is the conversation good or bad? Is what’s being said accurate? Is the community that’s been formed around your brand an asset to your startup, or a liability?
That’s the (multi-) million-dollar question, and you can only answer it if you own the conversation around your brand. If you’re able to create or help shape your community, it can grow your business through word-of-mouth referrals, social proof, and even improve your search ranking. Most importantly, an engaged community can foster loyalty by making your customers—and your brand—feel like part of something. And loyalty matters: Improving customer retention by just 5% can increase profits by 25-95%.
For startups, the power of brand communities can’t be overstated. However, even more important than understanding how to build or harness a brand community is recognizing the benefits of owning your brand community.
What is a brand community?
In short, a brand community is brand audience loyalty incarnate. It’s the physical (or more likely, digital) representation of the interest, affection, and loyalty that people show your brand.
Note—the difference between brand loyalty and brand awareness is typically defined in terms of purchase and engagement. People who are aware of your brand can remember it by name when asked. People who are loyal to your brand not only buy your product or service, but they tell others about it.
The distinction is important because brand communities are generally created and/or managed to foster loyalty, not awareness (although you do receive that as an extra benefit). Today, customers are looking for added value—your product or service alone isn’t enough. Branded communities that educate, entertain, and engage them are a great way to provide that value and increase their loyalty and advocacy.
Popular community channels
Branded communities exist in different forms and channels—some are organically created, others are sponsored or created by the business they represent. Here are a few examples:
Tried and true, social media is a great option to host an active conversation of brand loyalists. Hashtags and groups allow users to congregate around certain topics regardless of location or time of day.
There are some downsides to social media, however. Younger users are abandoning mainstream social media sites in favour of more private communities. Additionally, you’re essentially renting your community, as you don’t own the platforms and they have the ability to moderate and control your content – and data. Not owning the platform also means you have limited control over the user experience.
Arguably the earliest form of online community, the forum continues to thrive in its ability to attract and engage diehard fans. Forums are unique in that they are virtually 100% run by the community without oversight from a company. They differ from social media in their ability to organize and upvote relevant and high-quality content.
Many people mistakenly think of blogs as a one-way communication platform, like an old-school newspaper column, but take a look at the comments section of a popular tech blog—It’s typically filled with discussion! There are often customers nodding along in agreement, users of competitors’ software arguing against the post content, and plenty of undecided potential customers asking product and use-case questions.
Instant messaging/chat applications
The phrase, “We have a Slack channel where we share data, techniques, and insight into [XYZ niche]” is becoming ubiquitous among the knowledge workforce. Many companies are using chat applications to extend their reach and add value to their customers and collaborators.
On the flip side, if you’re looking to take more ownership of a community, consider exploring the possibility of in-app chat and messaging (and video and voice!) instead of outsourcing to a third party. This gives users the power of two-way communication but within the context of your application. More on this in a bit.
Loyalty and affiliate programmes
It’s lunchtime and you’re equidistant from your two favourite sandwich shops; their pricing is identical. In your wallet, you have a loyalty card for one of the shops that’s one purchase away from a free sub. Which one are you going to patronize? The loyalty programme makes this an easy call.
How to build a successful brand community
At this point, you should have a pretty good grasp of the value of brand communities and the options you have to build one. Now, let’s get into a tactical discussion of building a brand community.
Step 1 – Determine your objective
The reason this step is so important is that building a community can have a variety of different outcomes.
What are you looking for?
- Insights for product development?
- Revenue from sales?
- Engagement and growth?
- A secondary revenue stream?
- Website traffic?
Being clear on what you want out of your community will set you on the right path to be able to build something that’s effective for both you and your audience.
Step 2 – Allocate resources
Do not make the mistake of going into this endeavour without allocating budget, time, and personnel to the process. Done correctly, community-building is a far bigger and more important job than an intern can do in addition to their other workload.
Step 3 – Define your brand
Your startup likely has a brand book or PowerPoint presentation defining your brand identity, and that’s a great start. But you’ll probably need to adapt it somewhat for use in your online community.
Think about how you want to sound (brand voice), how you’ll engage with your community, and what your moderation policy will involve to ensure that members of your community feel safe and respected.
Adding these community-specific details to your brand guidelines will help you set guardrails for your activity online.
Step 4 – Select your channel(s)
With the what and the how covered, it’s time to decide where you’re going to focus your efforts. Much of this depends on your goals in creating a community.
For instance, if you’re looking to generate additional revenue, setting up a private Slack channel and charging a monthly fee is an option.
If you’re looking to drive website traffic, you might want to choose a public forum with lots of existing traffic such as Reddit.
Or, if you’re looking to make community an integral aspect of your product, you might consider using a solution like the Sendbird API to deliver in-app communication features like chat, voice and video calling.
Step 5 – Execute and measure
With the plan in place, it’s time to put in the work and measure the results, incrementally making improvements to better cater to the needs and desires of your audience. Having the right technology in your toolkit is crucial to make sure you’re able to manage and accurately measure your results, which is another reason it’s better to own your community.
Owning your brand community
Many of the existing community channels available have serious limitations ranging from design aesthetics to control over the user experience, to moderation concerns, to limited access to data.
The most sure-fire way to build a community that will become an asset to your business is by making sure that you own your startup’s community. With ownership, you can control the design and the functionality without having to rely on a third party that likely has wildly different goals than your organization.
There’s no need to ‘rent’ from Slack or Discord to build a community with the feature set you need—You can build and retain real-time community interactions on your platform with Sendbird! Check it out for free for 30 days – no credit card or commitment required.
Editor’s note: This post was contributed by Sendbird.