The Role of Brands in Online Communities

There seems to be a wave of bad advice and misguided thinking regarding where and how brands should engage with their communities. Examples include pundits advising brands to prioritize social efforts “off domain”, being passive observers in their communities instead of active hosts, and a general sentiment that hosting a brand-based online community is high effort and low return.

This is really unfortunate, as I’m convinced many organizations are missing key opportunities to realize value from online communities. The reasons for the bad advice and thinking are myriad and may include legitimate causes like: steady pressure from a slowly recovering economy, increased demands for customer attention online and competition for prioritization amongst a growing list of places to play in social media. Unfortunately, the lack of direct experience and ego play a role as well.

Stakes
So, what’s at stake? Your network of customer relationships. Said another way: you can rent this network on Facebook (along with other tenants), or you can make the investment in hosting, growing and managing the network yourself. Renting is cheaper in the short term. Building and hosting the network creates a business asset that is generative in value if managed properly.

The Role of Host
When I say “host”, I am specifically talking about on-domain, brand-hosted communities that are built on a community platform (like Lithium or Jive) and housed under the brand’s domain. Examples include Autodesk’s AREASAP’s Community Network , Dell’s TechCenter and Lego’s CUUSO . The value of these communities is multi-dimensional, but hosted brand communities are generally a “clean, well-lit place” for a company to:

  • offer customers peer to peer support, lowering support costs and increasing customer satisfaction;
  •  co-develop product and service ideas with customers, lowering research costs and creating products with a built in market;
  • give special access to and content from insiders (like product developers) in the company, increasing the value of the community for members;
  • share special content to enhance the use of (or use in) the products;
  • discuss improvements or extensions to products and services;
  • facilitate niche communities of practice around specializations;

to name just a few in the long list of possible activities that produce value for both the brand and community members.

Being a Good Host

“if you talked to people” by Hugh MacLeod @gapingvoid

The web is littered with failed attempts by brands trying to kickstart communities. Many remind me of the famous Bette Midler quote “but enough about me… what do YOU think about me”. Many early failures hit the wall simply because they made the simple mistake of being selfish. Brands need to be able to come up with a simple value equation as part of the strategic development process for community that accounts for both their business needs as well as that of the community member. If both parties can’t win, there is really no sense in playing. I offer the examples I gave earlier as proof that this can be done – Lego, Autodesk, Dell and others have been and are successful in their efforts. A few reminders on etiquette for being a good host (and there are many others):

  • Be present and attentive
    Ensure that staff are available to participate, answer questions and respond to feedback.
  • Be engaged
    Actively manage the community, ensuring basic moderation is happening and that there is a regular cadence of content and activity.
  • Be respectful
    Ensure that communications, content and activities are geared towards shared value, vs one-sided discussions about the host organization. Being respectful goes beyond generally being civil and includes the expectation that the community hosts will form relationships with members and support the community over the lang haul.

Brands as Networks
One definition of brand is “the collectively held perceptions about an organization shared amongst its stakeholders”. I find this fascinating because the statement implies that a brand can’t manifest unless it is in a networked environment. Brands need networks in order to exist. Online (and offline) Communities are a living, breathing expression of a brand.

The Net:

  • Online Communities should be a focal point of brands social strategy, and a “center of gravity” for social presence;
  • Brands should not shy away from the role of active community host – it’s not an option, it’s a responsibility
  • To be a good Community host, approach the task with the attitude that *everybody can win* instead of a zero sum game of Brand vs Customers

3 comments

  1. Patrick O'Keefe

    Nice post, Bill. Definitely agree. If you have the opportunity to host your own community or forum, it allows you to go so much deeper.

    I was on a podcast a while back with an agency person, who was a “community manager” for brands that hired the agency for like a year or two. That was the depth of her community management experience, versus my 12. Anyway, I was talking about engaging with people on a deeper level and she was like “well, we’re not going to start a forum,” like it was a dirty act or something.

    I don’t know if that is an agency bias or not, as it can be easier for an agency to simply monitor Twitter and Facebook, respond to people and do next to no moderation of any kind, but I don’t like it. It’s not like I recommend hosting your own community to everyone. But, if you have the opportunity… the benefits can be substantial.

    Patrick

  2. Dave Sims

    Spot on — both branded and off-domain seem important, but organizations can’t depend solely on off-domain, due to their fickle and ethereal nature.

    (As an aside, the same appears to be true for personal brands. People who’ve given up on their own sites, business- or personal-focused, in favor of the ease of posting to Facebook and LinkedIn give up long-term control over their content and image. Maintaining those sites may have felt like extra work, but could pay off if/when FB & LI pass out of fashion.)

  3. Pingback: Rent or own? | COMRADE MANAGER

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