The pros and cons of branded communities

If you have ever tried to build a branded community on your own platform, or via an existing one like Facebook, you'll know that it can be a complex and arduous process.

The rewards for brands who get it right though are impressive. For if you can create a vibrant, connected community around your products which is ready to receive your editorial, then the task of ensuring that your content is read will have got a whole lot easier.

Getting there is the hard bit though. Brands have been building online communities for many years now and there are many examples of how brands and agencies have got it wrong. In the days before Facebook and Twitter, for example, some brands invested hundreds of thousands of pounds on websites that attracted just hundreds of members.

Even now, when the cost of building communities is significantly cheaper thanks to newer platforms like Ning, Elgg and, many brands choose not to engage with customers in this way. After all, for every enthusiast who gushes about your products online there might people who use the community to spread negative opinions about the brand.

Then there has been the success of some brands on Facebook and Twitter. Why invest thousands of pounds on a bespoke platform when you can engage with consumers via the community that they spend so much of their time on?

There are other reasons why branded communities haven't worked in the past. One very obvious one is that brands and agencies sometimes don't think about them from an editorial perspective. Communities need a leader who is not only monitoring the debate but creatively stoking it too. In the past some brands have just created spaces and expected consumer to get on with it and then wondered why their space is online tumbleweed.

Another drawback has been the ‘big launch syndrome.' Brands invest large amounts of money on a big PR push for their community and then are disappointed when after a few months only a few hundred people are active there. Building communities takes time and in many ways smaller, more organic launches are much better way to go

Nevertheless there are some very good reasons why brands should consider hosting their own communities. The following questions and issues need to be addressed first though.

1. Is your brand right to run an online community? There are obvious examples of brands who should be considering online communities - car brands, consumer electronics manufacturers, essentially brands that have specific products that people invest time and money in to upgrade and maintain. If run well communities of individual makes of cars or ranges of mobiles can significantly increase customer loyalty as well providing additional revenue streams for accessories, upgrades and more.

There are some examples of less obvious brands who have run communities by focusing on activities or lifestyles that complement what they are selling. So, for example, several of the biggest US communities are based around dieting.

Many of the high profile flops have been huge brands like Coke, whose strategy fell outside of these two paradigms.

2. What is the purpose of the community? - Is it all about distributing the editorial content you produce? If that's the case bear in mind that the community can also be a great source of intelligence for your publications in that you can directly find out what your customers are thinking and then address those concerns in the content you produce.

If the community is designed to be self-sustaining from a financial perspective you need to think about how to make money from your members. Can you charge to join the group? And, if so, what incentives and benefits are you going to offer. If the community is largely about harvesting email addresses etc. what benefits are you going to give to get consumers to sign up? Can you offer additional, or maybe even premium editorial content for key members?

3. Are the efforts of hosting your own community enough to make it worthwhile? - In other words - what are the advantages of hosting your own community over, for example, using Facebook? The big issue here is invariably control. On your own space you can monetise the community and deliver your content in a way you can't on Facebook. For some brands, that should be reason enough for them to consider owning their own space. The two communities can be complementary and indeed some brands use Facebook to push people towards their own communities.

Ultimately we think more and more brands are going to look beyond basic engagement on Facebook and will want to own their own communities. Content marketing agencies' editorial skills should ensure that they are in a great place to create and curate them.

Posted by: The CMA

Posted in CMA blog
18thSep 2013

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