Navigating Online Communites: a basic primer (part 1/2)

Over the past few years, I’ve written countless times about brands and online communities and through it all there’ve been several concepts and principles that seem to crop up again and again. It seemed about time to lay out the most basic and general principles more systematically.

Brands and Communities: 3 Core Principles

Brands understand the value of online communities and the power of social media in making sure a brand isn’t just a product, but a cultural resource and symbol. Online communities are one of the best ways to get to know your consumers, deepen loyalty, and broaden a brand’s cultural and marketing reach.

But building a community that is loyal, ef?cient, and real is about more than just getting talked about. It’s about more than just having a Facebook page, or twitter followers, or blog comments. It’s about fostering real engagement by understanding how communities work, how they use technology, and what kind of contribution
the brand can bring into the mix. In short, in thinking about

1. Courting (not creating) communities

Many brands, when building a social presence online believe themselves to be in the business of creating communities. But a brand’s community isn’t a coherent entity with the singular goal of promoting the brand. While an online community can certainly act as a full-throttle promotional team, they do so because being part of the community serves a variety of individual purposes.

Brands, therefore, must thinking of themselves as courting communities. The digital world is densely networked and no consumer is an island. They’re a part of active communities that have their own interests and goals. Brands have to ?gure how to make themselves of value to these communities if they hope to integrate themselves and build strong ties.

Find where your communities are and listen, learn what tools they use, what content they ?nd compelling, what tone they converse in. Find out what matters to them, learn from what they do, and how to participate on their terms. Only then can the brand build the trust and understanding it needs to cultivate a strong community. Look to key community members and get them to be intermediaries for you. They know better than any marketer how to speak to their own communities.

2. Be the means, not the ends

Brands can build strong communities by becoming the connective tissue between members. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Fournier and Lee state that in brand communities “brands are a means to an end, not an end in itself” (Fournier and Lee 2009). This seems simple enough, but it’s a misstep many brands make when the ask “how can we get people talking about us?” or even “how can we get people talking to us?”

The simple answer is that you don’t.

Brands build communities when they get people to talk through them, about and to one another. In a rich, lasting brand community, brands are the tools of communication, not the subject. It might seem counterintuitive, but acting as the connective tissue, brands can build deeper and more lasting relationships with their consumers because it integrates the brand into the rich social relationships consumers form with one another.

3. Cultivate, don’t control

One of the strongest instinct marketers and PR ?rms have when dealing with communities is to control them. No one wants people to say bad things about the brand, so there is an urge to stamp down con?ict or “misuse” of just negative feelings. However, trying to control conversations and opinion will only generate distrust and resentment. Instead, see con?ict as an opportunity to engage in conversation and get valuable feedback.

Be transparent in all your interactions in the community. Efforts to hide intentions, obfuscate mistakes, or redirect blame when con?icts arise will only fuel the ?re. Online communities operate on collective intelligence — you might be able to fool one person or even most, but you can’t keep things hidden from large communities, all working together and sharing labor and information. Transparency fosters trust, good-will, and can turn dissatisfaction into an opportunity to change minds and improve relationships.

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Possibly related posts:

  1. Navigating Online Communites: a basic primer (part 2/2)
  2. Selling Out on YouTube: vloggers weigh in on brand integration online

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