For the past few years, marketers have talked about the need for brands to build communities around fans and advocates. The idea is for brands to act as enablers of conversations and connections around the category, and through such enablement create brand affinity and preference.
If marketers believe in the importance of the mobile device in the daily lives of consumers - having a "mobile-first" mindset - then we should explore the role that mobile can play in powering communities that support brand marketing and loyalty.
What is different about "mobile communities"?
It would have been impractical and infeasible to create mobile communities before the era of smartphones. These communities' member experiences are greatly enhanced by smartphone features such as camera, social network integration, and GPS. The use of location to aggregate relevant information nearby and the subsequent social discovery are core to the experience of mobile communities.
Foursquare is a good example of a brand-agnostic mobile community built on sharing location-based tips with a user's social network. The community as a whole gains through an individual's contributions. As a result, more users become loyal to the brand that is Foursquare.
As with designing your company's core product and service, any branded mobile community that you create will increase community members' brand loyalty only if it truly adds value. By that I mean it's not only a place for conversation, but also an experience with great social content and tools. Some brands have made the mistakes of:
1) Building communities for the sake of pushing marketing messages to users' mobile devices.
2) Believing that as long as members can meet and converse in these communities, that the community members will be happy and return regularly.
In the age of mobile and social, I believe it is more important for the brand's product and service (including the community features) to be good than for the community to be talking about the brand's products per se. Branded mobile communities need to resolve real problems in their category and help connect members with each other in much deeper ways using mobile's technical advantages; or else the same communities would have been created before the iPhone's arrival. At its best, branded mobile communities become an integral part of the brand's core product experience - an experience that would otherwise be incomplete without the mobile-powered community.
Easier said then done, I know, so below are two good examples of branded mobile communities that are integrated with the product and significantly add value to their community members.
Nike+ is a great example of a community that connects millions of mobile-empowered athletes and sports enthusiasts, and uses billions of location data points to help community members to compare, compete, and inspire. It is successful because it's not an existing community with mobile slapped on as a marketing or PR mechanism; but rather it is a community envisioned from the ground up with mobile at its core as evidenced by the idea's penetration into Nike's latest product line.
What I love about Nike+ is how it uses the mobile community to address some old real-world needs of its audience - discovery and motivation. Most people who exercise enjoy some variety and new challenges to keep them interested, and the constant influx of mobile data from the Nike+ community makes sure that users can discover new routes or workouts to try. The user's social network and the larger Nike+ community fulfill the role of the virtual trainer/workout partner who can urge you on when you don't feel motivated.
The real-time interactions between the users and the community deliver real-value for Nike, which wants its customers to use the products and share its product experiences more frequently. Note that Nike isn't asking its customers to share the product; anything that the customers share through the Nike+ community is promoting the product. The genius of the whole ecosystem is that Nike+ products have social marketing built in, so the consumers are actually happily paying Nike and promoting its intelligent athletic products at the same time.
SES + VivaStream
VivaStream is a networking app that connects conference attendees before, during, and after events. SES used it for the latest event in Hong Kong and it immediately attracted attendees who realized the value of such an app. Networking was an important task that attendees already performed regularly, and most people want to network more in order to advance their careers. With the mobile app, SES attendees could check in to specific sessions and see the people who also checked in, and connect with those who have similar interests or with an expert who can help with their specific digital marketing needs.
Before the VivaStream app (i.e., SES Hong Kong 2011), the event attendees had already formed an impromptu community around SES. The community was temporary in the sense that it was formed specifically around an event/experience. Although some people stay connected after the event, they are connected through common interests and not necessarily because of the event. For most delegates, they had only two days to connect. By extension, SES as a brand had the same finite window to forge attendee loyalty.
The addition of the app made the networking more extensive and dynamic, enabling all attendees to connect with more people in the limited amount of time, and actually extended the event's timeframe from two days to something more like five days since the networking begin ahead of the physical event. This immediately increased SES' value to me as a brand, and ensured that I will pay to attend the event again next year because the community enables me to connect with twice as many people as other digital marketing events.
Mobile was particularly suitable for the SES brand because many event attendees don't have their computers with them, and the instant access information facilitated networking - you can send someone a message via the app soon after meeting them. Furthermore, delegates can review conference agenda and rate sessions (while the impression is fresh in their mind) all from the mobile app.
Should your brand invest in building a mobile community?
Before jumping into building a mobile community, ask yourself these questions:
If you answer yes to at least three of the questions above, then I think you may be ready to explore creating a branded mobile community either by building in-house or leveraging an existing technology (such as VivaStream). Just keep in mind that loyalty and advocacy doesn't just come from the brand community only saying good things about your brand, but also from the community offering such an indispensable social mobile service that people will buy your product so that they can be a part of it.
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Andy started his digital marketing career as an interactive designer in 1996. Later he spent 10 years with MRM Worldwide in various roles and countries including web producer in Los Angeles, Asia Pacific data and analytics account director in Hong Kong, and director of operations in Shanghai. He was most recently general manager of MRM's Hong Kong office. In 2010 he founded I-Influence to help marketers more effectively leverage social media to grow their online influence, and to increase brand loyalty and advocacy. As CEO of I-Influence, he leads an innovative team in developing marketing technologies at the convergence of social media, customer analytics, CRM, and mobile. A native of Taiwan, Andy has lived half of his life in the U.S. and the other half in Asia.
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