2015 Trend to Watch — The Social Homecoming of Brands

While Facebook is still the biggest, most dominant social game in town and the “lowest common denominator” of social marketing, it’s not the only game. Social audiences continue to splinter, challenging brands in how they respond to audiences, and how they build positive and engaged communities that cross platform boundaries. With the disparate “pools” of social activity occurring on each platform, there are myriad challenges of ownership, messaging, and coordination for both proactive marketing, and “reactive” support, as well as the increasingly tough pressure of getting into the social “pay to play” News Feed in a way that is socially sensitive and not spammy.

In talking to our brand clients, we are hearing consistent messages coming back to us that reflect awareness of the pressing nature of these challenges. We hear brands want to not only “regain ownership” of their communities, but also build new relationships with their communities, and between community members, based on a common interest in a brand and its products — whether that product is consumer goods, travel destinations, or business services. We hear that they appreciate social is great for paid reach, but less for control.

One way our clients are approaching this challenge to get back control is to build socialized communities on their own brand websites. A recent Forrester survey shows that U.S. online adults who want to stay in touch with your brand are almost three times as likely to visit your site as to engage you on Facebook. There, brands get to control their destiny. There, brands can potentially leverage all the great knowledge, insight, feedback, and content that is being generated by their customers. And, instead of “rolling off” the News Feed, content on brand websites stays around to provide ongoing value that can be shared out to social channels to drive more people back.

Here are examples of how three brands are using on-site communities to socialize the brand experience:

Sony UK Community

Sony UK has built a vibrant community powered by Lithium for its camera customers. In addition to community forums, and general chat, they feature beautiful photo contests, that they say get 2,000 to 4,000 submissions a month from 15 countries. Amateur, semi-professional, and professional photographs love to talk about their work. It’s a perfect example of how the ongoing value of that social discussion can be saved and enjoyed for future visitors, and shows how individuals unknown to one another in the “real world” can come together for brand-centered discussions that would be lost if it they were wholly discussed on, say, Facebook or Instagram. Every entry can be enjoyed, commented on, and given special “kudos.” By enriching the “discussion board” and chat aspects of a community with an actively participatory contest gave members something engaging to do, that could potentially tie nicely to their off-community social profiles elsewhere. The only thing missing? A solidly defined connection back to the participant’s social identity, and the ability to share what’s seen beyond the community — and potentially drive more people in. (You can read the case study here.)

Homeaway Community

Homeaway, a leading global vacation rental company, built a community powered by Jive Software specifically to strengthen two-way communications between travelers, property managers, and homeowners — a key aspect of building the trust needed in this sort of business. From webinars, blogs, groups, forums, and events, there is a lot of great help for community members. But here again, opportunities to weave in every person’s off-community social profile? Not apparent — and potentially valuable to give insight into their social identity, which is such an important aspect of trust. (You can read the case study here.)

Hootsuite Community

Predictably, Hootsuite has taken a more integrated social approach to its community. Powered by GetSatisfaction the extensive global range of community champions have been integral to the company’s growth. The company says that its ability to enter new markets and scale support in the face of rapid growth are two strategic outcomes building this community program. (You can read the case study here.

Brands have spent millions building and nurturing their audiences on social platforms. But that’s not wasted effort. Though they continue to fragment, social platforms remain the place where their audiences continue to gather and socialize, and so are places where brands can enjoy immense opportunity for brand building, lead generation, and awareness campaigns. However, back on the brand website is where brands have complete freedom to build brand-centered social experiences. Yes, brand communities on websites have existed for years. But the majority of today’s examples still center on support, discussion, and product review directives. There’s more than can be done. By engaging those audiences with activities that encourage the creating and sharing content, that invite participation in brand-centered research and feedback, and that offer a socially charged exploration of a brand’s products, brands will be giving audiences what they are coming to expect: a place to spark brand-focused community, and participate in authentic conversation and content…socially. Expect to see more brands exploring the building of socially powered communities on their brand websites in 2015.

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