2015 Will Be the Year of the Brand Community – Here’s Why

In Forrester’s recent lineup of 2015 predictions for the technology landscape was this gem: that as social media “grows up,” so-called “branded communities” will be making a comeback.

What’s a branded community in this context? A managed community of brand followers and customers, usually on, or adjacent to, a brand website, glued together by familiar social digital behaviors and a commonality of brand interest.

Why is this happening now and what does it mean for social marketers?

As radical innovation on the leading social platforms slows down, and marketers become increasingly limited in their organic reach on social networks, brands are needing to move laterally to accommodate their customer-centered engagement needs in ways that social networks alone cannot accommodate.

Does that mean that brands will not be investing in their social network presence? Absolutely not. Facebook and LinkedIn remain highly worthwhile “pay-to-play” networks for excellent targeted and personalized reach. But they are no longer reliable as the sole networks for organic conversations, or as a complete solution for supporting customer questions.

Brands are seeing that audiences connected by the commonality of their brand interest, rather than the commonality of their social “real world” connections, offer rich new opportunities to fill the “engagement void” created by the squeezing of brand organic reach on social. Plus, these audiences are now fully “trained” on social. They understand the social rules of the road. Bringing engagement home to a fully owned community makes complete sense in a customer-centered strategy.

There are some key ways that these owned branded communities are benefiting brands:

Trigger Frictionless Conversions to Purchase

When a visitor arrives on Sephora’s excellent onsite Beauty Talk branded community, they find there a like-minded tribe of makeup experts, and newbies, looking to discover the best makeup, hair, fragrance, or skincare products that are a match for them. And they do find them — all in close proximity to the Sephora Shopping Cart. Community members discuss, debate, and compare results. They post photos and links to videos. They list favorites and ask other members to weigh in. All the things that brand marketers dreamed would happen on Facebook, but didn’t. Beauty products can be purchased in many places online, but by ensuring that the purchase comes along with some great advice, too, the click to buy becomes much easier. Indeed, on Sephora’s Lithium-powered community, members spend two times as much, and “superfan” community members spend 10 times as much as non-community members.

Encourage Customer Advocacy

A social-focused customer service strategy, where customers arrive, and leave, with a great experience they want to talk about, remains an imperative for brands at all points in their customer relationship journey. There are myriad tools that listen for those signals on social platforms, catch the connection, and route it to a place where they can be managed in an organized and positive way. But brand communities allow brands to take that support response one step further, by building reactive “support”-focused communities that also incorporate proactive branded experiences and go beyond just answering a question and closing the discussion. T-Mobile’s JiveX-powered customer community — has replaced multiple forums and knowledge bases with one community that receives more than 1 million visitors a month — and offers visitors chances not only to answer their questions, but also to share ideas and help each other out, resulting in significant increases in customer satisfaction.

Foster Exploration and Discovery

Brand communities offer a perfect context to invite visitors to discover more about a brand — beyond their first reason for visiting — in a socially charged way. In 2015, we should see brand communities expanding beyond their traditional discussion board/knowledgebase roots to include more experiences that proactively engage visitors. Sony’s branded community offers news, gift ideas, and lots of how-tos from community experts. Petco’s branded community offers a place for pet lovers to “connect, share, and learn,” with regular cute pet photo contests shared alongside helpful community discussion boards.

Branded communities have huge potential ahead. When an engaged member of a brand community advocates for a brand with others, that interaction has authenticity and fosters loyalty. We can see brand communities evolving beyond the traditional community discussion board/knowledge base format, to become excellent places to indulge in social exploration tactics, such as asking fans to submit their stories and photos about a product, getting members to review, rate, and share products within the community, and finding automagical ways to match community members with products. They are the perfect place to offer social-powered gift catalogs and seasonal fan-voted gift guides, all of which have the benefit of giving the brand insights into the personality and interests of visitors along the way.

In 2015, we see the potential of brand communities causing a shift in how brands align their social marketing strategies and budgets as they seek to take build out these freely and fully owned community networks, and bring engagement home.

Image via Shutterstock.

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