For marketers keen to engage customers online, up time spent with their brands, and boost product sales, any number of social media strategies will do. However, companies are increasingly branching out to create online communities all their own.
Based on research conducted in 2014, marketing journal Marketing Science reports that having an online community can increase sales by as much as 20 percent among the bottom 25 percent of a company’s customer base.
“There is an economic benefit to hosting your own communities. There’s also the benefit of information that you collect by watching the customer and what they do,” Grant Packard, the co-author of the study told Campaign US magazine. “Overall we think it’s a win-win for customers and for firms to host their own online communities.”
Fabric softener brand Snuggle agrees. Last year, Snuggle launched an online community designed to drive engagement and sales. Called Snuggle Bear Den, it was built by advocacy activation company Social Media Link. It features a Dashboard that’s regularly updated with special offers, a discussion forum, product reviews, and consumer surveys.
“The platform has become our ‘Swiss Army knife’ of marketing tools,” says Brendan O’Marra, director of digital and promotion for Sun Products Corporation, parent company of the Snuggle brand. “While originally built for social CRM, it has become incredibly useful for insight mining, support for e-commerce efforts, great user-generated content (UGC), and beyond.”
To keep its community engaged, Snuggle regularly assigns its site members “missions” that earn them virtual points, which can ultimately lead to exclusive offers. Its latest effort is the “SeptemBEAR Mission,” launched this month. The brand is donating 5,000 teddy bears to children in need through a partnership with nonprofit organization Random Acts. It’s also encouraging consumers to post photos and videos of their “favorite teddy bear moments” on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #ShareABear. Participants can win prizes that include Snuggle products.
While the event will carry on throughout September, it reached its peak on September 9 – National Teddy Bear Day. Snuggle’s social media team spent the day posting questions to its mascot-centric Twitter account about consumers’ best experiences with teddy bears.
Within the first two weeks of the #ShareABear campaign, Snuggle delivered close to 2 million media impressions.
What makes an online community like this so appealing to a consumer packaged goods (CPG) brand like Snuggle? In part, it’s that the site creates a direct path to loyal customers that isn’t reliant on existing social sites.
“The Bear Den allows us to develop a more personal relationship with our most valuable consumers, and a true two-way exchange,” O’Marra says. “That’s something that you can’t really do at scale with a paid Facebook campaign.”
For O’Marra and his team, an online community was on the radar “even before Facebook’s organic reach became less than 1 percent.” A year in, engagement rates with Bear Den are high, with some of the missions assigned to its members generating double-digital growth in e-commerce.
There are other benefits as well. The Bear Den delivers a steady stream of authentic, user-generated digital content that Snuggle can repurpose for use on other marketing channels. The brand has also managed to gather valuable data on where its members prefer to shop, which other products they buy or would consider buying, and their household laundry habits.
“With this great collection of advocates, new learning is just a question or two away,” O’Marra says. “We can leverage this information to deliver more tailored value exchanges with our consumers, or to drive business with a specific retail customer.”
Many a brand has tried its hand at maintaining an online community, and some have been going strong for years. Among these are Procter & Gamble’s BeingGirl. Launched in 2000, this is a lifestyle site offering health, wellness, and beauty advice for teens that’s sponsored by six of its brands. Meanwhile, American Express’s well-known small business community OPEN Forum was introduced way back in 2007.
More recently, Adobe purchased Behance in 2012 to connect digital artists and designers with companies in need of talent. A year later, publisher Random House Children’s Books acquired Figment an online writing community for teens.
According to Susan Frech, chief executive and co-founder of Social Media Link, brands interested in launching their own community should consider these three things:
- Advocate acquisition
- Community engagement
“Ask how you’re going to build a community, use the community, and measure the impact,” Frech says. “In community building, quantity does not automatically equal quality.”
A community like Snuggle’s Bear Den, Frech adds, is a chance for marketers to own the consumer relationship across multiple brand touch-points. “We have found one of the huge benefits of a brand community is that it serves a wide range of business units in one central place, from CRM to insights, PR, innovation, digital, word-of-mouth, cause marketing, and shopper.”
Snuggle’s efforts are proof that companies of all kinds stand to gain positive returns from a community built on interactivity and brand trust. “Consumers are bombarded by choices and even more noise to help them in those choices,” says Frech. “The brands that will win are the ones that develop strategies to activate advocates, promote brand word-of-mouth, and design a ‘home’ to reward and recognize their loyal customers.”
The fact that online communities have the potential to achieve all of these things is sure to leave brands feeling warm and snuggly.