Building a Community Around Your Brand

Where were you when the latest Apple gadget was released?

The chances are, if you were anywhere near an Apple store, you would have witnessed or been part of the huge crowds of enthusiastic fans, eager to be one of the first to own the new hardware. In Apple’s favour for any new release is that, not only does it attract superfans, but there have been substantial communities built around the brand.

Building a community around a business, brand or product can be an excellent strategy to help grow brand awareness and gain market traction. In this sense, community building means investing in the connections among your customers, fostering those relationships and helping them to bring more people together.

If you’re thinking this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right – it does take commitment and persistence to build a valuable community, but the benefits in terms of brand reputation, trust and building connections can really pay off.

Let’s look at why and how brands should consider building a community:

Why build a community?

There are many benefits to building a community around your brand, but one of the primary drivers is that you build brand awareness and can nurture “evangelists” – people who love your brand so much they talk to others about it.

Among the other benefits are:

People become assets

Your community members can become your brand’s most important assets. For example, look at companies such as Quora, Yelp or Wikipedia – they all rely on engaged members who make contributions to their sites.

Even in companies that don’t rely on community engagement, those communities have become valuable assets. The communities and forums that have sprung up around Apple often drive enthusiasm and awareness, even helping each other out with technical questions.

Inbound.org is another great example. It began in 2012, developed by Moz founder Rand Fishkin and Hubspot founder Dharmesh Shah. The site exists to discuss all things inbound marketing and currently has around 250,000 members. The number of ideas generated in discussions alone make it valuable – the platform is a ready-made asset for product research and development.

Find quality hires

Yet another benefit of such communities is that they can be a great source for finding new hires. Companies like Yelp and Wikipedia have recruited from among their “super” users, while Inbound.org developed a jobs board so that companies recruiting for related roles can advertise. This is ideal positioning – you would expect to reach a large number of well-targeted people in a niche community.

Promote trust and goodwill

A community benefit that is difficult to measure is the value and goodwill you can create for people. Well-run communities provide them with the opportunity to connect with others, learn new things and share a sense of belonging to something. You’ll find that once these groups reach a critical volume, they often take on a life of their own and will continue to grow without the need for you to spend a lot of money on marketing.

Drive brand recognition

Of course, we can’t leave out the fact that building a community can also give your brand an advantage over others. You have a ready-made audience from which to gain new customers and it can be a big driver of initial traction. If I’d never heard of Hubspot or Moz before, I certainly would learn after being a member of Inbound.org. Having that community helps to drive home their positions as authorities in their respective fields, promoting trust with members.

Ideas and connections

An engaged community can be a real idea factory for members and business owners alike. Whether that’s for product research or simply to learn about the latest sales or marketing strategies that have been useful for others, the information gained is often the sort of things people pay good money to attend conferences for.

The people who join your community can prove to be a real goldmine. If you can work to create a truly valuable community, you’ll get people joining up who bring connections and experience. Inbound.org hosts regular “ask me anything” chats with founders and others who hold top company positions, for example.

How to build a community

Communities can take on many forms. They may be online or offline, large or small, formal or informal. At a very basic level, a community could form around the comments section of your own blog, while on the complex end, communities form around meetups or events.

A community might form around a specific brand or product (Apple, Yelp) or a shared interest (Inbound.org and inbound marketing). It might even be formed around shared values or the desire for joint action, such as white hat hacking groups or groups that share an environmental or social interest.

The type of group you seek to form should be determined by your overall goals for creating a community, so let’s look at a few tips you can follow to get started building your own community:

#1. Determine your goals

Any kind of community that is built around your product, brand or interest should be built on a foundation of the goals that you have for the business and the group. For example, Rand Fishkin talked about wanting a “Hacker News for marketers” before he and Dharmesh Shah created Inbound.org.

The goals you determine should then guide your strategy and direction. For example, big goals such as creating forums of thought leadership might lead to creating your own “Hacker News.” If your goal is simply to drive more engagement around your own brand, you might seek out ways to nurture an active community around your blog or social media.

Here are some tips to think about when devising your goals:

  • Consider the direction you want for your brand, outside of simply growing revenue.
  • Think about how much commitment you can make – will you be able to manage something large?
  • Do you have any existing audience you can leverage to get started?
  • Consider the value you wish to create for customers.
  • Get descriptive about your goals – for example, what does a “thought leader” actually look like?
  • Know your audience – who is it you want to attract?

Infusionsoft brings up a great point for when you’re considering creating a community – you need to define what is and isn’t your brand. Who are “your people” and what will attract them to your community?

“The color pink doesn’t try to make itself more green, hoping to appeal to everybody who loves both. Pink is pink, and you either like it or you don’t. There are no apologies and no justifications.” – Ash Ambridge

#2. Devise a community strategy

What is the overall mission of your community? How will you achieve those goals you’ve laid out? This is focused on why people would want to join in the first place and what they will get out of being a community member.

With your audience in mind, you need to get creative with your strategy and decide on things like:

  • The best platform or place to meet with your target audience. Will you use an existing platform (such as by creating a social media group), or build your own?
  • How to engage in ways that your audience prefers.
  • The features that will facilitate your goals and make the community valuable. Remember, there are a lot of groups out there, what makes yours different?
  • The resources – time, money or technical expertise that you can devote to the community.
  • The core purpose of the group. What will be acceptable? What is unacceptable?

Jeff Atwood is a founder of Stack Exchange, here is what he had to say in Traction:

“We had a manifesto, and an idea of what we wanted to accomplish. And people bought into the vision because it was about them being awesome… [It is] about creating something that helps everyone in material and specific ways. It helps you get better at your job, at something you love doing. There was an idealism that people bought into with Stack Exchange, and we were out there talking about it all that time.”

#3. Build an audience

Every community begins with just a couple of members – where will your first people come from? This is a time when you may be able to leverage any existing audience or connections that you have.

When Inbound.org began, they started with a group of Beta users gleaned from Moz or Hubspot audiences before launching to a broader intake. They kept it simple – the focus was on a “minimum viable product” that would still keep it valuable for users. They then used that initial audience to help spread the word to get more people onboard. Here is Rand Fishkin’s launch post:

“We’d love any help getting out the word and bringing great marketers to the site. I’m also starting this thread to help us gather more feedback, bugs, etc. as the site heats up in quantity of submissions, votes and users. Suggestions are welcome, too. As most of you know, we’ve tried to keep this launch fairly MVP (Minimum Viable Product) focused, so lots of nifty features didn’t make it in yet. We do want to keep a careful eye on people “being cool” here, submitting and voting on good stuff and leaving good comments, though, so any suggestions to help with that are particularly appreciated.”

You might try some launch activities such as:

  • Email your lists — include a feature so people can easily invite others to join
  • Post on your social media accounts
  • Run some targeted, paid advertising (Use retargeting features also)
  • Launch at an event or conference
  • Advertise on your core website

#4. Engage and foster connections

A group is only valuable if there is true engagement around the topics that the core audience wants. At the beginning, this can be slow so you’ll probably have to take a very active role in seeding conversations.

David Spinks, former community director at Zaarly stated:

“Every community will go through an ‘awkward phase’ where conversations feel a little forced and people aren’t initiating conversations on their own. It will pass. Keep building your community one person at a time, and it will eventually begin to flow naturally.”

Find ways to build cross-connections through forums, events or user groups and foster that sense of community. Don’t forget to include room for people to discuss what they would find valuable and how to make the group even better.

Another thing to consider is how you might encourage any “super users.” As an example, Yelp created the “Yelp Elite Squad” (YES), a group of core users who Yelp acknowledges, have helped to grow them to where they are today. Members of YES are identified by a badge on their profiles and are often rewarded with exclusive invitations to events.

Inbound.org identifies contributors by awarding “karma” points for their contributions or upvotes they receive. You don’t need expensive rewards, but some kind of acknowledgement is often appreciated.

#5. Manage your community

If you’ve ever been a part of a forum or social media conversation that has become awkward or inappropriate, you’ll understand the importance of managing a group well! This is another factor that adds to the value of the community for others – is the group kept true to mission?

Here are just a few tips for managing a community well:

  1. Have an established set of rules or guidelines. In the case of online communities, make it clear that admin has the discretion to delete posts or ban users if the rules are broken.
  2. Be upfront. If there have been any issues, it’s always better to be transparent rather than try to bluff your way through. People tend to appreciate honesty and a certain amount of “rawness.”
  3. As a follow-up point to #2, respond promptly to any sort of complaint or controversy. People notice immediately if you try to avoid situations and it can impact their perception of you. You can also fairly effectively disable a negative rumour with facts if you are prompt.
  4. Be clear about the difference between a valid, negative point and an inappropriate troll. Include in your guidelines expectations about how people communicate and respectfully address one another.
  5. As a rule, respond to comments! This is what helps to drive engagement as people enjoy hearing from founders and administrators.
  6. Devise a way to ensure that quality contributions are made (Yelp’s YES program or Inbound.org’s karma points are examples).

Next steps…

Are you ready to build your own community around your brand? The benefits in terms of recognition, evangelism and thought leadership can be priceless if you do a good job of creating a valuable group.

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Stuart Brameld

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