I have been talking to different brands recently who are building brand communities. And I realized that at the core of these conversations was always a variation of the same question: Is it possible to build a community that is truly, sustainably valuable for its members AND that has a real ROI for their brand? (This post is a continuation of this previous reflection on brand communities).

My gut sense is yes, it is possible, but it requires a specific set of design principles to account for an imbalance in power, trust and money. I have listed some observations and draft design principles below and would love to hear what you think about this:

Some observations about relationships between brands and community

  • Some companies fear that if they build a truly meaningful community, there will by definition be no ROI for them. They assume it’s a zero sum game.
  • This makes them worried about allowing for true co-creation through members. Their fear is that if members truly get to shape this, they will take it into a direction the brand won’t like or simply won’t get any value out of it.
  • Some companies have very short ROI cycles, meaning they have to show within a year or so if a community is worthwhile. A lot of companies I talked to, the people in charge totally understand the power of community, but they are worried that their managers, or their managers managers, won’t.
  • I was surprised how some of the companies I talked to spend quite a lot on their communities. Their experiences are unnecessarily fancy. This in return creates more ROI pressure. They spend so much on their experiences, because they think that otherwise people wouldn’t show up.
  • Some companies feel they can’t openly talk about the fact that they need to get something out of the communities, that they have to get their ROI in a subtle, behind-the-scenes way.
  • There is a very mechanical mindset of what community building (quite a mechanical term in itself) is: it ignores that in the end we’re talking about building relationships among real human beings.
  • As a result of the above, I often observe a power dynamic between brand and members which still feels more like a customer – corporation relationship. The brands are not meeting their members eye to eye. They are serving / entertaining their members.

Design principles for brand communities

Based on my observations above, I developed design principles for brand communities to consider and play with. Most brands operate within a strict reality of budgets, timelines and ROI pressures. I’m aware that the below is more of an idealized wish-list than a realistic description of status quo. But I guess you gotta start somewhere 🙂

Co-creation: I would invite members from the very beginning to co-create the community with the brand. I would try to avoid a power dynamic where we as the brand would have to provide everything – thereby creating a dependency – and instead would empower members very early on to take leadership and responsibility.

Transparency: I would make the community as transparent as possible. I would make budgets transparent, leadership decisions transparent, thereby leveling the play fields and strengthening the member’s trust into the overall organization.

Open about my intentions and ROI requirements: part of transparency would be that I would openly state what my intentions are in supporting this community and be open about the fact that I want to both create a meaningful community and hope to serve an internal ROI. I would also be open about moments when I struggle to balance the two elements. My sense is that this could unlock tremendous energies within the community. I would not leave value creation for the brand up to chance and instead define clear pathways how members can give back if they feel inclined. Any contribution by members would always be voluntary and never a requirement to be a part of the community.

Independence: in an ideal world and over the longer-term, I would make the brand community a separate entity, that is independent of the mother brand. This would further deepen the members’ trust that we want this to be around for the long-term and that we truly care about it. And it would create further incentives for members to become active co-creators and co-owners of the group.

Patience: one of the biggest gifts a brand can provide to its community is longevity. If I had to design a brand community, I would get an internal commitment for 5 years and openly communicate that to the community. Continuity creates trust.

Low resource approach: I think it’s crucial to use a low resource approach to building brand communities. I would try to operate with minimal budgets, both to decrease the internal ROI pressures, but also to create a resilient community structure that can live beyond the constant financial support of the brand. I would spend most of my resources on providing a consistent heartbeat and rhythm and on training members for leadership positions. I would set expectations that members have to financially contribute to keep it sustainable and/or that the organization needs a business model beyond financial contributions by the brand.

Governance: I would create governance structures that explicitly invite members to help shape the community. These governance structures would include people from the brand side as well.

Only participants, no observers: people working for the brand would be welcome to join the community. But the expectation would be that they couldn’t join as observers. They could only join as active participants.

Human KPI: Slow quality versus fast quantity: I would set internally KPI based on quality of relationships and active engagement and co-creation of members, not numbers of members.

Internal community training: I would do internal trainings for people working at the brand to understand the power of community in general, and the specifics of the community we’re building. I would extend an invitation to co-create with us and provide avenues to do so.