Harley Davidson’s H.O.G community

Why yes, why not, and the opportunity I see.

This is a follow-up post on brand communities — communities initiated and run by corporations. In part one I tried to figure out what value brand communities create for the corporations (conclusion: quite a lot, if they are smart about it). In part two I’m trying to figure out, what value these communities create for the people in it.

Last year I sat in a beautiful conference room in California, where a tech giant shared some insights from their community. I walked away with three observations from that meeting:

1) Their brand community creates real bottom-line return for the company, especially because they have been smart about investing strategically and patiently into it. The ROI shows up in higher conversion, retention, activity levels and engagements of their users, as well as higher satisfaction of super users.

2) Their brand community creates value for their customers, because it makes the product better, more fun, easier to use, more engaging, it feels more human.

3) The company is smart about measuring success metrics, which helps them justify the investment internally. That makes a lot of sense. But, fascinatingly, not one of the metrics is about relationships. All metrics are about engagement and activity levels of members on their platform and in their community.

For me, this last point manifests the biggest question I have about brand communities. I totally see the value for the corporation, I even see the product-related benefits for the customer / community member. But for me, communities are all about relationships and trust. That’s what differentiates a community from other types of groups or networks. That’s what makes a community magicalDo brand communities actually provide a place for people to build meaningful relationships?

Brands use people-centric language when describing their communities

On the surface, many brand communities use language that alludes to the relationship-core of a community:

  • Apple support community: “Find answers, ask questions, and connect with our community of Apple users from around the world.” https://discussions.apple.com/welcome
  • AirBnB host community: “A global community of hosts like you — Join the conversation and connect with other hosts who are creating a world where anyone can belong”.
  • Nike+ Run Club: “you’ll find encouragement, guidance, and a local crew of like-minded runners”.
  • Sephora Beauty community: “Real people. Real time. Real talk. Find beauty inspiration, ask questions, and get recommendations from members like you”.
  • Autodesk Product communities: “Connect with your peers as well as with Autodesk to learn, exchange and contribute to make you more effective as designers.”

But can brand communities live up to these statements? Can brand communities provide a true sense of belonging, a place of trusted relationships?

What speaks for brand communities as place of real human connection?

  • There is demand for it. People are so hungry for genuine connection, because their traditional places of belonging are falling apart or becoming less relevant. And brands could provide a new alternative. As the authors argue in this HBR piece about brand communities: “Often, people are more interested in the social links that come from brand affiliations than they are in the brands themselves. “
  • I imagine that in most brand communities there is a small percentage of over-proportionally active super users. They love the brand and what it stands for, they love what the brand’s product enables, they love helping others navigate the world of that brand. Most brand communities exist exclusively online, and I imagine that some super users spend a lot of time in the forums of the brand community. So I can imagine that these super users will — over time — start to recognize other super users, and feel a sense of intimacy through that shared experience.
  • I can also imagine how sometimes, serendipitously, these purely online, and often anonymous, connections translate into real-life value and relationships. This story in the New York Times highlights the example of a Reddit user (not a brand community in my definition, but close enough for the example’s sake), meeting someone online who ends up supporting him actively in the real world and ultimately helps him get into college. This is a beautiful example of serendipitous online encounters, but my sense is they don’t occur at scale.
  • If the brand community is carefully curated and members feel like they get access to an exclusive club, I could see the sense of shared identity and trust to go up. For example, Campbell, the soup maker, launched Camp Campbell: “Camp Campbell brings together an exclusive community of young female change makers to inspire thought leadership and foster creative collaboration.” I would argue that this smaller format, carefully curated, and probably with strong offline elements, creates tangible relationship value for its members.
  • A different way of achieving the same curation result is by defining specific hurdles that super users have to reach, for example the Youtube Creator community gives you access to different benefits, depending on how many Youtube subscribers you have. Again, I can see how these different hurdles make it more likely for me to trust people who have achieved the same level. And I would assume that trust levels and relationship density increases as the group becomes more exclusive and harder to access.
  • I can see how followers of cult lifestyle brands feel connected to one another. The classic example for me is Harley Davidson with their Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.), aka. “The World’s Greatest Motorcycle Riding Club”. This HBR article nicely outlines how Harley Davidson has actively and strategically invested into their brand community, and made it an integral part of their overall offering. And because Harley Davidson stands clearly for a very specific, unique lifestyle apart from the mainstream, I can see how people, who aspire for that way of living, are finding their peers and their place of belonging through the brand that enables that lifestyle. My sense is, however, that this lifestyle has to be pretty distinct from society’s norms, otherwise the bonding effect through the brand becomes weak. I, for example, aspire to live an outdoorsy lifestyle, and I love the brand Patagonia for its values and how it represents the lifestyle. However, Patagonia attracts a broad enough audience that I don’t necessarily feel more connected to a fellow Patagonia customer.
  • The more brand communities incorporate offline experiences, the stronger the possibility is for genuine relationships to occur. I have never been to a Nike Run club experience, but while I wouldn’t necessarily feel connected to everyone in that group, it’s likely I’ll meet people during the experience.

What speaks against brand communities being places of true relationships and belonging

  • Most of the connections made in branded communities stay anonymous and stay online. How intimate can you get in a forum?
  • However, I believe online forums can create a real sense of peers and belonging among certain people, but my uneducated guess is that most of these connections wouldn’t translate into much offline action.
  • Furthermore, my assumption is that while people might make serendipitous 1:1 connections in brand communities, their trust doesn’t scale very far and usually won’t extend to strangers. Said differently: how much are people willing to trust someone from the same brand community that they have never met, simply because they are part of that same community? My guess is that most brand communities would fail the Community Test and that weak ties will stay weak ties.
  • In brand communities run by for-profit corporations, their ultimate ROI motive always stays in the back of people’s mind, even if it’s unconsciously.
  • Many brand communities are run by marketing, brand, HR, or customer service departments, that have short-term success metrics. It’s much harder for them to invest into long-term relationship building, instead of driving short-term engagement, conversion and retention. As I was researching for this article, I read several blog posts that were more than 3 years old. And the fascinating thing was that most of the examples they linked to, the URLs didn’t exist anymore. That’s at least one data point to suggest that brand communities might not have a very average long shelf life.
  • I imagine that many of these communities have a small number of super users that are recurrently active, and otherwise have quite low rates of recurring interactions.

The opportunity I see: from accidental to purposeful relationships

As laid out above, I can see how certain types of brand communities help people build relationships. But from my limited experience, it seems that most of these relationships stay 1:1 and are mostly serendipitous. Unsurprisingly, I see a huge opportunity for brands to build communities that don’t just create accidental, but intentional relationships. Yes, this is risky for a corporation, because a return will only come in the long-term (or might never come at all). But my sense is that brands would be rewarded with genuine brand affinity and they might unlock a whole new world of true ambassadors.

There are many assumptions based on my limited experience with brand communities in this article. I would be so curious and grateful to hear what YOU think about this all and appreciate any and all feedback! Thank you!