Image screenshot via Apple website

Trying to make sense of communities run by corporations.

This is a two part series about brand communities. In this first post I look at what brand communities are, and what value they create for the organizations that run them. In the second part I look at what value brand communities create for its members.

If you have read some of my previous posts, you probably know how confused I am about the term “community”. Part of that is a strong interest by the marketing / advertising / tech world to replace words such as customer, audience or user with it. In the process of it all, the term is losing its meaning.

There is one kind of community that I’m particularly confused by, because I have a hard time figuring out if they are actual communities or simply marketing tools: communities that are put on by corporations. I call them brand communities. Here is what I’m observing and how I’m trying to make sense of it all. You will see that this is very much mental work-in-progress and I’d be very grateful for your feedback, criticism and further perspectives on this.

How do I define “brand community”?

  • The community is usually run by a for-profit company and their core business is not to run a community. They usually sell some service or product, and the community directly or indirectly orients around that, but often isn’t part of the core offering itself.
  • The community is managed by paid community managers who are part of the marketing, branding, sales, customer service or customer relations department.
  • The community mostly exists online.
  • For me, brand communities are different from tech platforms that are built on the principles of network effects, such as Quora, Product Hunt, Facebook. There the community is a central part of the DNA (and I’ll need a separate post in the future to untangle my confusion with these guys 🙂

Why do companies run “brand communities”?

Companies have come to realize that communities can serve their purposes in a variety of ways. At the core of it is a realization that they don’t have to provide all services top-down to their customers or potential customers, but through a community can empower users to support users.

Here are some core success metrics I’m observing for brand communities:

  • Distributed customer service: Does this reduce the number of customer service tickets, because customers will answer each other’s questions? For example: the Apple support forum (“Find answers, ask questions, and connect with our community of Apple users from around the world”).
  • Knowledge sharing of super users: Are customers sharing their experiences and best practice with other customers, therefore creating a richer brand experience for them? For example: the AirBnB host community (“The Community Center is a place to connect with other hosts, share stories, ask for advice, and get updates from the Airbnb team. You can also plan or join meetups”).
  • Distributed content generation: Are customers going to actively contribute content to the platform provided by the company? Example: people translating and creating new language course in DuoLingo (See CMX: “Here is Duolingo’s Playbook for Creating Community-Generated Content for over 50 Million Learners”).
  • Shared product experience: Are customers using the product together with other customers, therefore creating a shared experience? For example: Nike+ Run Club (“At Nike+ Run Club Live Sessions, you’ll find
    encouragement, guidance, and a local crew of like-minded
    runners”).
  • Brand loyalty and retention: There is an assumption that many of these different types of brand communities share: that a strong brand community will lead to increased brand loyalty and customer retention. Intuitively this makes sense, but how exactly community engagement turns into brand loyalty, I haven’t really understood. A quick glance at some academic research points to some evidence that trust within the community leads to higher commitment and affinity, which in turn leads to more loyal behavior towards the brand: “brand community commitment was found to play a mediating role in the relationships between brand community trust/affect and brand loyalty” (Via Emerald Insight).
  • Product innovation: Are customers providing feedback on existing products or submitting new ideas? Example: Lego Ideas, an initiative by the toymaker where users can support, submit and discover ideas for new LEGO sets.

I found this overview below on the Feverbee website (which has loads of content geared towards people running online brand communities), and I think it offers another great perspective on the potential value of communities for corporates, as it highlights corporate success metrics such as conversion, retention, reducing cost. The “What You Want” stands for what corporations want.

In the same article, Feverbee lists a few more great examples for brand communities:

  • “The Spotify Rock Star program has a few hundred people who contribute thousands of great quality solutions every year. These great contributions (quick, personalized, solutions) bring in hundreds of thousands of members and reduce support costs for 6.4m+ members.
  • ProjectManagement.com has the smartest people in Project Management sharing detailed articles and resources. These templates and resources saves thousands of people spending days, even weeks, of their lives creating their own resources to do their work. They also serve as a premium feature of the community.
  • The Adobe forums has thousands of members sharing their best tips to use the products better. These tips aren’t just targeted at the elite experts, they’re targeted at the far bigger audience of newcomers. This reduces churn, increases loyalty, and improves search traffic.
  • Goodreads has members publishing dozens of independent, quality, reviews every minute. This provides Amazon with a treasure trove of information and increases sales.”

(All 4 points above via Feverbee)

My conclusion: value for corporations, yes! Value for members?

I totally see how brand communities can create tangible bottom-line value for the corporations who initiative them (especially if they are smart enough to invest in them long-term).

But I’m still unclear what value they create for its members beyond the obvious product-related benefits. Many of the brand communities claim that they will help you connect with likeminded peers. Many of them — some explicitly, others implicitly— claim that they create relationships among its members.

Is that claim true? I’m so curious to hear what you all think about thisand I’m going to try and write up my thoughts on this in a future post.