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Chapter 20: Building a Community Around Your Brand
“Chuck,” I asked, “what kind of music do you like?”
“Big band era marches and smooth jazz, why?”
“Okay. That won’t work. How about you, Carole?”
“Mostly 80s heavy metal, with a little bit of hip hop when I don’t think anybody’s watching.”
“What works?” asked Chuck
“When was the last time you went a week without seeing an AC/DC T-shirt?”
“Woah,” said Carole.
“What?” said Chuck
“How would you like people to proudly wear your brand on a T-shirt, and collect multiple shirts showing off different times they interacted with your brand?”
“Just like with rock concerts,” said Carole.
“It doesn’t quite work with big band era marches,” I admitted. “They just don’t have the traction.”
“What do you mean?!?!” said Chuck “John Phillip Sousa is the man! He composed more than 130 marches in his life. He has a musical instrument named after him!”
“Um,” I said.
“Thank you for making his point?” said Carole.
I’ve spent a lot of time showing you how modern, digital, inbound profit engineering can bring more qualified leads to your virtual door and help you sell larger contracts to more of them. It’s all about providing remarkable content to everybody. That includes visitors, leads, and maybe/someday people alike.
You could just stop there, and increase your revenues significantly, but that would be a huge mistake. Just because somebody puts money on the table doesn’t mean it’s time to abandon that customer. We are modern, digital business developers, and we know the value of a customer only begins at the close of the first sale.
By the same token, we are not boiler-room appointment setters who hang up on non-qualified leads and scratch them out of our books. We are — say it with me now — modern, digital profit engineers. We know people who can’t buy our product directly still have massive potential value for our brands. Building community is how we develop and leverage the value of both past clients and qualified customers, so let’s talk about how. But first, let’s address the biggest question in this conversation:
Building community takes consistent application of a lot of effort. Because it means responding to things in real time, it even requires staff you have to pay for. It’s a lot more resource-intensive than the automated sales pipeline web tools we’ve discussed so far. So, why do it?
Building community keeps you in touch with people who aren’t actively buying from you, but still feel positive about your brand. By keeping in touch, you lead them to feel still more positively toward your brand as the community grows.
Musicians have demonstrated the power of this for decades, by not just selling albums, but also creating communities of devoted fans. That fan base includes people who have purchased every album, T-shirt, boxed set, and concert ticket…and people who couldn’t afford to buy albums at all. But go mention Iron Maiden in a room full of heavy metal fans, or Loreena McKennitt to a group of new age listeners, and watch the community go to work.
Since we’re talking about music, here’s something to know about value-added content.
Starting in the late 1990s, the internet started making it really easy to pirate music. The Recording Industry Association of America® (and Metallica, those short-haired bastards) kicked up a huge fuss about it. See also book publishing and movie pirating.
But here’s the thing. Everybody who looks at the numbers knows that the piracy hasn’t significantly eroded profits.
That’s because everybody who steals an album (or whatever) becomes a member of the fan community. One of those unqualified leads that are so valuable to profit engineering.
It speaks to the value of giving things away for free to engage people around your brand. Even when an entire industry fights to not give it away, it builds a base of engaged fans. Think about the power of giving it away on purpose.
What music publicists understand, and digital marketers must embrace, is the value and power of those community members. Members of a brand community frequently:
- Share information about the brand with qualified buyers they know
- Write favorable online reviews
- Engage passionately against negative reviews, refuting spurious claims and voicing alternative opinions
- Write articles or blog posts about the brand or its products
- Act as evangelists for the brand
- Add robust content to the community social media pages to give it more momentum and gravitas
Polls have found that 55% of consumers are willing to recommend companies that delight them. They further found that friends who received such recommendations will buy, even if it means paying a higher price than with a competitor.
The Elements of Strong Community
Think about Kia cars. There’s nothing wrong with them, but nobody’s getting passionate about the brand. Now think about the Ford vs. Chevy debate that’s been part of US car culture since those brands began, and more recently brought us these art treasures found on truck windows everywhere:
That’s powerful brand loyalty. But wait! There’s more.
Now, think about how people feel about their Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Think about how some people who don’t even own Harleys think about Harleys.
You don’t just want a community, like the group of people who all drive Kias. You want a strong community like Ford and Chevy enthusiasts. If you can manage to develop a fanatical community like Harley riders or Iron Maiden fans, more power to you — though in truth that level of community is as much a matter of luck as good planning with solid execution.
If you look at 100 different successful brand communities, you get what looks like 100 different strategies for building them. This makes sense on the surface, because obviously the things that motivate and engage Chevy-driving men, bikers on their hogs, or Iron Maiden fans are all different.
But look closer, and you will see that powerful communities share several traits in common.
They Exist to Serve the Community Itself
At the top level, a brand community is built to make a profit. However, every decision about the community should be made to benefit and serve a culture of fandom and the needs of the members. Build an authentic community based on what members ask for, and the community will help build your brand. Ask people to buy into an inauthentic fan club, and your community will be stillborn.
They Look Spontaneous But Are Carefully Engineered
The daily interactions with fellow members and your company must be unscripted, but the development is a matter of careful cultivation. Strong, consistent messaging via communication hubs, thought leaders, community advocates, and the fan base are all carefully planned with excellent execution of that plan.
They Embrace Constructive conflict
A community for Coke never wants an argument about Coke vs. Pepsi, but they thrive on arguments about Diet Coke vs. Coke Zero, or what spice mix to include in a Coke-based barbecue sauce. Internal factions and friendly conflicts make communities more interesting, and members more engaged.
They Give Everybody a Role
They key factor in a community is membership: a sense of belonging. People can’t belong if they lack a role to fit into. not everyone is cut out to be a Fan Club President, online thought leader, or welcomer of the noobs. That said, everyone who wants a place should get a place where they can contribute, and feel they belong.
They Gamify Participation
From free T-shirts for coming to a promotional event, to online badges or even titles based on activity levels, strong communities use the human impulse to accumulate points and trophies as an engine to drive participation. The points needn’t have value outside the community, but giving members some sort of objective can help ramp up activity.
I’m not saying that you have to be Coca-Cola or Harley Davidson to run a successful brand community. I am saying that you should look at brands that successful with community building.
Analyze what they do, and work to replicate their success. Examine how they use their social media channels, online communities, and direct email campaigns to establish belonging and ownership among their clients and potential customers.