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Most major brands are hip to Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. And many have built up an impressive presence on the web's most popular social hangouts.
But some of the more adventurous brands have also experimented with self-hosted communities of their own. Unfortunately, a large portion of them fail. Amongst the causalities are communities started by some of the world's biggest brands, such as Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart.
But failure isn't inevitable for brands looking to build their own communities outside of the Facebook and Twitters of the world. According to BrandWeek, a number of diet firms are finding success with their own online communities. Atkins Nutritionals, for instance, only has 3,714 fans on Facebook but its own online community at Atkins.com has plenty of activity. It reportedly reaches millions of people and appears to have over 400,000 registered members.
While a community dedicated to dieting, for example, has obvious advantages over a community for teenagers run by Wal-Mart, that doesn't mean that brands can't develop thriving online communities of their own if they consider the following.
- Focus. Communities develop around subjects that are important to people. That should go without saying. Unfortunately, many brands that launch online communities seem to forget that consumers aren't interested in interacting around their brands 24/7. Instead, brands should identify how they relate to the lives of their customers. With that, they can focus in on building communities around subjects that are relevant to both their brands and their customers' lives.
- Branding. Branded communities need to be branded. But the brand can't be the experience; it has to be integrated into the experience.
- Functionality. Brands looking to reach consumers can't be lazy and simply throw up a vanilla community with standard social networking functionality. Profiles, photo sharing, forums, etc. are all commoditized. To win, brands have to build functionality relevant to the community's focus that differentiates the community and gives members a good reason to keep coming back on a regular basis.
- Participation/moderation. Communities don't run themselves and brands can't start them successfully with a hands-off approach. Instead, brands should make sure that they're actively involved in the communities they run. While the level of involvement can vary, at a minimum brands should be prepared to ensure that their communities aren't overrun with spam and bad behavior.
- Creativity. Brands often have incredible assets that can be used to create compelling community experiences. Contests, exclusive content, special events and rewards programs can all be employed in creative ways to entice consumers to join and participate. Unfortunately, many brands seem downright uninspired when it comes to using their corporate resources with their online communities.
Obviously, branded communities aren't for every company and there are many advantages to tapping into the existing audiences on popular services like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. But that doesn't mean that brands don't have the opportunity to build something successful that they own and control. By keeping these five success factors in mind, that opportunity is easier realized.