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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.

Patricio Robles

Published 13 January, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2419 more posts from this author

Comments (2)

Billie Andersen

Billie Andersen, User Experience Consultant at Foviance

It is not surprising that dieting companies have a higher volume of members on their own sites, than on others.  If a person is dieting, they probably wont want to advertise it to their network on a site such as facebook. However, they can join a whole community of dieters on a site such as 'Atkins Nutritionals' mentioned above.  With a site such as this, people can relate to each other as they have a common goal.  This can provide the reason to be part of a dedicated dieting site and interact with each other, as they can provide support for each other or swap dieting tips.  People wont want to link to a dieting company, but will want to link to other dieters, highlighting the first point made in the article above that a site has to have a focus above and beyond just being linked to a brand.

almost 7 years ago

Charlie Osmond

Charlie Osmond, Chief Tease at Triptease

Hi Patricio,

Nice to see you focussing on Online Communities. During 2009 we definitely found that the backlash against the old mantra "fish where the fish are swimming" (i.e. Facebook) had begun.

Building engagement and a sense of community on one's own site is becoming an essential part of joining the conversation. It's also more consistently reliable when it comes to ROI from social media.

For example, in Q4 we launched an online community for a luxury retailer. We also built a branded facebook group and ran their Twitter account. Despite gaining over 70k fans on facebook (more people than we attracted to the community) we got 3.5x the ROI from people who visited the community as from facebook fans and twitter followers combined.

Oh and from your five success factors, we tend to find it is the participation - or community management - that is the single largest determinant of success.

And the other factor I'd add is a clear seeding strategy.
Social Media and Online Communities

almost 7 years ago

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