Anatomy of an Online Brand Community. What Keeps a Brand Community Ticking?

otara gunawardena
FB Profile of Otara Gunawardene

Is it really important for a brand to have a feature rich community website with all the features of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Flickr, packaged together, in order for you to build a devoted community of fans? Or, can we build a community around our brands even without having a corporate website for our company? What are the elements it requires to build an effective online brand community?

If you believe that, a website is a must have thing and rich features are the key to success in an online brand community; you are doing the mistake of forgetting the all important social aspects of a brand community. An online brand community is much more than a mere collection of rich website features. Beyond that, a community needs more sensitive social elements for holding the members together and to keep them engaged. If these essential social elements are in place, an online brand community can happen anywhere on the web, even without a dedicated community website.

Take an example, Coco Veranda; a start-up Coffee bar in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I recently had a chance of working closely with them when organizing the first ever TweetUp in Sri Lanka. Coco Veranda is not merely the venue host for the TweetUp, but an integral part of the entire Twitter community in Colombo. Unlike many other brands who want to create a presence on Facebook and Twitter, Coco Veranda is actively engaging in the conversations with the community. Over the last few months, they managed to build a loyal set of followers on their Twitter and Facebook profiles. This community is slowly building up, and proving to be a successful online brand community. But the interesting thing to note is that, Coco Veranda still don’t even have a proper website for their business! Of course, they have registered the domain, but at the point of writing this, the site was not even fully up.

A similar case Study is Odel, the high-end department store in Colombo. Bit contrasting to the case of Coco Veranda; Odel’s brand community is built around their inspirational founder CEO Otara Gunawardena. Otara’s profile on Facebook is one of the most active public figure profiles in Sri Lanka. She attracts loads of fan comments, every time she updates her status or post a picture. As of now, Otara’s profile on Facebook has 14,173 fans (likes) while Odel’s official FB page is having about 31,000 fans. Interesting fact is, the level of engagement is higher on Otara’s individual profile, than on the Odel’s official brand page. Fan engagement on Otara’s profile page reinforces brand identity and credibility of Odel. For example, during the recent IPO issued by Odel in the Colombo Stock Exchange, Otara’s personal profile on Facebook played an important role in building the trust among the investor community. Again; all the action happens on a Facebook fan page but not on a dedicated community website for the brand.

Compare Coco and Odel with Prima Kottu-Mee; a brand of instant noodles! Prima launched the online community website following a successful campaign on TV called the “Kottumee Song”. Prima spent huge amount of money to advertise this website on TV/Newspapers, and tried to build a passionate community of youth people (noodles lovers?) who initially fallen in love with the  famous Kottumee Song. But when I check today, the website is still available but there is no sign of “engagement” on the site at all. The number 1 movie in their top 10 list of movies, went out of theaters a good 6 months ago, and they are still showing it as the hottest movie in Colombo. Reason? They have most probably given up on this online community, which never met their level of expectations even though they had a feature rich, flashy website.

So, if a brand can create an online community even without a website for themselves, why should we consider a community website and rich site features, as must have components of an online community?

I’ve observed several successful brands on social media, like Coco Veranda and Odel, and figured out few components which are common among many of them. I name these as the most critical components of an online brand community. If you are assigned to build a brand community for your company, I suggest you to drop your obsession for building feature rich websites, and focus on these few factors (Disclaimer: This is not an empirically tested thesis or publication).

1. Shared Interest
A community is always centered on a shared object. This shared object could be a person, belief, place, or even a brand. Church communities are built around the shared object of a common faith. Local business communities are usually centered on the location they are running their businesses. We can see hundreds of thousands of fan communities built around the shared interest of persons like Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber or Micheal Jackson. Like that, a brand community should also be centered on a shared interest about the brand. If I am not interested in the value proposition a brand offers me; it is highly unlikely that I become a part of that brand’s community, even if the brand is having the most sophisticated community website with all rich features.

2. Leaders
Any community should have a leader or few of them (working together of course). In the case of a brand community, there should also be leaders, preferably among the consumers themselves. In the case of Coco Veranda and Odel, the CEO’s are playing the dual role of being community leaders, which I believe is a good trend. AirAsia is another example, where the CEO is directly involved in engaging the customers in their brand community. This is the core idea in Seth Godin’s “Tribes”. If you are passionate enough about your brand; who else is better than you, to lead the tribe? But as the community grows bigger slowly, you have to let customers to take lead in driving the momentum forward.

In Coco Veranda and Odel examples, the leaders wouldn’t have become successful if they don’t get a sufficient number of people to follow their lead. Followers are the ones who carry the message across to each other within the community, who will in turn reassure the brand’s credibility among the community. For example, if no one wants to follow the leaders of the community, it will eventually fail to be an effective online community. Initially, you will need at least a handful of people to support the leaders of the community. This includes the key employees (who are truly attached to the brand, not merely because of the salary they get) of your organization, and as many as enthusiastic customers to support the leaders.

4. Culture
A culture is an important component to keep the leaders and followers linked. A brand community will eventually build its own culture, and will throw away anyone (leader/followers) who does not fit that culture. This is not any different from what it happens in national cultures or organizational cultures.

5. Method of Communication
The members of the community need a way of communicating to each other, and a website can only be an alternative at this point. Members still can communicate through email, IM, Twitter or Facebook. It is not a must, for members to communicate on the brand website itself. In my opinion, it is better off for the company if the communication happens on 3rd party channels. This allows to draw in new members (who fit the culture, and share the same interest) to the community.

So, in my opinion if brand managers can formulate a strategy to create these four components effectively; things will become much easier for them to build a good online community around their brands.

But you must never forget that, an online community is only a mean but not the end itself. Therefore, you must have proper strategies in place, to convert these highly engaged brand community members into actual customers (if they are not already) and to drive repeat business from the customers.

Related: Why Do Online Brand Communities Fail?

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