Social networking sites dissolve age-old communication barriers, such as those between companies and consumers, allowing brands to directly interact with existing and potential customers in a way that isn’t possible through other media or marketing channels.
Brands can respond quickly and personally to complaints, provide instant assistance, encourage consumer engagement and build trusting relationships, all of which will improve communication with their customers.
But as companies battle with new strategies and try to harness social media, their perspective can become limited to simply reporting on how many fans they have acquired in total. Instead they should be focused on creating individual customer relationships in order to foster long-term brand advocacy. Of course, the ability of a brand to have a one-to-one connection with a customer is powerful, but brands should be thinking more broadly. If we view the social media arena less as another broadcast channel and more anthropologically as communities and sub-communities full of individual voices, brands can tap into a wealth of existing conversation.
But how can this benefit brands and what do they have to do to get involved?
What drives online communities?
While networks like Linkedin involve people being held together by individual physical relationships such as work colleagues, virtual communities are bound by a common factor, a shared purpose or interest. Our interests are crucial in defining who we are and shaping our life decisions, some argue more than sociological factors like gender and age, which makes these communities prime targets for brands. Whether it be music, art or gaming, the people that make up these groups have passions and, what’s more, are enthusiastic to discuss and share them on a public forum.
Rapid adoption of new technologies such as smartphones with cameras, 4G networks and mobile apps, continues to facilitate the growth of online communities and prompt people to share information wherever they are, which keeps the community thriving.
How do you approach them?
Many brands will find their customers are already talking about them in social media. Similarly, there will be existing communities and conversations taking place at the broader product or sector level. Rather than expending resources trying to build communities from scratch, brands can participate in these existing conversations to their advantage. By identifying the characteristics of a brand or product that correlate with particular communities, brands can then use social media to engage them in dialogue.
Leaders like Red Bull, GoPro and Converse are great examples of brands successfully fostering communities that are fanatical about the interests they represent, like sport, gadgets and streetwear. They do this by placing their brand advocates at the heart of their content strategy, allowing them to tell their story for them. By then sharing this meaningful content through social media, they generate a multi-way conversation and give members a reason to engage both with the brands and each other.
Fundamentally, it is not about leading or disrupting these communities but serving them. Too many brands focus all their marketing efforts trying to create new customer bases, whereas brands can mould a vibrant brand culture by reaching out to existing communities, leveraging their super-fans and fortifying the shared bonds between members.
We should consider the driving force behind online communities (i.e. their common interests) as a value exchange between members and between brands and members – while it may vary across communities and is likely to evolve, it absolutely needs to remain mutual and consistent for a community to thrive, which is a real long-term commitment for brands.
Getting it right
Successful communities and social media campaigns put the brand’s fans front and centre. GoPro’s fan videos, for instance, are created by its community using GoPro products and uploaded online, while Converse celebrates the creativity of its fans, which compels its wider community to get involved. Norway’s OnePiece, an innovative youth fashion brand and pioneers of the onesie, saw the creation of a socially-powered sale where fans could collaborate to reduce the price of a premium OnePiece onesie by sharing the sale on Facebook and Twitter – #HackTheSale. Working towards a mutual goal, each and every participant then received a socially-driven discount.
Long-term brand advocacy should be the strategic objective for social media, but actually gaining the trust of a community is undeniably hard work. Brands that wholeheartedly embrace social media as an important channel for communication are much more likely to empower their fans to have a voice in the brand, advocate it to their network and make them feel part of it and its future.
This article originally appeared in Real Business.