Insights

The future of online community is contextualized

Alek Jeziorek
Alek Jeziorek Staff writer
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In recent years, countless brands have invested time and money into building a following on social media platforms like Facebook. Many succeeded in gathering large followings, but only a select few have built truly engaging communities. When you take a closer look at the interaction on individual posts in most brand communities on these platforms, the numbers betray the fact that in spite of their large followings, most of these brands have failed to cultivate true communities that stimulate meaningful interaction and conversation. 

Facebook Messenger is a massively popular way for brands to communicate with customers and vice versa, particularly due to the ease of rolling out chatbots. But with many customers avoiding or altogether leaving Facebook and other social media, it makes sense for brands that seek to build their own communities to do so elsewhere. 

Additionally, building your community on a platform you own gives you greater control over the user experience and gives you ownership of your data and visibility, instead of being at the mercy of another platform’s algorithms and advertising sales department.

Why the sudden hate for social?

Why is social media increasingly viewed with distrust? The reasons are multifarious. On the one hand, with apps like Screen Time making people more aware of what a huge time sink social media is, it’s becoming increasingly common to try to win back their time by reducing their social media activity or turning away from social media altogether. 

Other reasons for shunning social media include the idea that they distract users from fully engaging with “real” life and foster superficial, competitive environments that can have negative effects on users’ self-esteem. 

Many users also turned away from social media due to privacy concerns in the wake of abuses of consumer data such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The rise of niche communities

While consumers may shun social media, they rarely abandon digital interaction altogether. Niche communities around interests and hobbies are thriving. Gaming, fitness, technology, travel, DIY, fashion – brands and influencers have created thriving communities around peoples’ shared interests and passions. The common thread throughout the online communities that succeed is that they provide genuine value and put their members’ needs first. 

The future is contextual

The overwhelming current trend in UX is to make users’ experience as seamless and effortless as possible. A big part of this is reducing the number of clicks involved in navigating between different parts of your platform or user journey. As such, it’s a good idea to allow as many interactions as possible to take place within the context of your app to streamline your user experience. 

Allowing your users – and fans, if you play your cards right – to interact with your brand and each other in the same place means that the interactions and conversations are more immediate, informed, and relevant. In the same way that watching a recording of a sports match isn’t the same as experiencing it in real-time with friends, a disjointed brand community experience disrupts the synchronicity of the experience and dilutes the sense of togetherness that comes from sharing an experience. 

Allow your users to congregate in the context of your app

In Why online communities and their users are seeking real-time chat, we discuss what happens when online communities fragment into smaller but more focused, cohesive groups in which members have much in common, identify with one another strongly and form strong interpersonal bonds. He points out that large online communities fragmenting into smaller communities with shared interests is a natural process, but if brands or platforms wish to prevent these subcommunities from splitting off to other platforms, it’s crucial that they provide ways for these smaller communities to form and communicate in-platform. 

In the absence of in-app chat capabilities that meet their needs, micro-communities are likely to migrate to apps like Slack or Discord instead. While they may initially continue to frequent the original channel if it’s worth their while, as these subcommunities scale, they often replace the original forum and eventually repeat the cycle, spawning their own micro-communities. If you equip your users with the right tools, you can retain each new generation of micro-communities within the context of the larger community instead of losing them to other platforms. 

How to build a community around your brand: start small

When we look at famous examples of brands that built thriving communities around their brands – like Harley Davidson, Nike, Playstation, Adidas, Glow, Gymshark, and others – it may be daunting to imagine trying to build an equally successful community around your brand. 

That’s your first mistake. Don’t worry about the millions. Start small. Appeal to the individual instead of the group. Marketing mastermind Seth Godin speaks of finding the smallest viable audience and appealing to that tiny audience with laser focus instead of trying to cater to the masses. 

What all successful brand communities have in common is that they bring people together by focusing on their shared interests and appealing to their passions and values. These brands try to serve their customers’ real needs and solve their problems rather than simply talking about how great their product is. Remember, when your customers become loyal fans of your brand they’ll happily create user-generated content telling the world how great your product or service is.

Building a brand community in five steps

Step one: Find your identity

Communities grow around shared values and passions. Assign some time to introspection and nail down who your brand is, what you stand for, and the type of customer you wish to align yourself with.

Step two: Build your brand home

As we’ve discussed, the best place for your online community is right inside your app. Build an environment that facilitates the kind of community interaction you wish to drive and be sure to give your users ample opportunity to 

Step three: Create value

Start creating value for your community. Of course, making sure that your core offering is high quality is essential, but you’ll also want to step up your content game. Create content that helps, inspires, entertains, and educates your dream customer. 

Step three: Invite customers into your brand home

Remember how we started this article by saying that social media is not the best place to build your brand community? Well, that’s true – but it doesn’t mean you should completely abandon social media, simply use it strategically to drive people to your owned community platform. Create content that invites your community members “home”. 

Step four: Drive engagement 

While some communities will thrive on their own as community members create content, share anecdotes, ask each other questions and give advice (think makeup forums featuring video tutorials and reviews), most will need an occasional nudge to drive engagement. Some ideas include hosting events and competitions, posting polls and asking questions, as well as educational resources such as blogs, podcasts, and videos.

Step five: Interact with and recognize community members

Now that you’ve built a community around your brand, it’s important that you actually interact with your customers. Ask for and listen to their suggestions and finding ways to recognize the achievements and contributions of community members. This strengthens loyalty and imparts status, which in turn inspires other community members to participate.

Closing thoughts

Building a flourishing community around your brand is never going to be a simple exercise. It takes strategy and a significant amount of hard work to tap into what makes your particular audience tick. 

One thing you can do to make the community building process a whole lot easier is making sure that you have the right tools right from the beginning. Set your community up to endure the inevitable fragmentation into subcommunities and micro-communities by building a chat feature that lives up to users’ high expectations right into your app. 

Tags: Insights