Derived from the Latin communis, which means “things held in common”, Community is broadly defined as “organisms inhabiting a common environment and interacting with one another”. Traditionally, the notion of community has represented a geographically defined entity with common goals, values and implied cooperation. With the advent of the World Wide Web circa 1990, the environment effectively expanded to include a digital or virtual ecosystem. The internet revolutionised the speed and reach with which people could interact and communicate, effectively eliminating the logistical and physical constraints of traditional community. These emergent “online communities”, enabled by digital technology, represent “a group of people who interact in a virtual environment. They have a purpose, are supported by technology, and are guided by norms and policies” (Preece, 2000). The world’s biggest online community is Facebook, with over 2 billion active users (as of June 2017) however you can find (or create!) a virtual community to suit any niche or interest. In a business setting, a group of people (customers, fans and advocates) interacting with one another based on their connection to a company or brand is known as a “brand community”. Having a strong and loyal brand community can turn a small brand into a success if it is nurtured, meeting the needs of its audience, and maximising the connection between brand, individual identity and culture. Learn more with us at Insight this month—a panel on creating communities of influence.
Community as Commodity
Branded online communities have become an integral part of a sound business strategy. Harvard Business Review says such communities are more than a PR or marketing exercise: “A brand community is a business strategy… Online social networks can serve valuable community functions. They help people find rich solutions to ambiguous problems and serendipitous connections to people and ideas.” Research from Forrester found that 60% of businesses have a branded online community and 15% were planning to add one in the following 12 months. Whether using a third party platform like Facebook or LinkedIn, a proprietary product like Hoop.la, or your own custom platform, an online community is much more than just a blog – it must also offer discussion forums, calendars, chat rooms and events, surveys, media-sharing, commenting and more depending on your audience needs. In this way, online communities resemble real life communities in the sense that they both provide information, idea exchange, support, collusion and collaboration, friendship and acceptance between strangers.
There are great resources for helping businesses build successful brand communities, especially from other brand communities, like American Express’ “Open Forum”. Our favourite is from Harvard Business Review: Getting Brand Communities Right where Susan Fournier and Lara Lee combine their 30 years of researching, building, and leveraging brand communities, to identify and dispel commonly held myths about building community. A snapshot is offered below:
Myth #1 – A brand community is a marketing strategy. The Reality – A brand community is a business strategy. “For a brand community to yield maximum benefit, it must be framed as a high-level strategy supporting business-wide goals …from culture to operating procedures and governance structure—to drive its community strategy.”
Myth #2 – A brand community exists to serve the business. The Reality – A brand community exists to serve the people in it. “A community-based brand builds loyalty not by driving sales transactions but by helping people meet their needs. … People are more interested in the social links that come from brand affiliations than in the brands themselves.”
Myth #3 – Build the brand, and the community will follow. The Reality – Engineer the community, and the brand will be strong. There are three basic forms of community affiliation: pools, webs, and hubs. Effective community strategies combine all three in a mutually reinforcing system. …To build stable communities, discover brand-appropriate way of creating webs to strengthen your ‘pool’ and ‘hubs’.”
Myth #4 – Brand communities should be love-fests for faithful brand advocates. The Reality – Smart companies embrace the conflicts that make communities thrive. “Dividing lines are fundamental even within communities, where perceived degrees of passion and loyalty separate the hard-core fans from the poseurs. Community is all about rivalries and lines drawn in the sand… Communities become stronger by highlighting, not erasing, the boundaries that define them.”
Myth #5 – Opinion leaders build strong communities. The Reality – Communities are strongest when everyone plays a role. Robust communities establish cultural bedrock by enabling everyone to play a valuable role. …There are 18 social and cultural roles critical to community function, preservation, and evolution. …Those designing new communities can create structures and support systems to ensure the availability of a wide range of roles.
Critical Physical Construct
Online social networks can serve valuable community functions. They help people find rich solutions to ambiguous problems and serendipitous connections to people and ideas. Yet even a well-crafted networking site has limitations. The anonymity of web encounters often emboldens antisocial behavior, and the shallow, transient nature of many online interactions results in weak social bonds. Physical spaces play important roles in fostering community connections. According to Mark Rosenbaum, Marketing Faculty Manager of Northern Illinois University, communities that are developed in third places like gyms and coffee shops often provide social and emotional support equal to or stronger than family ties—a benefit that delivers price premiums of up to 20%. In human communities, there are clear motivations for participation: sense of belonging, camaraderie, mutual support, motivation, opportunity, and ultimately the sharing of ideals, ideas and resources. Similarly, virtual communities can achieve these goals however allowing online and offline engagement can strengthen the engagement of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.
Community is a potent strategy if it is approached with the right mind-set and skills. A strong brand community increases customer loyalty, lowers marketing costs, authenticates brand meanings, and yields an influx of ideas to grow the business. Through commitment, engagement, and support, companies can cultivate brand communities that deliver powerful returns. When you get community right, the benefits are irrefutable. Don Tapscotte, one of the world’s leading business thinkers and co-author of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, believes “Digital technologies slash transaction and collaboration costs. Smart companies are making their boundaries porous, using the internet to harness knowledge, resources and capabilities outside the company. They set a context for innovation and then invite their customers, partners and other third-parties to co-create their products and services.” Economically, virtual communities can be commercially successful, making money through membership fees, subscriptions, usage fees, and advertising commission. Consumers generally feel very comfortable making transactions online provided that the seller has a good reputation throughout the community. Virtual communities also expedite commercial transactions, eliminating vendors and allows for a more direct (and less expensive) line of contact between the consumer and the manufacturer. Corporations that want to be part of this new economy must embrace the same strategies and allow the crowd to become part of their company functions.
Virtual communities will become ever more important now and in the future. With the noise created by social media, meaningful relationship and context are being drowned out. Niche communities created around common interests will thrive so long as they have strong online/offline hybrid models that drive engagement. The Ofﬁce Space seeks to develop our online space to create content and integrate technologies that drive business and develop a network of alliances. We aspire to engage our entire community in connecting with one another, working with one another, sharing ideas, resources and information. We will leverage global knowledge networks to collaborate, innovate, develop and market our resources, products and services within the global village. Our future is an interconnected e-community that is socially inclusive and symbiotic rather than competitive.  “community” Oxford Dictionaries. May 2014. Oxford Dictionaries  Australian Academy of Science. Nova: Science in the News. Retrieved: 2006-07-21.  Preece, J., Maloney-Krichmar, D. and Abras, C. (2003 in press) History of Emergence of Online Communities. In B. Wellman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Community. Berkshire Publishing Group, Sage History and emergence of online communities Jenny Preece, Diane Maloney-Krichmar, Chadia Abras
Information Systems Department, and Language, Literature & Culture Program University of Maryland, Baltimore County Baltimore, MD 21250 Learn more with us at Insight this month—a panel on creating communities of influence. Want more? Stay in touch and subscribe to our monthly newsletter here.