Brand Communities Have Inevitably Changed

Bit of a rant today.

As our list of brand online community examples shows, the nature of a brand community has completely changed in the past two decades.

Until recently, brand communities referred to devout superfans of companies like Apple, Jeep, and Harley Davidson gathering together to celebrate their founder, revealing a revolutionary new technology, help one another customize their vehicles, or participate in long journeys with one another. But brand communities today are completely different. They’re less about superfandom, creating warm, fuzzy feelings, and instead about showing a clear, visible, impact.

Making people feel great is nice, but being able to show millions of dollars in costs saved, new customers attracted, or new products launched as a result of the community is what matters. A happy, chatty, community which doesn’t deliver any obvious results is a luxury few companies can afford (and nor should they). It’s not a ridiculous question to ask “what’s the purpose of all this activity?” if the answer isn’t ridiculously obvious.

Fortunately, the potential of brand communities today is bigger than it’s ever been. Almost all brand communities have moved online and can reach far more people than ever before.

They create resources and host discussions read and watched by millions. A useful tip shared over the barbecue at ‘Camp Jeep’ might be heard by a dozen people. A tip posted in the Fitbit community can be read by tens of thousands of people.

Better yet, it can be tested, improved upon, and become common knowledge amongst all. It can drive forward innovation in ways which are scarcely imaginable.

Most members of today’s communities are less likely to be seeking a deep sense of belonging and more likely to be looking for something they need right now. This might be expertise, a place to build their reputation, or a chance to help others and feel good about themselves.

Companies big and small too often lack the ambition for what a community could be and the determination to see it through. As the potential of brand communities has grown, the ambition of their creators has shrunk. It’s a lot easier to launch another Twitter account than to take a group of customers aside and build something special.

Managing a community, and being responsible for a brand’s best and most valuable customers, should be one of the most exciting and important jobs in any business. It should be a job others aspire to and covet. But too often the task of engaging customers online falls to a junior staffer with limited experience and worse prospects.

Too often these staff are forced to chase meaningless measures of engagement rather than forging an indispensable community among their members and their colleagues.

It’s impossible to build an indispensable community when we’re forcing members to choose between clicking ‘like’, ‘share’, or ‘comment’.

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