Hint: It’s not all about your brand.

Companies are often told to meet their consumers where they already spend time. But what if, instead of having to chase consumers down, you could transform your brand’s digital presence into a go-to destination for your target audience? Building a brand community can be difficult to pull off, but when executed successfully, brands can essentially “own” their own social network — without worrying about disappearing organic reach or the whims of third-party sites.

Let’s take a look at five hallmarks of a successful brand community.

1. Create a Lifestyle

At the core of every brand community is a group of ardent consumers organized around the lifestyle, activities, and ethos of a particular brand. Make a point to unpack the lifestyle and preferences that unite your existing customers, and work to develop a content experience that extends that ideology.

2. Provide Meaningful Service

A community-based brand builds loyalty not by pushing the hard sell, but by providing a meaningful service to consumers. Identify tangible needs within your consumer base — are customers consistently looking to share the different ways in which they use your product? Are they seeking emotional support or the opportunity for group discussion? Are they hoping to cultivate specific skills, or are they interested in giving back? Your community platforms should be about more than brand news and brand affiliation; they should fulfill a tangible need for your target audience, whatever that need may be.

3. Ask Questions and Embrace Feedback

The chance for your consumers to wield influence over your brand incentivizes participation. Give your community members the opportunity to shape your brand platforms, subject matter, and even the products your brand produces. Community crowdsourcing is a great way to receive honest feedback and show community members that your brand is listening by incorporating their feedback into your brand strategy.

4. Let Users Lead

Before you begin cultivating a brand community, let go of your expectations. Overly structured or heavily branded endeavors are unlikely to succeed in their first iteration — and isn’t the point to find out what consumers want, anyway? Go into the process with an open mind, a variety of ideas, and a willingness to try new things and start over. Community building is not a science, so let your brand community take shape without the rigid constrictions of your preconceived notions.

5. Back Off the Branding

Heavily branded, inauthentic content and user experiences can turn audiences off. Instead of putting the brand first, put the community first, and natural brand integration will follow.

In its examination of successful brand communities, the Harvard Business Review cites Pepperidge Farm’s unsuccessful first iteration of its brand community effort — a website stocked with Goldfish-branded kids’ games. Taking a step back from their original plan, the Goldfish team uncovered alarming statistics about depression and low self-esteem among children. Their next attempt at a brand community included a partnership with psychologist Karen Reivich that repackaged academic research into learning activities and discussion tools. For Pepperidge Farm, putting the brand second allowed for a strong community to develop.

Building an engaged brand community takes time, and the process will differ for every company depending on their product focus and expertise. Remember to be creative, let users lead, and hold off on aggressive product integration. A strong brand community has the potential to increase customer loyalty, lower marketing costs, promote company values, and yield new ideas that offer tangible business value.

Longneck and Thunderfoot offer brand publishing services and strategies to transform your company blog into a sophisticated trade publication that drives visibility and influence in your market. Learn more about brand publishing here.

Author Grace Stearns

A graduate of Pepperdine University, Grace has worked in PR and brand communications at publishing giants like Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, and Simon & Schuster. She writes about content marketing, social media, and technology for L&T's blog. A reluctant West Coast transplant, Grace lives in Brooklyn and spends a majority of her free time curled up with a good book.

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