How online brand communities are redefining brand networking.

How online brand communities are redefining brand networking.

Less than half of companies agree that their use of social media is for brand networking is giving them any return on investment. That's why many companies see online brand communities as a solution.  Businesses have more opportunities to engage their target audiences than ever before, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. When the development and rapid growth of social media began in the early 2000s, companies and entrepreneurs alike saw great potential for using these platforms for marketing and brand-building. Thus, brand networking was born, and it’s been evolving ever since. Today, social media marketing has changed almost beyond recognition. Whereas the major social networks were, and still are, obvious venues for paid advertising due to their enormous audiences and powerful targeting features, brands soon started to recognise their potential for increasing customer engagement organically. Before long, they became thriving online brand communities that went beyond traditional advertising to become hotbeds of ideation and brand-to-customer relationships. Fast-forward to 2019, and many brands are starting to rethink the way they use mainstream social networking channels. Whereas brands were once reporting an average of a 95% ROI for their social media marketing programmes, organic reach is declining rapidly as the social platforms change their models in favour of sponsored advertising. Over the course of a year, engagement rates on Facebook alone have declined from 0.16% to 0.9%. The decreasing visibility of unpaid brand content on many social networks isn’t the only issue that marketers have to tend with. Social media marketing overall is becoming more competitive and commercially saturated to the point that less than half of businesses can even claim to see any ROI of their SMM strategies. Given the amount of time and effort that brands dedicate to social media, it’s a worrying trend.

Why mainstream social media has outgrown the human element

The average Facebook user has 338 friends, which is more than twice the number of people the average person can maintain any meaningful relationship with. All too often are people seduced by big numbers. With 2.77 billion people using social media regularly, it’s easy to see why companies have grown to depend on it as a way to reach more customers and drive their brand networking strategies. However, the sheer size of mainstream social media is also one of its greatest weaknesses. The human mind simply isn’t built to have meaningful relationships with such a large number of people. The numbers game is what makes social media one of the most misunderstood mediums of all. Obsessing over having friend counts in the hundreds or even the thousands often draws accusations of vanity. The same applies to brands which focus too heavily on increasing their follower counts. Unfortunately, a large following rarely means greater engagement, particularly if the focus is on numbers rather than relevancy. After all, anyone can click ‘like’ or ‘follow’, but that doesn’t mean there’ll be any further interaction between the follower and the brand. Naturally, brand networking relies a whole lot on numbers. But, numbers mean nothing if the engagement rates are rock bottom. The fact that many social platforms, especially Facebook and Instagram, have recently altered their algorithms to favour sponsored content rather than organic content posted on business pages, only fuels the decline in engagement rates. What’s most important, however, if that humans do have a natural limit to the number of meaningful relationships they can maintain. Known as Dunbar’s number after British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, it stands at around 150. This is the point at which emotional ties peter out to the point of becoming almost non-existent. And, without those emotional connections, engagement levels draw ever closer to becoming meaningless. Brand networking depends heavily on the limitations and characteristics of human nature, and that’s why mainstream social media is no longer its most suitable venue. Recent algorithm changes have merely accelerated this otherwise natural decline, which is why we’re seeing companies creating less content for social media. Now, brands have to contend not only with decreased visibility of organic content, but also with the very fact that social media isn’t, well, very social.

picture of a phone and it says social media next to ir

What defines meaningful brand engagement?

Likes and follows on social media don’t count as meaningful engagements if that’s the only interaction a customer ever has with a brand. All too often is brand engagement defined by vanity metrics that have little or no bearing on the actual effectiveness of a brand networking strategy. Sure, things like likes and follows are indeed forms of engagement, but they’re so low-level as to be practically meaningless in many contexts. This isn’t helped by the fact that hundreds of millions of social profiles are fake, with Facebook alone removing around 90 million fake accounts every quarter. Alarming statistics such as these make it clear that a lot of the engagement metrics are severely flawed. After all, a thousand likes on a post can hardly be described as meaningful engagement if most of them come from click farms. Since brand networking is about human relationships, the effectiveness of conventional social media marketing is brought into question. Meaningful brand engagement happens when users remember you, forming lasting relationships with the brand and with other customers who they have something in common with. While much of the attention today focuses on raw statistics and data analytics, real relationships aren’t something you can just assign a number to. That’s not to say analytics aren’t still highly valuable; just that there’s more to relationships than mere numbers. Meaningful engagement goes far beyond likes and follows to incorporate conversations. These are the sort of interactions that add real business value by going above and beyond all the digital noise that inundates the mainstream social channels. To become successful, brands need to make an effort to be heard, recognised and acknowledged and help their customers achieve the same. There are a lot of reasons why over-reliance on conventional social networking can hinder a brand’s efforts to engage its customers and vice versa. Not only are brands less motivated to post on social media when visibility of organic content is at an all-time low; customers are less likely to post if they feel there’s no one listening. With social media users being exposed to thousands of stories per day, any kind of meaningful engagement comes with a significant degree of luck. And, when people do, for example, comment on a story, there’s a high chance that it will still only receive minimal visibility.

keyboard, headphones and a mouse

The return of exclusive online brand communities

Branded online communities go far beyond marketing to offer thriving social spaces of ideation, feedback, support, and advocacy. Long before the rise of modern social media platforms, online brand communities took the form of bulletin boards. These eventually evolved into online forums where individuals would be drawn together by shared interests. Since the very beginning of the modern web, there have been a huge number of small communities dedicated towards specific topics where people exchange information and send each other direct messages. Social networks soon outpaced many of these established communities by standardising the medium and bringing web users together under a handful different platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more visually orientated ones like YouTube and Instagram. All incorporate a standard set of features, such as the ability to upvote content, send instant messages and follow specific profiles. Today, live community forums are making a comeback, and not only in personal or non-profit contexts driven by specific interests. Before social media, most brands were highly resistant to hosting public platforms of their own for fear that they would give rise to hostile and negative experiences. Instead, they depended on more exclusive events like invitation-only meetings, simply because it seemed like a less risky option. That’s all changed now that companies are beginning to recognise the benefits of maintaining their own social spaces. Online brand communities are inherently more exclusive, simply because they’re specific to that brand. They might have open invitations or be gated behind a paywall. They might have hundreds or even thousands of members, but they’re drawn together by a shared interest and a specific focus. These online brand communities come in several flavours like the following:

  • Advocate communities provide a space where brands can mobilise their most valued customers and reward them with recognition and exclusive offers.

  • Insight communities allow customers to share their feedback and ideas, thus having a direct impact in the development of the products and services they love.

  • Social communities are all about building brand awareness and engagement through fun or relevant content. These also include mainstream social networks.

  • Support communities offer peer-to-peer support to improve customer service while deflecting tickets from customer support teams.

  • Enterprise communities are internal platforms, typically used by large businesses, to improve collaboration and employee engagement.

The above examples often still take the form of mainstream social media communities, but an increasing number of cases instead favour things like live community forums or branded social networks. Since every community depends on engagement to succeed, these more exclusive options are preferable for their stronger human connections, meaningful interactions and the measurable performance data they bring to the table.

iPad, glasses and a pen on a table

The unification of live community forums with social media

Blended together, the stronger interactions of live community forums and the familiarity of modern social networking can become an invaluable brand networking platform. Brand networking is a complex and multifaceted strategy. Its success depends on the ability to engage your customers in the way that they prefer. For example, many people exclusively use their mobile devices to browse the internet and use social media. Some people are more likely to engage with visual content. Others prefer to read long-form content, and others enjoy crafting and sharing content themselves in return for recognition. Some just want to interact with others by way of casual conversation and instant messaging. With such a large number of different ways for interactions to play out, brands need to find a way to accommodate the many differences and preferences among their customers without diluting the experience with unnecessary digital noise. Both live community forums and social media have their own advantages and disadvantages. While forums are typically very text-heavy, social media tends to cater better to brief and minor interactions. Unfortunately, there’s often no real sense of belonging in a conventional social media community, simply because they lack focus. A user ends up being one of many voices in an environment that’s so diluted as to be the exact opposite of social. It’s much like how some people lament the loneliness of big cities when compared to smaller and far more close-knit rural communities. Live community forums potentially offer a much stronger sense of belonging simply because they’re so much smaller and tend to have a more specific purpose. A lot of message boards offer some kind of introduction forum where new members can make themselves known to the community. Since they’re smaller and far easier to manage, these forums also tend to be safer and more welcoming – it’s much harder to keep the trolls, spammers and fake followers away from a Twitter or Facebook page by contrast. Unfortunately, community forums aren’t without their limitations. They often offer a poor experience on the small screen, and they’re generally not so well-suited to brief interactions like checking for updates in the same way that mainstream social media is. For brand networking to succeed, it must understand how people are different and also what they have in common. Given the enormous popularity of social media, and the fact that most internet users are highly familiar with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, it pays to capitalise on that familiarity while also offering the tools that target audiences need to participate in the way they want to. Thus, we’re seeing a rapid rise in the number of brand social spaces tailored to the unique needs of brands and their customers. By merging the benefits of both community forums and conventional social media into a single owned brand asset, companies can enjoy the best of both worlds.

phone screen that reads 'live on instagram'

Overcoming the challenges of brand networking with exclusive online brand communities

The business world has long been self-absorbed in their products and services to the extent that consumers are starting to feel they don’t have anything else to offer. An effective community brings a new and highly valuable asset to the table by giving customers a sense of loyalty not just to the brand, but also to one another. Indeed, some of the most successful brands in the world can place much of that success on the strength of their communities. These are the companies that go far beyond their products and services to have a very real impact on modern culture to the extent they even help define their customers lifestyles. A branded social space is becoming a must-have asset for organisations wanting to overcome the many limitations and unpredictable nature of conventional social media and live community forums alike. By uniting the benefits of each, it’s possible to forge more engaging relationships of the type that drive today’s economy. Here are some of the biggest problems today’s brands face, and how unique social spaces can help overcome them:

Challenge 1: limited attention spans

Between 2000 and 2013, the average human attention span dropped from 12 to 8 seconds. With distractions being all around us, it’s never been harder to make ourselves heard through the growing cascade of digital noise. The ability to cut through these distractions is imperative for meaningful engagement, but that’s not likely to happen when trying to navigate through the overcrowded environment of social media or get people to participate on a clunky online forum. To be heard and remembered, brands need to be easily and consistently accessible. Now that most people are familiar with social media and mobile browsing, branded social spaces with full mobile functionality offer a persistent way to keep at the forefront of customers' minds. The familiar social networking element also makes it more conducive to brief interactions, such as checking a newsfeed for updates or sending a quick message to another member.

Challenge 2: lack of relevancy

51% of consumers hold back from engaging with brands because the content they post isn’t relevant to them. The fact that we’re exposed to thousands of ads every day has conditioned us to be far more selective about what we take the time to view, let alone share. If people only see ads or, worse still, ads disguised as organic content, then there’s a high chance that this lack of relevance will actually lead to reputational damage. Since exclusive social spaces are united by a common sense of purpose, the opportunities for targeting and engaging with the right people are much greater. They also encourage members to interact with one another, which means there’ll be far more user-generated content. People are far more likely to engage with posts and other content posted by their fellow community members too.

Challenge 3: increased expectations

Now that switching products and suppliers is so much easier, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 92% of customers will stop doing business with a company if they have three or fewer negative customer service experiences. The availability of consumer review sites and social media only amplifies discontent too, thus heralding in the Age of the Consumer and the pressure it puts on brands to do better. Unique social spaces present new opportunities for brands to increase the relevance of their products and services and improve the way they communicate. Product teams, for example, can act on advice directly from customers, while customer service teams can deflect tickets to support communities. In the end, strong online brand communities effectively empower customers by making them a part of the brand itself.

Challenge 4: lack of control

On Facebook alone, engagement rates with organic content declined by 50% between 2017 and 2018. The main reason for this sudden decline was Facebook throttling back the visibility of brand pages. While Facebook’s official reasoning for the spate of algorithm changes was to increase the visibility of content published by users’ friends, we can be pretty sure wanting to encourage businesses to increase their spending on paid advertising was also a part of it. With mainstream social media, businesses don’t get the last word on anything. Not only is the visibility of their content entirely at the mercy of the platform’s owners; they also have relatively little control over things like branding and functions. An owned community platform is entirely different in that it allows businesses to enable the features and functions they want, preserve their branding, and avoid being subject to the whims of a third-party platform owner. Disciple helps brands build unique online brand communities that they own and control. In fact, our customers are seeing an average return on investment of 4,5 times and 16 times more engagement.