How top brands build effective online communities: Part 1

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Too often online efforts raise awareness but fail to motivate behavior. Yet that’s what brands need to do whether they want to sell more widgets or change the world for the better. And when those efforts fail, brands understandably become disillusioned, cynical or suspicious of online community building. Yet they have never experienced the power of a community that is set up in such a way that it grows organically.

So how do brands structure online engagement to give themselves the best chance of motivating behavior? Having worked on several advertising campaigns that involved creating brand communities that leveraged social media, certain structural fundamentals emerged:

CONCEPTUAL ASSUMPTIONS: An effective online community starts with the right thinking and that involves ceratin fundamental assumptions.

1. BOTTOM UP: A brand must start from the premise that this is a bottom up organization that will live or die on the strength of the dialogue it generates. What the community has to say is important, what you have to say is secondary.

2. SUSTAINABILITY: The site must be conceived in a way that keeps the community active and growing after each initiative or project. Too often even the best communities suffer fatal attrition once their primary goal is reached.

3. CONVERSATION: Brands often seem incapable of not talking about themselves. Rather, they must generate discussion around topics that are meaningful to the community they want to establish (whether it’s a gathering of CFO’s, stay-at-home moms or activists of any kind). Only then can their products be positioned as a relevant (and inoffensive) contributions to the conversation.

4. OWNERSHIP: The site must be structured in a way that allows members to feel ownership over the process as the community experiences success, growth and innovation.

5. INFORMATIVE: The brand must serve as a resource for members looking to learn more about the goals of the community and those already involved.

6. SELF-PROMOTION: The brand must provide tools that enable members to spread information about your community and its goals beyond the site across different social media.

7. GOALS: The goal, and therefore the site, must be structured in a way that allows for an expanded portfolio of goals that will keep the community engaged, growing, and migrating from one goal to the next.

8. MEASUREMENT AND CELEBRATION: The brand must track, measure and reward success within the community.

DESIGN FUNDAMENTALS: If you hope to create a site that doesn’t just raise awareness but motivates behavior, certain design fundamentals are essential:

1. OWNERSHIP and RESPONSIBILITY: The site must be designed in a manner that gives members a sense that they are acting for themselves and their community.

2. RECOGNITION and REWARDS STRUCTURE: There must be ways in which members are rewarded within their community to encourage further participation.

3. UNIFYING GOAL: In order to constantly reinforce a goal and maintain community focus, the brand must regularly share the emotional stories of those participating. That way the online community is consistently humanized and the emotions that motivate their efforts are reinforced.

While some of this may seem obvious in principle, I am constantly surprised by how difficult it is for brands to unblinker themselves, move beyond their own needs, and genuinely engage with their community top of mind.

Once they do, they entrust their success to those best qualified to guarantee it – a community of interested parties engaged in meaningful dialogue that will justify the need for a brand, product or service.

If you have any more guidelines to add, please do. Together we can create a valuable template that will help all our community efforts reach their intended goals.

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