Building a Brand Community Beyond Facebook and User Generated Content

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It’s 2018 and we’ve reached a point where the average consumer encounters 10,000 brand messages every day. personally, I think we hit that threshold long ago.

And, while display ads and traditional advertising remain the primary spends for any mature marketing budget, influencer marketing has finally begun to find its rhythm; its sister, user-generated content (UGC), is a holy grail of sorts; and value alignment (that juicy nexus where a consumer’s and brand’s social purpose’s align) has spread to the C-suite.

As a whole, the rise in these trends points to a sort of Maslow's hierarchy of consumer buying behavior: We’ve moved beyond need-met-by-benefit buying behavior and the purity of cost breakdown. Consumers now make purchasing decisions based on perceived relationships (existing, by proxy, or future) with a brand. Does this chocolate bar contain fair trade certified ingredients? Do I agree with the implied religious affiliation of the cup design at my coffee drive-thru? Are 337 reviews averaging 4.75 stars better than 3,578 reviews averaging 4 stars? Does this platform allow fake profiles to influence the way I vote?

These considerations blow the doors open for any number of opportunities for brands — the least of which is slapping a third-party logo on a new packaging design. The greatest is rich engagement and the launch of community opportunities for brand experience. So, like any relationship, how does a brand move beyond merely dating its consumers and into the deep commitment realm? It’s harder and easier than you think.

Connection Intelligence— it’s like emotional intelligence, but for brands.

After growing several communities for both for-profit and non-profit brands, I’ve come to believe their sustained success is a three-legged stool that I fondly refer to as “Connection Intelligence.” It’s like emotional intelligence, but for brands.

(1) Forums for Dialogue: Most of us know how to set these up in our sleep — they’re commonly hosted on Facebook, Reddit, MightyNetworks, or another plug-and-play platform. Your choice should inherently be defined by your audience. You can also build your own — again, defined by your audience. Regardless of technology, the keyword is dialogue. So while your technical team is sorting out permissions, pause at that crucial first step: Make sure your content team identifies a moderator who excels in both empathy (not just listening) and contribution. Chose whether your emphasis will be on visuals or text, and make sure there are solid paths for peer-to-peer and consumer-to-brand exchange. Each of these should support private and public visibility. These forums work best when the exchange is human (humor, 10th grade language, informal banter, even a name) and the spotlight sits with the consumer more than the brand. The ballpark formula I use: 33 percent of focus is on the brand, 33 percent is UGC, and remaining 33 percent is conversation and exchange around the other 66 percent. It’s not a perfect science but a good place to start.

Key Takeaway: Make sure your content team identifies a moderator who excels in both empathy (not just listening) and contribution.

(2) Moments of Engagement: At a base level, moments of engagement are a close cousin to gated content. But our goal is to grow a community and foster a sustained relationship with two-way contribution, so the one-time exchange that usually comes with gated content won’t suffice. Here, I start creating a multi-dimensional persona for the brand, the goal being that it becomes a regular resource for its clients — even to the extent that it goes beyond its core offering into shared content, offerings, and collaborations. Our skin care product client releases favorite recipes for cocktails, curated finds for her home or from travels, and even at-home solutions (that might compete with her own products) for skin care emergencies. Think of your brand as a functioning member of society with a long-term investment in bettering the lives and lifestyles of your consumers.

Key Takeaway: The goal is to become a regular resource to clients, beyond your brand’s core product offering.

(3) Face-to-Face Interactions: This is probably the most complex of the three. As brands scale and move from local to regional to global, it becomes harder to achieve authenticity around in-person experiences. And the standard consumer’s expectation is sometimes higher than a small brand can afford (i.e. Instagram moments, real-time social platform monitoring, etc.). A friendly tip: Panels of five experts, one moderator, and a theatre of quiet audience members are stale and lazy. I’m a firm believer in creating experiences that foster interaction based on audience research and trial and error. Or simple just what’s fun. Try hands-on learning experiences where your product plays a supporting role or launch road teams that visit communities and invite conversations about your brand on park benches. If you’ve got to have an elevated stage with five folding chairs, there are several ways to turn it into a shit sandwich.

Key Takeaway: Let’s just say no to panels, folding chairs, and posting questions on Twitter.

For big and small businesses, the right execution can be a company-wide win, providing rich information that can influence purchasing behavior, product development, employee engagement, and even produce a rich library of reusable content.

My biggest successes have been when my clients treat each of the three tactics for Connection Intelligence with equal intention, bringing audiences, customers, and employees together. One just isn’t enough. Two is average. All three are undeniable. You know you’ve reached the definition of community when you’ve reached the hallmark of any good relationship — two-way communications where both parties evolve based on engagement from the other. You might say its when your brand has emotional intelligence.