Episode 35: Serious Social – Branded Communities

Episode 35: Serious Social – Branded Communities


Ep 35: Serious Social – Branded Communities

Join Katy Howell and award-winning marketer Nick Watt in this episode of Serious Social as they explore the world of branded communities and discuss how brands like Adobe, Levi’s, Google and more, create thriving communities.

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Full Transcript

Welcome to the Serious Social podcast, created by the straight-talking social media experts at immediate future.

Katy – Hello, it’s Friday. Welcome to “Serious Social”, grab a cup of tea.

We’re going to be talking about creating a compelling community. So whether it’s Facebook, WhatsApp, or LinkedIn groups communities are forming really fast through the pandemic. We’re feeling a need to gather together and stay close to people across shared interests and connections. Outside of the big networks, we see private messaging for discrete audience, such as Guild, accelerate in the B2B space. In fact, they’ve just published a super interesting piece on CBM, Community-Based Marketing. I’ll pop a link in the comments, and it’s true for consumer brands.

That’s why I’m delighted to be joined by Nick. Let me just add him to the stream. Hi Nick.

Nick – Good morning.

Katy – He’s award-winning content marketer with over 20 years of experience in building brand communities. He’s helped businesses, including Adobe, Levi’s and Google that are content driven branded communities that not only build awareness and authority for brands but also enabled customer acquisition and retention. So welcome, Nick, how are you?

Nick – I’m good, thank you Katy, it seems rather odd. We’ve just gone back into lockdown and a certain gentleman in America is trying to explode himself at the moment, but other than that things are good, thank you.

Katy – Good, good. Yeah, it’s insane, but we are already seeing many brands considering community as part of their marketing mix. It’s almost like we want to kind of cling together in all of this, don’t we? And for those not yet convinced where do you see the value Nick?

Nick – I’m sitting thinking about this through the night and I think there’s 10 potential wins. It’s obviously very dependent, on what sort of community you want to build. We’ve spent years talking about trying to create highly engaged audiences and I actually think community is probably one of the most effective and it actually works across the whole of the customer journey. So it’s not just about awareness and sales, you can also build loyalty, advocacy, a big thing for me at the minute it’s retention, particularly when we’re going through such troubled times, keeping hold of your existing clients is I think even more important. It can obviously improve customer service and lower your costs. I mean, we’ve seen plenty of communities that actually manage those basic problems. So things like Giffgaff and Spotify do that we’re really well. Believe it or not, it can actually reduce your marketing costs.

There was a piece of research done, think it was a few years ago, about something like half of the branded communities have some cost savings something like 10 to 25%. So, I mean, you just think about it, all of a sudden you’ve got a lot of user generated content that potentially you can use elsewhere. Obviously you’ve got to get permission for that from the people who created it. You can also get increased engagement on social,

by getting people in the community to share content. It’s a good way of trying to recruit new members and, build brand advocacy. And of course one of the big challenges we’ve all seen with the big social networks is who owns the data? And obviously you will not own the relationship but also the data for your community if you choose to do it on a standalone site, and from a brand perspective to understand your members wants and needs, it was really valuable not just because it can input into your business strategy. So it helps you maybe co-create and innovate new products. You can test new products and services and, I’ve even worked in community or worked with communities that generated new revenue streams. So whether it’s subs or ads or sponsored content, that there’s lots of opportunities.

Terms of where the actual value is, there’s, again, lots of different ways you can do it. So obviously the key thing is, you need to have proper analytics in place and, you’ve got to be able to measure things and you can measure generated leads, you can look at sales. So, average revenue per community member, time of response or solution if you’re using it as a customer service platform. You can measure loyalty and retention and obviously net promoter score which is big in the world of customer experience these days can help you measure advocacy.

But there’s also actual community metrics. So there’s thing called a member satisfaction score. There’s also a thing called a Sense of Community Index which is delightfully known as SoCI which looks at more different things. So the benefits members gets from actually being a member so that sort of sense of belonging, an investment in the community, it looks at influence and that’s influence in terms of not only the influence for individuals but the actual, the whole group itself, fulfilment of needs is actually rewarding experience. And frankly, it’s not rewarding, most people aren’t going to bother using it. And then finally, is there some sort of shared emotional connection? Do people actually feel more connected because they’ve used it? And I mean all of those are really valid measures but you need to have at least some of those otherwise you aren’t going to survive. It just isn’t going to work.

Katy – And it’s really interesting because it is, so according to CMO’s study, I was reading the other day, key objectives during this time is building brand value that connects with the customers 34% of CMO’s, want to build that close connection and retain current customers, which is about a third, again. It feels like that is why there is a greater demand for community, but given that, what should be the objectives? How should you set out purpose? because I keep seeing communities with, like they just kind of wander about you don’t really know why they’re there.

Nick – Yeah, well, I mean the first thing you need to think about community almost like the way you do CX or Customer Experience. It’s not just a marketing strategy, it’s actually a business strategy. You actually need all the customer facing parts of the business should be involved in it. It’s one way or another, and more importantly all the members of the community, so it have to have a role. It’s not just about the experts and the influences. A lot of them help drive things, lots of people have different roles but I think, you mentioned brand purpose and brand purpose is something I’ve always thought is key. I mean, hopefully people understand what that is. I mean, to me, it’s about the intersection between your customer’s unmet needs the things they’re trying to do in life and actually what’s special about your brand and what you can deliver.

I mean, Nike are a perfect example of that. I mean, their brand purpose is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete. And they define every athlete is “If you’ve got a body, you’re an athlete.” So even maybe if like me you are struggling walking around Epping Forest of an afternoon, “I’m still apparently an athlete.” But a really good example of something they did, my eldest son was big into American football. And in the U.S. they created a community where college football players could upload all their stats, it’s one of those games which involves lots of stats, and they could compare themselves to the professionals and also their peers. So it was a really valuable tool. And again, it might not be most people’s sense of a traditional community, but it can be really powerful. And obviously the engagement you create has to be meaningful. I mean, again, to your point, some of them just kind of wander around you think, “Well, what’s this about?” And there’s a recent piece of research, last couple of months came out from the AAAA, which is the American Association of Ad Agencies, not alcoholics and something else but they said 70% of consumers buy brands they know and trust. So again, yeah, I mean, that’s not a surprise to any of us, but it just shows how important having really good objectives are because these communities can be really powerful.

Katy – Indeed, so to get us thinking, you worked across so many different types of community, so maybe, you can share why they’re kind of different in what the focus is when it comes to setting objectives.

Nick – Yeah, the interesting thing is they’ve all been quite different and some of them, you might not even say we’re a community.

So the first one that I built was a thing called Student UK, which was actually UCAS, the people you’d apply to university for. And it basically, it was a big, valuable research, not just for prospective students, but for existing students. And when we first launched the content was actually produced by a bunch of trusted influencers. We even had Jay Rayner, who some of you may know who he was early journalistic careers, but we had the current features editor of The Times, who back then was a music journalist, Karen Krizanovich who was the agony aunt to Sky magazine, if anybody remembers that. But once we kind of built the community and people got a sense of what it was about. We also involved a lot of students in actually producing content. We also have back in the day when we had chat rooms and those were actually moderated generally by the students themselves who were very good at it.

The next one I was involved in was a thing called Levi’s Antidotes and basically the objective of that was try and reconnect with influencers. The big challenge they had was something they called “Clarkson effect”. Basically if Jeremy Clarkson was wearing your jeans, you would not perceive to be particularly cool brand anymore. So it was about reconnecting with consumers and what we did was actually work with a whole bunch of what was called fanzines, if you remember those if you’re old enough to be me and where around in the punk era, but so published small magazines, some of them literally hand produced, photocopied and stapled together. And we did some amazing things with that and it was a very defined audience who was involved with it but we helped them or helped us actually expand the audience for Levi’s and some said, “Yeah we are cool, we will still at the cutting edge.” One which people really probably wouldn’t get as a community was the thing I worked on for Google, which is a thing called Squad Online. Which was basically a learning site that equipped leaders of the future, with the tools and the mindset to embrace opportunities around digital. So it was very much community based learning, they kind of all worked in groups together. So, a lot of how they will judge was not just by the work that they did themselves and kind of marked by us, but also by their peers.

Some of the most recent ones people might be familiar, I was editor of cmo.com in Europe. CMO is owned by Adobe and it’s about providing insights, expertise and an inspiration forum by industry thought leaders. So, we not only had some of my senior marketers in Europe who we would interview, but we also hired a lot of people like Katy who were actually writing for the sites, and in Hannover, again, a very defined audience, but it was about Adobe being able to build that kind of relationships and trust. That obviously had some advantages when they went out to talk to clients. I mean, if we’d actually interviewed that person that certainly would help. And there’s lots of other brands you can look at to see how they did it. I mean Lego, Harley Davidson, Salesforce, Airbnb, lots of good examples.

Katy – It’s, really there are, what’s really interesting is, there is quite a challenge when you start to unpick what a community is and more specifically creating a strategy. Strategy, isn’t something you can kind of do in your spare time or even on the fly, is it? I mean, what are the best strategic approaches you’ve seen?

Nick – Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely not the back of fag packet, that’s for sure. I mean, hopefully people listening are marketers. They probably have heard of the five Ps. I liked simple frameworks like that, so I’ve been sitting here thinking about this and I came up with my community seven Ps. Which I think gives you a framework to help build a strategy.

The first one is about the people involved. And ultimately this is not just about the actual buy-in you’re going to need from the C-suite because as I mentioned earlier this is a strategy that’s going to affect the whole business, and they also need to have some involvement in it as well.

The next thing you need to think about is persona. So, you need to identify a specific persona or audience group that you want to target this at. I think it’s far better certainly initially to target a group of customers, because partly it is hard to please everybody all the time and not everybody is going to want to be engaged. I always remember years ago there used to be ways of defining people on social media and they often had groups of people who will call lurkers, who sat and read social media posts, but very rarely contributed.

And the next thing we’ve already talked about, which is purpose. So, it’s about reflecting the user’s values and principles. You need to spend a lot of time identifying what the challenges they’re facing and then think about very clearly about how you can help solve them. And that comes down to thinking a lot about content, and we’ll talk a bit about that later but content particularly at launches is really valuable.

Equally, you need to think the next P is P for platforms or what channel is going to be most appropriate? I think the real channel I’ve worked with the guys at Digital Donor and one of the challenges they have they own one of the biggest LinkedIn groups. It’s the biggest digital marketing group on LinkedIn, but they also have the Digital Donor sign. Of course, key challenge was how do you transition a huge audience from one platform to another? Certainly all of the ones that I’ve been involved with have had their own platform but that’s something you need to think about, what’s the best one that you might use?

The next thing is, once you’ve launched this thing how you actually going to promote it? How you can get it to market? What channels and tactics are you going to use? Now often they’re going to be the same things, you’re used to using, but you need to think about what story are you going to tell? What benefits or inducements are there to join? I mean, some brands, with some brands it might be relatively easy. If you’ve got a really cool brand, people want to be associated with that might not be hard, but if it’s the sausage you have for breakfast in the morning It gets a lot more difficult.

The next thing is, second last thing, is participation. So as I mentioned earlier, content is really empowering and it’s key to communities partly because they’ll share it. It’s, how people engage and it’s about helping create that kind of common vision that hopefully people buy into. So, you need to have a really well thought out engagement and content strategy, that’s going to keep people at the heart of the community but also enables you to nurture and maintain some kind of a long-term relationship with those people.

And then the final thing, which I kind of mentioned earlier is payback. So what’s the return in investments? And that’s not just about the ROI for you and your business, but it’s also about for the community.  And again, you need to be really flexible, communities don’t necessarily have to have a short shelf life, but again, you may find that the community will drive it in directions you may not have thought of before.

Katy – Sorry, that’s brilliant. I will definitely Nick, be putting in my blog on Monday.

Nick – You’re welcome.

Katy – Because that is new and that one of the challenges is strategy is exactly that. And it’s really interesting that only somewhere in the region of 50 to 60% of brands with communities have no agreed strategy at all. Why is that?

Nick – I think there’s a whole bunch of points. I think some may just say is another social channel. So they just use the same strategy they’ve already got their social media. It’s kind of staggering that some people may still have the build and they will come syndrome, it’s hard to believe, I mean, I’ve been doing digital stuff for way too long but I’ve been doing communities for over 20, well 20 years now, and I still see stuff which just doesn’t it doesn’t make sense.

Equally I don’t think something’s a strategy if you can’t measure it. So unless you’ve got those measurements up front how are you ever going to know whether that strategy works? I also think sometimes that, again going back to this thing about being another social channel sometimes CMOs can kind of get this under the radar a little bit and don’t necessarily get executive buy-in. So, there’s no kind of agreed set of objectives and all of a sudden you’ll find different members of the C-suite going, “You’ve got that thing that could have been useful for us.” So you’ve got your customer service person going, “Why didn’t you talk to us about it?” So again, these things get pulled all over the place. And of course the usual one, which everybody always laughs about is the sales guy just turns around and goes, “I want this is a sales channel.” which again, it’s just not appropriate.

Katy – No, I think we’ve talked a lot about the fact that there is just too much sort of community adventuring but without any purpose and no direction and people really don’t know where they’re going but setting up a community is one thing, looking after members and growing and evolving, is just another one. So how do you grow and keep interest? Better still, how do you create loyalty?

Nick – So how do you grow and keep interest? Well, at launch, you got to treat the community or at least its members a bit like children right? Or babies, so the most definitely need feeding, they need lots of attention. Eventually you’ve got to get them to a stage where they can almost stand on their own two feet. So at that very early stage content is going to be key, I think that’s why somebody like myself I gravitated to this because I understood content. That’s the world I came from. And you need to be able to start debates and help them set agendas and find out what they want to talk about. So at the very early stages you might find yourself creating quite a bit more content than you will at later stages of the community.

You’ll also need proper resourcing and good community management, best practises around this sort of stuff is key. I mean, you need to be attentive and helpful but I always think he needed a relatively light touch. You can even use your members once you’ve actually got the community established.

We had this with Student UK, we had lots of chat rooms and quite quickly the actual students took over managing them. And we had one person who was literally the biggest troll imaginable and we went to her university because we could capture the IP address of the computer she was at or what we found out; it was a she which shocked us. So we contact the university and said, “Look, this person is just like hideous, “can we try and stop them?” And so actually we did. So one day she was on being really rude to people, so we gave them the IP address and they went and found her. And she one, could not believe that she’d been caught and two, they couldn’t believe who it was, because they said she was the most mild mannered student who wouldn’t say boo to a goose

There’s opportunities there. I mean, once the community’s established you should get to a level where they’re contributing a lot of the content and what the activity is coming from your members, but they’re still going to need direction. You will still need to create bits content that move them on and obviously once it’s fully established they almost will define where it goes, and you may find that it’s a good time to split them off into groups, different groups. So it might be based on topics or geography or whatever it is and that’s a really good way of keeping communities going and kind of building loyalty.

So, you really need to start thinking quite early on what are you going to do to keep people coming back? So, really authentic brand community is about mutual concerns common values, shared experiences, but you need to make the members feel special, valued, wanted, where you can give them a voice. Very common, you see people using reward programmes and incentives and perks and they can be a lot more than just monetary, give them exclusive content or reports they can use. That was something that was very much key to, I guess community like a consultancy. On a personal level get people top contributors badges, reference them in content you’re creating. I mean, Starbucks, we’re great at gamifying rewards, so use those approaches. Encourage them to share tip and hints and reward them for doing so. I mean Giffgaff when they first started, had a guy who drove up and down the M4 trying to find black spots in the network, he didn’t realise of course it was O2s network, they were the same ones, but what Giffgaff did, if you contributed a lot of tips and hints and helped out the community, you got money off your bill every month. And I guess the ultimate one is give great customer service. I mean, that’s ultimately why people want or one of the reasons people want to get involved.

Katy – Yeah and there are lots of thriving communities. It may be, I’m being a bit negative about it, founded by really passionate amateurs who have far fewer resources than most brands do. So why is it so many branded communities fail to kind of commit resource and investment? Why do they fail?

Nick – Well, I think, you need, I mean, you’re asking about why they have fewer resources, what you need. I mean, ultimately the scale of what you’re producing it’s certainly as a job for more than one person. You’re going to need to invest in a platform. I mean at Digital Donor; we used a platform called Kentico which is brilliant at helping you manage communities. And you need that level of professionalism which, an amateur site doesn’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter if it looks a bit rubbish, it doesn’t matter if there’s mistakes or nobody replies for a few days, you can’t do that with a branded community.

Why do they fail? Lots of reasons, some of which I’ve already mentioned. So lack of buy-in from the top or across the business, they don’t have permission to kind of flex and change things as a community grows, obviously no clear strategy or goals we’ve mentioned or an unclear purpose, mission or vision. I mentioned earlier no KPIs or benchmarks, no measurement tools. I mean Deloitte recently did a study that found 30% of online communities have just one employee in charge. Most have just a single PR person running the show. Yeah, that’s not the proper level of resource and management that these things need. In some cases, companies, they either massively over invest and get really frustrated because the payback doesn’t come quick enough or they invest too little. The old promotion issue build it and they will come, Well really, is that what we’re expecting! We need best practises.

You need to give these things time and don’t give up too easily or too quickly. There’s also this kind of reach mentality that some businesses have. I mean, well I won’t name which client, but I had one that was obsessed about how many people they were reaching. And I said, well, actually your target audience are FTSE businesses, there’s only like 300 of them. So why do you want hundreds of thousands of members? It’s just pointless. And I suppose the obvious one is they treat it like a sales or a marketing channel. It’s not, it’s a lot more than that and it needs respect.

Katy – It’s interesting because it should be an adjunct to marketing. It should be an adjunct, it should sit alongside it. I always thought that. I’d want to talk about to you about the emotional and the psychology but I think we might have to defer that to another session. So I’m going to have you back Nick, but one thing that all of this kind of makes me think, having a proper strategy, having the right resource, investing in the long term, seems like there is a lot to put aside before you set up a community. So let’s be blunt. What should brands be considering when it comes to budget if they want a community of value? And how long should they wait for it to bear fruit?

Nick – Yeah, I mean it’s obviously, it’s dependent on what you want to build. You’re likely to have platform and hosting costs, in terms of a team, two to four people to manage it. You’re also probably going to need some freelances to create content, certainly when you start. Obviously you need to put aside a marketing budget again, as I’ve said before but just because you built it people aren’t going to turn up. I’ve seen budgets of anywhere between 300,000 to half a million per annum, that’s certainly not unrealistic in year one, but of course you also need to factor in savings which is something people rarely seem to do when they do things like this. I mean, you would expect reduced savings and things like customer service support costs, in terms of marketing costs, research costs, R&D. So there’s lots of things you need to factor in when you’re building this. And again it’ll help you getting buy-in from the C-suite when they see that it’s not just another hole, you can throw more money down.

And in terms of how long can it take? Well, I would say you can take any from six to 18 months to really get traction and start to build it. I’d recommend you build it organically and quite incrementally, don’t try and build Rome, try and build a little village to start with and see how it develops. And ultimately, the successful brand communities we’re always going to continue, will evolve to meet it’s kind of members’ needs, but it’s not an easy process and it takes patience.

Katy – Yeah, I think so, thank you Nick. It’s been brilliant talking to you. It’s funny how it’s only when you look onto the bonnet that you see how many moving parts there are to keep an engine going, because I’m not surprised there’s not as simple as setting up a Facebook group but I’ve loved hearing about the different approaches. So I think the results speak for themselves. When a community thrives there is value. You can see it in those that are successful. Thank you again Nick

Nick- You’re welcome anytime

Katy – For being my guest, it has been brilliant and join us next Friday, where CJ will be chatting on hopefully another sunny Friday on the latest social media hot topic. Thanks.

Nick – Have a good day

Katy – Bye everyone.


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