Do you have a brand community really?

By Guest Author, 12/07/2010

A Guest Post by Douglas Aitkin

Six years ago I made a prediction about business in my book about cults: the next big thing will be community. What was greeted with quizzical looks then, of course gets a ‘duh’ now. A little later, the Big New Marketing Strategy of ‘dialogue with the consumer’ emerged. And then that evolved into ubiquitous attempts to create brand communities- especially since the emergence of platforms like Facebook, Ning and Twitter that seemed to make it all so easy.

Well, it isn’t.

A fan page or a following is not a community.
One of the big insights I got out of interviewing hundreds of members of cults, cult brands and everything in between is that people join communities for the same basic reasons, irrespective of the purpose of the group. And the techniques that are used to create commitment are basically the same, whether you’re talking about Krishna, the Marines, Apple or a knitting club.

Universal rules of community apply. People get more or less the same things out of community, and communities have the same characteristics. The only difference I found within that spectrum was the degree of commitment.

This means that if you want a brand community (with all the benefits that may bring) you have to be a real community leader. To check whether you have a real community on your hands rather than just fans or a following, ask yourself the these questions. I got a yes whether I looked at Smart Car community members, Wicca witches, Trekkies or Elks:

Community checklist
• Does it satisfy a real need? Do its members learn more, have more fun, get more done or get support?
• Does is have a clearly articulated purpose?
• Is it clear about who belongs and who doesn’t?
• Is there interaction between members?
• Are there enduring relationships formed between members that go beyond the original reason for connecting?
• Do members make a material difference? Do they contribute, do they participate, and do they work together to achieve the common purpose? Being an audience is not a community.
• Do they feel responsibility for each other and the community at large?
• Are there roles, responsibilities and jobs performed by the membership?
• Is it self-policing? Do people censure or eject unruly or unreasonable members?
• Are there guidelines, rules, or norms of behavior?

If you answered yes to all these questions then two things are likely to be true:
a) Your brand is enjoying the benefits of increased loyalty and highly effective recruitment through authentic word of mouth.
b) You’re exhausted. Running a real community takes work, whether it’s a brand or a place or worship.

A community or just the same old broadcast model?
Many of the phenomena that look like they’re communities are really just more complex versions of the old broadcast model of marketing, but with a few audience involvement tools attached.

Two of the platforms that encourage this are Twitter and Facebook Fan pages. I’m a big fan of these tools, but only if they’re used in conjunction with other community building mechanisms.

Twitter is a new way to broadcast to a network, except it’s via 140 characters vs. thirty seconds. Followers are, well, followers. They follow the person/brand/organizations’ activities and announcements. They’re not highly functioning and contributing members. They seldom have relationships with the people the follow or the other followers. Of course it has some really useful roles for a brand, like as a “service recovery” tool, as Julie Cottineau of Virgin described it, to identify consumer issues and deliver fast response in the event of failures such as late flights, poor agent service etc. But it’s a platform ill suited to sustaining a real community.

Similarly, Facebook Fan Pages are just that. With a few exceptions, they tend to be used by the brand/person/organization to broadcast to a self-identified, passionate audience. The platform has very limited functionality (and is often not used anyway by the brand) to enable fans to interact, form relationships, help each other out and so on.

Some brands get it right.
Those brands that are creating or enabling real communities have not been distracted by the new shiny tools, but are focusing on the timeless and universal principles of community building. Then they use the tools to execute the strategy where relevant.

I like what Smart Car is doing in the U.S. They discovered they had some passionate users on their hands and utilized Ning (a platform I really like because it’s been developed with the express purpose of developing fully-fledged communities) so that Smart Car lovers can knit both larger national and smaller local groups to satisfy their various needs: swapping knowledge, organizing events, fighting journalists who they believe are misrepresenting their cars and so on. Check out their highly active community at and a more detailed description in a longer article here.

Sharpie has done something different. They realized that there was a nascent community that was handicapped by being Balkanized on disparate platforms. They created Sharpie Uncapped that knitted together the groups already on Flickr, Facebook and others. They created content with a blog and recruited influential members of the disparate communities into a taskforce that could lead and create content for the now more coherent and cohesive group. And they did all this… enabling a more functional and passionate community with strong relationships with both the brand and amongst themselves…despite being but a humble plastic pen!

These and other brand communities like Harley and Apple, realize that both insight and resources are required to enable real community.

Community is part of the human condition. Our species has done it for millions of years to satisfy fundamental needs. Just because you want one for a brand doesn’t change the demands that have developed over millennia: meeting real needs, a clear purpose, meaningful interaction between members, mutual responsibility and so on. Talk to your local cleric/community leader/mayor/football coach/union leader/whomever for insight. And then apply whatever tools necessary, whether online or offline, modern or traditional, to create a thriving and sustained community.

Douglas Atkin is the founder of The Glue Project: a site all about the stuff that binds communities together

One Response to “Do you have a brand community really?”

  1. Mark says:

    I just came across this quote from Henry Mintzberg in HBR from July-August 2009:

    “Beneath the current economic crisis lies another crisis of far greater proportions: the depreciation in companies of community — people’s sense of belonging to and caring for something bigger than themselves. Decades of short-term management, in the US especially, have inflated the importance of CEOs and reduced others in corporation to fungible commodities — human resources to be “downsized” at the drop of a share price. The results: mindless, reckless behavior that has brought the global economy to its knees”.

    Makes me wish we’d explored the importance of community inside companies more in this month’s topic. And to point out that the above is clearly related to both the notion of a Lighthouse Identity (see Beliefs with Teeth” and the findings from the recent CMO dinner about aligning brand vision with culture and personal dreams of the CEO. This issue of community in corporations is one of the most important business issues of our time.