No man is an island, and no customer acts alone.
If you’re selling a product that solves a problem, you can be certain that the people who have that problem will interact with others who share the same problem. This is especially true in the digital age, where there are Facebook Groups and subreddits and Slack groups and blogs and all sorts of communities who share common interests.
These communities exist in a staggering range of configurations, from tiny knitting circles to massive movements that could be considered informal organizations altogether. And they invariably share and exchange information, comparing notes on whatever it is that piques their shared interests.
This can be somewhat tricky territory for brands to navigate. If you want to build a great brand, you’ll need to earn the respect and admiration of the communities that your customers belong to. And as people get better-informed, it becomes harder to simply throw marketing dollars and ads at communities in order to win them over. Some brands can pay to try and win a community over, and yet find themselves being ridiculed for it. Others can be almost entirely detached, and yet find that communities love them anyway.
What’s the difference?
- First of all, a product needs to solve a problem uncommonly well in order to get good reviews within a community. It can be tempting to plant fake reviews, but you’ll almost definitely get called out for it as other members of the community find that their experiences are inconsistent with the early reviews.
- Second, a brand should want to embody the values of the community that it’s engaging.
It can seem like a lot of work, but if done well, a brand can actually become a respected and beloved pillar of a community. This pays off tremendously – the brand becomes synonymous with the community itself, guaranteeing relevance, sales and longevity for the brand for as long as it remains relevant to the community.
Let’s look at some examples.
1. Sephora establishes itself as the place for makeup affecionados with its Beauty Talk forum at community.sephora.com
A recurring theme throughout this post: having privileged access to a community can give a brand a competitive advantage in the form of insights and feedback from customers. BeautyTalk users spent 2.5 times more than regular Sephora customers, and the biggest fans spent more than TEN times more.
2. Etsy’s founders discovered the need for an artisan marketplace while hanging out on craft communities
Etsy’s founders used to run a web design shop. They were working on getcrafty.com when they discovered the need for a marketplace for handmade crafts. So, while they built Etsy, they reached out to the craft community on getcrafty.com and Craftster.org, which had an even larger user base, and won them over.
3. Converse set up a free community-based recording studio to support Brooklyn artists
Converse doesn’t take a cut of the profits, or own the songs, or ask them to advertise their shoes, nothing. They do it just for the opportunity to participate in the community that adopted their brand.
4. TOMS has a large following of engaged ‘tribe members’ who help to organize events, give away shoes and so on
TOMS founder Blake Mycowskie is famous for looking more like a backpacker than a typical CEO. His book Start Something That Matters was a hit among entrepreneurs. Unsurprisingly, the TOMS tribe has grown in leaps and bounds over the years.
5. THINX sells period-proof underwear, and has assembled an inclusive, feminist community in the process
THINX is a very unconventional lingerie company – rather than sell basic essentials or high-end luxury, they’ve chosen to tackle a previously unsolved technical problem – making underwear period-proof.
The product is really part of their bigger, broader vision of correcting misconceptions and educating the public about periods – a vision that, unsurprisingly, has lots of people eagerly want to help realize.
6. HYPEBEAST is a shoe blog that grew into much, much more with the help of its passionate sneakerhead community.
HYPEBEAST began as a personal blog in 2005, before SEO and modern Internet advertising started ramping up into high gear. It grew into what it is today through word-of-mouth, as sneakerheads would refer other sneakerheads to it.
7. Black Milk encourages unofficial Facebook groups to proliferate, allowing fans to discuss, buy and sell Black Milk Clothing.
Black Milk is famous for their social media engagement, and their Facebook page is where most of the magic happens. New products are announced, queries are answered, and competitions are usually held there.
Beyond the main page, there are dozens of groups such as the Black Milk Clothing Swap, Sell and Buy group, where over 15,000 fellow Sharkies can buy, exchange and sell products to each other without going through the company.
8. Melt Cosmetics has over 2,000,000 followers on Instagram and over 205,000+ posts on its hashtag
Melt Cosmetics was founded by popular makeup artist Lora Arellano, who got especially famous after doing makeup for Rihanna, with cofounder Dana Bomar on /r/makeupaddiction and Instagram
9. GoPro earned kudos for being honest about software bugs, and addressing them
There’s also an unofficial GoProFanatics community.
10. Razer earned the respect of its community by honoring an unauthorized discount, despite taking heavy losses in the process
Earning the respect of a community goes a very long way in building a brand’s credibility.
11. OnePlus founder’s forum apology
The OnePlus founder titled “Sorry for the delay guys”
His accessibility has endeared him to many OnePlus fans. Pei’s open apology on the OnePlus forums drew an outpouring of support and discussion.
More recently, his recent blog post, in which he asks Samsung for advice on OnePlus’s logistic issues, immediately drew media attention as well. Fans also commented that they appreciated his transparency and acknowledgment of OnePlus’ flaws.
12. Tesla Motors has strongly-attended shareholder meetings, where the community shares their thoughts about next steps for the brand
The forums at Tesla Motors have been highly active since long before the electric car company entered popular consciousness.
13. Apple is known to have some of the most intense fans and evangelists among all the brands in the world.
Apart from delivering high-quality products with lots of hype, Apple still manages to make tech reporters feel like insiders witnessing the future.
14. Keyboard makers ROLI established a music community of creators, artists, studios, and students
15. Pebble focuses on creating a great app developer community around its smartwatch product
16. FitBit uses gamification to encourage people to compete and compare fitness stats with friends, new and old
Every community needs something to discuss.
Fitness communities have a way of being particularly sticky – people seem to bond more intensively over physical activities, developing shared identities. Just think about the assumptions that come to mind when you learn that a person is into yoga, or CrossFit, or running marathons.
17. Zumba makes it easy for people to bring their friends and make new friends at a dance party
18. CrossFit has been described as cult-ish for its intense community
And that’s quite a compliment. CrossFit has a unique way of being simultaneously competitive and collaborative – people work out together and share routines, but they also have leaderboards and annual games.
19. Lululemon is worth paying more for because you’re buying relationships with everyone else who’s associated with it
Lululemon cleverly uses store spaces to introduce people to yoga. Talk about inbound marketing! Come in, learn a new skill, make some new friends, and you’ll quite naturally find yourself compelled to buy something on your way out.
20. Soulcycle has gotten significant media attention for its intense community
Like CrossFit, Soulcycle has been mocked and derided as cultish in the Netflix TV series ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and a mention from Michelle Obama in the 2016 White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
21. The North Face celebrates climbers, explorers and adventurers – both on their blog and on social media
Their blog, NeverStopExploring.com, is full of great stories detailing the expeditions of the athletes that The North Face sponsors.
The hashtag on Instagram is also populated by travel photos of their customers, which functions as an ad-hoc community space.
22. Spotify has an active community that supports and celebrates musical artists
Spotify has expanded to become more than just a mere music-streaming app. Discovering new music is a big part of the service they provide, and achieving that requires an engaged community of fans and tastemakers constantly looking for the hot new acts.
23. Pinterest grew by enabling communities of artists and collectors
Pin-It-Forward was a campaign that utilized bloggers to publicize Pinterest.
Bloggers each assembled boards based on a theme (e.g “What home means to us”) accompanied by a blog post. These blog posts were linked to posts from other bloggers, therefore “pinning-it-forward”.
These bloggers also released invites to Pinterest (the site was invite-only at that point in time). Readers were encouraged to make use of their Pinterest invites and remix the bloggers’ boards into boards of their own.
24. Netflix produces original series that have epic fan followings around the world
Netflix doesn’t particularly have a singular, centralized community of its own– rather, it benefits when communities emerge around the various original shows that it produces.
25. Shopify doesn’t just sell ecommerce software – it also provides entrepreneurs a space to learn, discuss and motivate one another.
The stronger Shopify’s ecosystem gets, the easier it becomes for ecommerce retailers to make the decision to join it.
26. Slack enables people to build and manage their own communities on IRC-style channels
A community of community-builders.
27. Red Bull is a pillar of the extreme sports community, organizing events and sponsoring athletes
They even support spinal cord research, so that injured athletes too can someday be given back their ‘wings’.
28. Star Wars grew from being a movie trilogy to becoming an entire universe for people to join
Star Wars grew from being a movie trilogy to becoming an entire universe that people can participate in, in a myriad of ways.
29. League of Legends grew massive while building a gaming community
League of Legends has a huge following with lots of competitive gamers, which itself draws more gamers into the mix.
30. Coachella music festival board builds anticipation by giving people an idea of the sort of people they’d be meeting at the festival
A music forum allows Coachella to build hype for its festival all year round.
31. Airbnb – a webapp that manages to build trust within an international community of strangers
In a technical sense, you could consider Airbnb to simply be a marketplace connecting short-term landlords and tenants. But that would leave out the bulk of
32. Moleskine has a potent community of writers and creatives
Scores of artists have uploaded onto the internet photographs of artwork in their Moleskines, which ostensibly endorses the (paper) quality and reliability of the notebooks.
In return, Moleskine’s social media team is happy to reward these artists for their loyalty to the brand with exposure on their Instagram page, which has some 238,000 followers.
There are also other community sites like Moleskinerie.