In 1983, Harley-Davidson was facing financial collapse. The demand for their products had diminished and the company was saddled with unfavorable contracts and overhead that dug into their profitability.
By 2009—25 years later—the company had completely turned their fortunes around, becoming a top-50 global brand valued at more than $7.8 billion. How’d they do it? By investing in their brand community and working to improve the loyalty of their customers. They cultivated an ardent group of brand advocates that enjoyed the lifestyle that the brand represented—and used them to spread the word about their products.
Creating a community around your brand and products won’t come easy, but the long slog to develop and grow one will have tangible benefits for a long time to come.
Benefits of Building a Community
For many companies, building a brand community seems to forever be placed on the backburner. It’s easy to feel like there are more important things to attend to within your business. And the task of establishing traction and growing a brand community can seem overwhelming. But if you listen to any company that has successfully grown their own customer communities, they’ll tell you that their business wouldn’t be where it is today without it.
Some of the benefits that brand communities can bring to your business include:
Knowing what your customers really think is what dreams are made of. That’s why companies that share information with their audiences should also be listening to feedback and incorporating them into their products and services. You’ll be hard-pressed to gather as many passionate and innovative ideas from your customers as you will from your branded communities. Communities can also help you to see your product, business, or industry from the perspective of the very people you’re selling to.
When you continually communicate in a transparent way with your audience, you’ll improve their trust in your brand. Communities create a relationship between customers and brands, creating more patience and loyalty. When customers run into problems, they’re more likely to give you a chance to resolve them before churning or growing disillusioned.
Customers who grow to trust your business will share their thoughts with peers and online. Nurturing communities will lead to growth in referral marketing—an inherently more trustworthy source for prospects who are interested in your company.
Many customers (whether you’d like them to or not) will treat your community as an additional support channel. It’s best to embrace this and use it to your advantage to gauge public interest in certain subjects and better understand the problems that your customers are running into with your product.
For B2B brands, a community will help cultivate connections and relationships between industry leaders. The precise value of a network like this is difficult to calculate but is a powerful way to build consensus around your solution and bonds between customers that will make your offering much more sticky within an organization.
Now, let’s dive into some of the key steps and considerations that companies can take to help grow their communities.
1. Take a Customer-First Approach
In the end, no brand community will be successful if you don’t have a product that actually inspires your audience. Before you invest the time and effort into building a community around your brand, make sure that your levels of customer satisfaction are high. A small yet happy customer base is infinitely better than a large, luke-warm one.
2. Give People a Reason to Meet
Products that give their users a reason to meet almost always fare better than those that do not. For instance, many software products are a natural fit. This is particularly true for products that allow for user-generated contributions—extensions, templates, saved settings, etc. These types of arrangements tend to lend themselves well to an active and engaged customer base and a community that produces a consistent stream of high-quality user-generated content. Even software that can’t be altered lends itself to discussions of best practices, encouraging users to share tips and tricks that ultimately empower users to be more successful with your product.
3. Be Part of the Discussion
Customers join communities so that they can feel closer to your brand. As your community grows, user-generated content will become a larger part of your overall strategy—and you’ll want to let them build bonds without your interference. In the early days, however, you have to count on being a large part of the driving force behind discussions within your community.
Start discussions on your chosen community platform regularly. Respond to inquiries. Solicit feedback. Make them feel like they are a part of the product development process.
4. Don’t Underestimate Approachability
Being able to interact with people that represent your company is one of the driving reasons why people want to join a brand community. They want to learn about product updates before you let your email list know about it. They want to beta test new features. They want better product support and the ability to have their questions reliably answered.
To give these things to your audience, you need to be present. While the CEO doesn’t have to take part in every conversation, you should at least ensure that your customer support and success reps are engaging with customers whenever it makes sense.
In short, your company should be approachable. Your customers should see you interacting regularly on the community platform and shouldn’t feel intimidated about asking questions, joking around with your team, and developing closer relationships in the process.
5. Get Together Offline
If you’d like to take your brand community to the next level, one of the best steps you can take is to get together offline, whether that means organizing a simple meetup, workshop, or full-blown customer conference. An in-person event allows your members to develop deeper bonds with each other and your brand in ways that simply can’t be replicated online.
6. Consider Your Platform
There are many community-building software solutions available for community building. Some opt for forum software and keep their communities and engagement within their domain. Other companies use LinkedIn Groups, Slack channels, or Discord communities.
The truth is that there is no wrong choice and the platform you use for hosting your community should depend on a number of factors. What platforms are your audience most likely to be familiar with? Where do they already have accounts? Where do they go to solve their work-related problems and keep up with industry thought-leadership?
Two Examples of Brand Communities
Earlier we spoke about Harley Davidson’s customer community. They’re one of the most prominent and notable examples of brand communities, but they aren’t the only ones to put stock into leveraging customer communities to grow their brand.
Here are a few examples of exemplary B2B brand communities to give you some inspiration as you start your own:
1. The SAP Community
The SAP Community might just be the gold standard for B2B brand communities. They have more than 2.5 million members, including huge multinationals like Disney and Bose. Their community also includes huge numbers of small and medium-sized businesses, creating engaged micro-communities so that all new members are able to find their own niche. They also put their community content on display through their “featured content” section, providing exposure for the creators and education for their customers.
The SAP Community is known for being highly engaged, with many members sharing their time and resources to help other members make the most of the platform. The growth of the community has played a central role in the SAP brand’s growth.
2. Salesforce Trailblazer Community
The Salesforce Trailblazer Community is another great example of a company using its customers as assets to grow its brand. Its community is large enough to have split off into different sub-communities and niche interest groups. By rewarding members for answering questions and providing help to other members, Salesforce has created an atmosphere where customers are happy to share information with each other and help each other to grow.
It’s is the perfect example of what a B2B community could potentially become for your business. It’s filled with engaged users, interesting information, and third-party tools that extend the functionality of the Salesforce platform.
More Interaction Makes for a More Engaged Customer Base
Ultimately, the goal for any brand community is to create an environment where the brand, customers, and interested parties can come together to share more information, get to know each other, and create bonds that make your solution stick. A community like this takes time to build, but with some persistence and a strong strategy for enticing customers to join, you can cultivate a brand community that grows your following, fosters loyal customers, and keeps your audience coming back for more.