Online Communities as a Key Strategy for Associations and Brands

April 30, 2015

Online communities have moved from being a social strategy to a full business strategy as business leaders are starting to understand the high-level impact a connected audience can have on their company’s success. Harley-Davidson is a perfect example of this: they moved from being nearly bankrupt in 1985 to being the thriving global brand it is today. They made a lot of smart moves, but chief among them was developing a brand community philosophy that created a brotherhood of riders who connected with each other and the brand to such a level that name “Harley-Davidson” became an ethos. (Read more about the rag to riches story here.)
Harley Davidson Google+
 The power of online communities has grown exponentially as more options become available: people congregate under banners of geographic interests, common experiences, medical conditions, hobbies, purchases, causes, and a seemingly endless supply of ideas. The platforms they use continue to multiply as well, from social networks to gaming sites to remote meeting networks to blogs, forums, video platforms and more.

To brands which are sustained by the numbers of people they can pull to their cause, this is a mouthwatering world of opportunity. At the front of that opportunity is Associations, who depend on being able to find like-minded audiences with enough passion to join their membership.
Harley Davidson Google+
Lisa McDonald and Angela Bauman, both Key Partner Account Executives at Nxtbook Media, discussed in an interview what an online community is, and why they are critical for Associations today. While they don’t position themselves as experts – “How can anyone call themselves an expert in a field that is still developing so fast?” asked McDonald – their work with Association clients and their personal involvement in various Associations has helped shape their understanding of what works, and doesn’t work, with online communities.
“The key takeaway,” said McDonald, getting to the point quickly, “is that members want to talk to each other.

People are social, and they joined a membership for a reason. So combine that. Get on social, get people competing and sharing ideas and talking about their membership. Have them bring up memories or share why they joined. Because if people are dedicated to an issue or common interest enough to be a part of an Association, they want to talk about it.”

Community and Audience

Bauman and McDonald added tips for getting started, agreeing that the first step is to recognize the distinction between online platforms and online communities. While many lump them together and call “Facebook” or “Twitter” a community, (which they are) Associations can get more benefit if they target the community forming within the platform rather than targeting the platform as a whole. Or, as McDonald says, “Online communities are within the networks, not the networks themselves. Facebook is not your online community, but Lancaster-area stay at home moms who use Facebook to connect together could be.”

This understanding feeds directly into Bauman’s top priority: “Know your audience,” she said. “You need to find a specific group of people who have the same interests as your Association, so you need to know what that looks like.” She went on to explain that once you know your audience, you’ll know what platforms to target, what tools to use, and what content strategy will mean the most to them.

McDonald advised, “Start with looking at your current audience. Are they older or younger? Women or men? Are they going to be on twitter and hashtagging or reading long articles on LinkedIn? Start with your current audience before targeting social sites.”

What’s the Point?

The next thing to tackle is the purpose of your community. For Associations, this ties directly to the reasons why people become members. “It might be for a lot of reasons,” admitted McDonald, “but often it’s because you’ve been a part of an experience or because of a passion. Knowing which reason your community comes together will change who is in your audience and also your approach. For example, if people are following a passion, you might have more people from many different walks of life in your audience. This will be a much more diverse group of people in what they bring and what they want for your community because anyone can share a passion. So the reason your members join is something that’s absolutely critical to recognize.

Bauman came at the question from another angle: “For an association like AOPA [Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association], that’s a membership that is passionate. They’re passionate about flying and they want to share their experience with others. So they’re a mix. But ACRP, which is the Association for Clinical Research Professionals, they are members for practical reasons. They’re nurses, doctors and medical research professionals who join ACRP to get credits and certifications. They’re also hearing about research experiences, but a top reason for joining is to get the credits and certifications the membership can offer.

They benefit professionally.” Identifying why your audience chooses to become members, whether for practical or passionate reasons, will shape how your brand attempts to form the community, and what types of content you promote within it.

Our Two Cents

Building an online community takes commitment. After establishing the purpose of your community, your target audience, and what platforms cater to your target audience, you have to lay out objectives, establish performance indicators, social pages design, and establish messaging and voice. All of it takes practice. Yet McDonald cautioned, “Don’t post just to post. You’re trying to be strategic here. All you hear about on social is you have to stay on top of it, posting, engaging. But really, the content has to be relevant. Posting just to post completely discredits your Association or anything else you’re trying to do.”

Bauman agreed it’s critical to only post content that your followers want to see, while also keeping the content fresh for people who regularly check their online community sites. She also recommended seeking out influencers in the group and asking them to promote your content. She gave several examples where this benefitted small organizations, then referenced a campaign she first discovered while watching TV: “Sometimes your key influencer can be a whole other group. I saw on Shark Tank the other day and two men were on the show with a clothing brand. They didn’t pay for any marketing, but they built an entire brand by using Instagram.

They asked people to be Brand Ambassadors, which is a concept that is becoming more popular. They went the opposite way than you would think. They didn’t align themselves with fashionistas, but with photographers with a lot of followers. They saw their clothing brand as for the regular guy, not for the people who care a lot about fashion. So they targeted regular people who could also show off their product in a good way.”
Beau's park
Online communities serve brand big and small, from private school alumni associations to the Harley-Davidsons. For different brands they serve different purposes, whether that’s to develop a relatable voice for the brand, garner some free advertising, troll for user-generated content, prompt feedback, re-engage members, or offer professional development. Associations stand to benefit the most from building successful online communities as that is a direct conduit between the organization and its members.
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