Long before the advent of modern inbound marketing, word-of-mouth has been an important motivator for determining where people are willing to put their money. Whereas people used to look to friends for advice on which was the best brand to buy from, however, it’s now more common for people to turn to the internet for advice. That’s why price comparison and consumer review websites quickly rose to prominence back in the late 90s.
The rise of user-generated content and its role in shaping purchase decisions has made traditional marketing methods almost obsolete. Even modern outbound forms of marketing, such as paid banner advertising, aren’t nearly as effective as they once were. Nowadays, people are less interested in being advertised to, preferring instead to receive unbiased recommendations. In other words, if someone loves a particular product, they’ll likely spread the good word with or without an incentive to do so. That’s where brand advocacy comes in.
Online social communities have become the driving force behind purchase decisions in both the B2C and B2B sectors. No longer are successful marketing strategies in the hands of the brands behind them – they’re now in the hands of users. That’s why your primary focus must be placed squarely in the world of social communities. That means giving your customers the tools they need to advocate for you.
This applies to every business, including B2B enterprises, where decision makers tend to be a lot pickier about what they invest their money in. In fact, there’s a lot that the B2B sector can learn from its B2C cousins. These include the importance of ongoing dialogue, real-time feedback and even a bit of fun in the form of gamification or viral memes.
There are many ways to inspire brand advocacy, but in this article, we’ll take a closer look at the role of owned communities in advocate marketing.
Laying the Foundations for a Successful Online Community
The first step in building a brand advocacy campaign is knowing who is likely to become a brand ambassador – the right candidate to recommend your brand, products and services to others. To give the simplest explanation, it’s anyone who is satisfied enough with the value you offer to spread the word.
Behind every brand advocacy program is, of course, a solid product or service. Just think about how popular Apple products are; it’s not so much because of the advertising, but because they have one of the biggest brand advocacy communities of any consumer product in the world. In other words, people don’t buy the latest iPhone because they’ve seen a billboard by the side of the road or even a banner on a website – they buy it because it’s an industry standard with an immense following.
An example of a long running forum is MacRumors.com. Created in February 2000, it quickly became popular for posting rumors, leaks and speculation on Apple.Of note is the MacRumors Buying Guide, a popular destination for Apple fans. MacRumors is one of the longest-running blogs that follows exclusively Apple-related news.
Online Community as a Marketing Tool
While a good product or service markets itself (to a certain degree), you still need to start by laying the foundations – and that means creating a community for your customers.
Going back to the example of the iPhone, the Apple Support Community is where many people go to find answers and connect with other iPhone and MacBook users from all over the world. In other words, it’s not just a product; it’s a social community that many people want to be part of. In many industries, such as entertainment, having a strong community is almost as important as the product or service itself. This is why your owned online community is such an important marketing asset.
Building a Community Platform That’s Built for Advocates
Consumers and business customers alike often head straight to review or price comparison websites to make their purchase decisions. After finding useful feedback, they’re far more likely to spend their money. The question lies in determining who leaves this positive feedback and why. Chances are that they’re active members of your community, motivated by ongoing support and lasting, meaningful relationships both with your brand and its customers.
That’s why you need a community platform that’s built from the ground up to foster engagement, reward constructive posters and build brand loyalty. To achieve this, you need a platform that offers your potential and existing customers the following:
- An enjoyable user experience
- An active and thriving user base
- A distinct and branded interface
- A unique, purpose-driven culture
- Helpful and insightful content
It’s important to remember that every community is different. An owned community, such as an on-site forum or knowledgebase, must be built to serve the unique needs of its members. That’s why it’s best to start with something plain and simple before tailoring it to suit your specific requirements and goals.
The Importance of Staying Engaged
Choosing and implementing the right community platform is only half the battle. It’s important to remember that community marketing is an ongoing process of constant engagement. Long-term commitment is paramount to success; an abandoned community will become a liability to the extent that you’re better off not having one at all. Similarly, a community that’s blighted by spammers and trolls will only reflect poorly on your brand.
Consider the gaming industry, in which many communities are considered by players to be toxic. This reflects poorly on the game in the form of negative feedback, even if the game itself is great. In B2B communities, where members tend to be especially demanding, a lack of quality content and regular involvement from the company behind it leads to greatly reduced credibility and trust. In conclusion, being closely involved is imperative in any case.
How to Engage Brand Advocates
You’ve got a great community foundation in place, complete with the right features, excellent ease of use and a theme that reflects and reinforces your brand image. So how do you engage your would-be brand advocates? After all, your customers won’t act if you’re not there to engage them. If they sense that your involvement isn’t up to scratch, it’s likely these bad feelings will prevail.
As with any marketing strategy, the process starts with defining your target audience and getting to know your customers. In B2B, they may be busy professionals who are more interested in quick response times and robust solutions. In B2C, they may just want to be entertained or to chat with others for tips on how to get more use out of your product or service.
It’s important to remember that regardless of industry, not all influencers are made equal. That’s why a community platform isn’t just a place to speak to people en-masse; it’s also a place for one-on-one communication. Taking the time to answer people’s questions and to thank others for their feedback is a great way to show your appreciation, and in doing so, get people onboard as brand advocates. Community managers have a responsibility to make emotional connections with their audiences, and that means speaking to people as individuals.
Furthermore, if a particular forum post has a reply from a member of your team (and is clearly marked as such), the original poster, as well as other contributors to the thread, will likely be delighted by your effort.
While getting involved in the conversation is essential, it’s just as important that you drive the conversation. After all, when it’s your own branded community platform, you’re the one in charge. This doesn’t mean telling people what to do, it means inspiring conversation by giving people something to talk about.
This might include an invitation to a special event or insider access to the development of your product or service. Alternatively, it might involve asking people outright what they think about your product or service and which new features or improvements they’d like to see.
Patagonia considers themselves to be an activist company on environmentalist issues. In order to further the cause, they encourage their employees and customers to connect through offline events and online. They have recruited ambassadors from many areas of specializations to help facilitate their messaging.
On a final note, let’s not forget your biggest potential advocates of all. Brands often focus entirely on the customer when trying to generate excitement, however, your employees are among your most credible and knowledgeable advocates. That’s why you’ll want to get them deeply involved in your community.
The Role of Gamification in Brand Advocacy
One of the most effective ways to engage brand advocates is through gamification. In fact, it’s so important these days that it deserves its own section in this article!
Gamification is all about using elements from game design in non-game contexts. In the case of community forums, its main purpose is to implement a rewards-driven system that motivates people to post constructive content and increase their involvement in your community.
The more involved people are, the more likely they’ll advocate for your brand. Gamification also works for your employees as a way to create a friendly competitive atmosphere fostering advocacy among them, too.
The main goal of a community gamification strategy is to reward constructive posters and inspire others to follow their lead. That’s why all the major question and answer websites allow people to upvote and downvote answers. Those with the highest number of upvotes collect more points, gaining greater recognition.
It’s important that you adapt a points-based system to the actions that matter most to your community. These might include product ideation, community support or publishing quality content. Even the simplest of points-driven gamification systems allow peer-to-peer moderation, meaning that a post with too many negative reactions might be greyed out or flagged for review.
Ranks and Badges
Many people love numbers and statistics, especially if they are proudly displayed in their profiles and alongside their forum posts. Implementing a ranking system takes things a step further, however. That’s why many forums have multiple ranks, ranging from new members to community gurus known for their constructive content and highly active roles.
By assigning higher ranks to your most valuable members, you publicly thank them for their efforts. Oftentimes, they return the favor by recommending your brand to others and help other community members get more out of your product or service. In doing so, they lead to the creation of more brand advocates. It’s that simple. After all, success is contagious.
Gamification isn’t always superficial. While using reputation points, badges or ranks offers a formalized way to thank people for constructive feedback, it also helps to grant special abilities tied to a user’s status.
For example, higher ranks may allow members to include customized forum signatures, include links in their posts or promote content. Granting your most valuable community members these extra abilities is almost like onboarding them as members of your team – or, in the case of B2B businesses, valued partners. By rewarding them with a combination of power and recognition, you’re almost certain to create an army of brand advocates who will stop at nothing to recommend your product or service above all others.
Yes, gamification is all about rewards – but those rewards don’t always come in the form of reputation points, badges and additional forum abilities. For your most valuable community members, it’s a good idea to offer something tangible and genuinely useful. In fact, many rewards-based systems used by major retailers are inspired by gamification.
Be wary of offering monetary rewards to community members in the name of brand advocacy (you don’t want to bribe people into spreading the good word about your brand). There are more meaningful reward options out there. For example, a software developer might invite its most valuable members to a closed beta for their next big launch, while a retailer might offer a free product trial to a widely respected reviewer.
Brand advocates are a marketer’s best friend. Once you reach the stage when you have others advertising your brand for you – be it through word of mouth, review sites or on your own community forums – you’ll slash your marketing budget and greatly increase trust and credibility. It all starts with having a strong community that people love to be part of, and that begins with a platform that’s built to meet your unique goals.
That’s why Vanilla Forums doesn’t provide a one-size-fits-all solution – it offers unprecedented customizability, allowing you to build a community that works for you.