Should you sell to your online community?
Your customers chose to join your online community based on a genuine interest in your brand, products, or services. They did not join your community to be bombarded with ads. As a rule, you must provide valuable content, information, or support to your community in order for people to stick around. If they feel they are being given the hard sell at every corner, they will leave.
What Is Your Purpose?
Your community must establish a strong foundation of trust with its members before you can start selling them on anything. It is important that the purpose of the community Is something other than commercial gain.
A good example of a brand community with a purpose is MyFitnessPal. Owned by Under Armour, they claim an active community of over 100,000 members with the expressed purpose of helping people achieve their fitness, diet, and weight loss goals through the MyFitnessPal App.
The forum is there for the free expression of ideas, guidance, and tips. Not selling. However, in order to sign up and join the discussion, you need to create an account with MyFitnessPal, which of course entails submitting an email address.
In this way, Under Armour collects customer information and builds their contact list. If the forum numbers are accurate, they have the email addresses of 100,000 fans who care about fitness, weight loss, and the dieting lifestyle. As a company heavily invested in providing athletic apparel as well as training and fitness accessories, these are prime customers.
The selling is not overt. A look over the community shows that it is largely run by the community itself rather than the Under Armour brand. The community shares experiences, tips, exercise routines, and more. There is occasional reference to Under Armour brand products, but these are few and far between.
The Under Armour approach serves a sales model in two ways:
- Collecting email addresses for the purposes of building a list for future sales and marketing efforts
- Promote use of the app, which leads to downloads, use, and sales. The basic app is free and contains Under Armour branding which helps keep the company top of mind as well as a limited number of ads. A paid premium version of the app eliminates the ads and grants access to enhanced content.
Providing value should always be a top priority of any community, but in order to have that translate into sales you sometimes need to go the extra mile. Proctor and Gamble launched Super Savvy Me as a way to connect their multitude of brands to their consumers.
Super Savvy Me offers a variety of helpful hints, tips, and recipes for using a variety of products in the Proctor and Gamble catalogue. While the sections do not blatantly advertise P&G products, they are certainly mentioned and coupons/discounts are frequent. Community members likewise share stories, offer their own advice, and write product reviews.
The selling is a little more obvious on Super Savvy Me, with contests such as “Win an Olay: Total Effects Bundle,” and “Win an Oral-B Genius 8000 Toothbrush”. These contests keep consumers connected to the brands they enjoy while offering value in the form of free products in exchange for what is essentially free market research: questionnaires, surveys, etc.
That’s fine for the random giveaway, but how do you get people passionate about brands like Oral-B and Pampers? You invite them to the Savvy Circle.
The Savvy Circle offers members the opportunity to try new Proctor & Gamble products before they are released to the general public. Registered users are then encouraged to share their experiences with their friends and family.
Again, signing up for Super Savvy Me (and the Savvy Circle) requires an email address. This time, the choice to receive communications is not optional.
In this way, Super Savvy Me is also able to compile a list of current and potential customers who have already expressed an interest in the products that Proctor and Gamble sells.
Super Savvy Me is a more commercialized version of an online community, and it is a model that can certainly work if you have the products that people are passionate enough about. The required opt-in to receive communications is a trade-off that over 200,000 members are willing to make.
When you can provide value in the form of free, discounted, or early access to brands your customers love, while at the same time connecting with hundreds of thousands of people, everyone wins.
Two Different Approaches
Both communities exist to ultimately help their parent companies be commercially successful. However, both are providing value and opportunity to their members. In both cases the explicit purpose of the community is not to sell products to community members, but rather connect them with the brand. This is always a winning result.
While Proctor & Gamble is a little more blatant with their approach, they have built up their brand catalogue to the point where they can establish a community that is heavier on the sales side. Incentivizing fans to share their experiences for the chance to win free or discounted items doesn’t hurt either.
Under Armour takes a subtler approach. By tapping into the weight loss and fitness industry, Under Armour takes advantage of an audience that is always looking for new ways to achieve their goals.
The End Result
When customers feel connected to the brand they will develop loyalty to the brand. Whether your community includes direct sales opportunities such as Proctor & Gamble, or utilizes a subtler approach such as MyFitnessPal, customer loyalty builds up the connection between product and consumer and leads to the creation of super fans.
Super fans actively support and promote your products with word of mouth recommendations to their own circles. They will also provide hints, tip, and support to other customers on social media, in real life, and on your community forum. Oh, and they’re also pretty loyal buyers as well.
The ROI on your community sales efforts may be hard to calculate when you consider the greatest sales opportunity your community offers may be the opportunity to create a group of loyal, passionate customers who will stay with you for a long time.