Why brands need to (re)build their online communities today

A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate. - Seth Godin, We Need You to Lead Us.

The human being is a social creature. From a revolutionary perspective, human beings have formed communities as a way of survival. But later communities became just more than that. They became how people shaped their identity by joining one and not joining the other. Part of this identity was associated with the products and brands they chose.

Today roughly two-thirds of companies have communities. We can see the significant impact of digitization on both communities and businesses in the past few decades. We are also observing how social media has accelerated this change. The brands have to adapt to these changes and rebuild their online communities based on today’s customer behavior. Are they equipped with the right strategy and the right tools?

Digitization of Communities

The internet transformed the way people communicate and, by extension, the way communities were formed. This was a new transformation, one that didn’t come with the invention of the telephone, which mainly enabled one-on-one long-distance communication.

February 16, 1978, was the historic day when the first online community was born. Christensen and Suess invented the “Hobbyist Computerized Bulletin Board” as the first BBS for internet users to exchange information with each other.

Splashscreen of the CBBS/Chicago (1978) — Source: Wikipedia

If you were born in the 80s like myself, you can remember the good days when the internet was full of forums and discussion boards. These online communities were formed around shared values and interests, allowing flawless communication between members.

When Facebook was born in mid-2000, nearly 70% of US citizens had access to the Internet, while worldwide access was as low as 16%. Fast forward to the present — global access has grown five times to 4.2 Billion users, with more than half being on Facebook. Social media was the next wave that transformed communities. The new online communities were rarely the vBulletin or Phpbb anymore; they had been replaced by Facebook and LinkedIn groups.

Digitization of Brands

Brands and companies were not immune to the digitization of just about everything. The new technology started to disrupt many businesses. In this circumstance, companies had to shift their focus to the rule of value creation, putting the customer in the center of their mission statement and delivering concrete value to them.

To better deliver value to customers, businesses had to go beyond basic reasons and determine why they wanted to pursue their mission. Simon Sinek clearly outlines the theory of acting with purpose in his best-selling book “Start with Why,” showing how brands such as Apple win by understanding their operating philosophy — in other words, their core values.

Customers today listen to the stories of brands and hear out the purpose behind businesses. Once they join a business as a customer, it’s as if they have joined a tribe where company values are the shared interest and the brand is the medium of communication.

Brand Communities in the Age of Social Media

As defined on Wikipedia, a brand community is a community formed on the basis of attachment to a product or brand. The community consists of an enduring self-selected group of actors sharing a system of values, standards, and representations (a culture) and recognizing bonds of membership with each other and with the whole.

While almost every business is using social media to interact with customers today, their efforts fall short for many reasons:

Data Ownership

Firstly, social media giants keep limiting business access to their customer data, which is crucial for managers to gain insight and make informed decisions. Secondly, the social media networks own the content and the userbase; therefore, they charge businesses with increasing ad bills to retarget their customers and amplify their reach. The cartoon below says it all in a nutshell.

Searchability

Community members have criticized the lack of structure in social media groups making it impossible for them to browse the valuable content in a group. This limitation not only bothers members but is also a concern for community owners.

Being inaccessible by search engines is another shortfall of these groups. Brands are losing the vast benefit of gaining organic traffic through search engines. While a brand’s website can easily rank high on search results because the search engines give more value to user-generated content than usual blog posts.

Missing Alternatives

Although there are many online community platforms out there that help businesses host their forum-style software and serve their communities, the current solutions have to be rethought.

The majority of users are spending most of their time on social media feeds and messengers, and they often prefer not to sign up and engage on hosted branded communities. On the other hand, brands are faced with the aforementioned limitations on social media. There has to be a solution to this dilemma.

Looking at the transformation of online communities over the past decades and the changes that businesses are still undergoing today, we can see there is a great potential for innovation in online community solutions, and brands need to rebuild their communities with new products to address the mentioned challenges.