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Hey Brand Managers: Your 'Community' Doesn't Love You Like Mom Does

Time for Marketers to Take Back Their Online Communities

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The latest news from Facebook is grim for brands and their online communities. Organic reach is down by at least 49% and is continuing to decrease. That community of fans you've worked so hard to build, that you thought you owned and were able to reach through earned media, is now only reachable through advertising. And those other branded communities on channels like YouTube, Twitter and Instagram? They're likely to go the same way. The reality is, they're not your brand's communities. Those groups, along with their data, behavior and preferences, belong to the social networks.

And yet, those fans who say they love you are powerhouses, driving revenue through purchase and influence. A word-of-mouth recommendation is behind 20% to 50% of purchases, and customers referred by loyal customers have a 37% higher retention rate.

The promise of Facebook and other social networks was an army of advocates. Now, only a small portion of a brand's social following, roughly 5% in Facebook, actually drives word-of-mouth results. Often, brands have no idea who these individuals are, nor do they have an efficient way to activate them. And, with increasing social fragmentation, marketers have to dedicate more and more resources to develop content for each social channel so it resonates and adheres to the unwritten rules of conduct for that specific network. And who knows what social network will emerge in the future?

These challenges have many asking the question: "Should I build my brand community on a social networking site?"

For many brands, the answer is that it's time to take back your community and recognize that the real opportunity is the chance to leverage the 5% that can drive results for you.

Now is the optimal time for brands to introduce the next stage in the influencer and advocacy ecosystem: brand-owned communities of advocates. An owned community is valuable because it's a database that you control, allowing for direct communication that builds loyalty -- a group where the most passionate are easily identified and where the activity is measurable. It's a conduit for constant feedback and a missing link between CRM and social.

Your advocates will join you if they know they will be rewarded and spotlighted for their loyalty.

A website community that is dedicated to a specific brand is not a novel idea. Many brands have built communities to facilitate category discussion, customer support or loyalty programs. However, many will likely tell you about the exhaustive effort to build a platform from scratch, the difficult trial-and-error approach or the resources needed to manage yet another customer channel. Community building is not a one-off approach, nor is it an automated strategy. But done correctly, it could be the optimal solution for brands to adapt and evolve in the continually changing social landscape.

For a community to succeed, it needs to not only deliver the proper value exchange between consumer and brand, but must be met with intuitive design and personalized communications and incorporate intrinsic behavior drivers.

Some considerations and best practices:

Avoid creating a social network for your brand. A brand-owned advocate community is about a brand advocate engaging with the brand and ultimately voicing an opinion by way of social sharing, which in turns fosters brand advocacy. There is a place for items like conversation or gamification, but the areas in which members interact should be limited and controlled. Ultimately, the brand should lead the interaction. Leave the friending, following and liking to the social networks. Use social networks as the distribution channel for consumer content.

Success does not mean frequency. Success should be determined by the actions taken when members are prompted and the impact they have on others, not by how often they visit. Do they share when asked? Do they drive action among their friends? Do they complete surveys when offered? Do they engage with activities? Brand advocates don't need to be engaged every day. Adhering to this way of thinking is a slippery slope into overworked community managers and drained resources. Focus on the impact advocates provide while in your community.

Make activations count. When activating an advocate, make sure community members recognize that every communication or "ask" is a value exchange for both brand and consumer -- whether it's a brand experience, exclusive content, the opportunity to have their voice heard, or the opportunity to be the "in-the-know" person of their social group. This often answers the question, "Why would someone do this?" When a brand carefully selects how it activates its most effective sales tool, advocates will surely find value in participating.

Social networks are evolving into publishing and advertising platforms, forcing marketers to assess the true value of their "owned" communities that live there. While it may seem like a challenge now, the reality is this is an enormous opportunity for brands to solve a giant disconnect, and to take back their communities.

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