Consumers are more empowered than ever because they can access and share information about the products and services they love (or hate) over the web. This has led to a dramatic change in the way brands work. Companies are no longer the ones in control now that we live in the Age of the Consumer. Every individual with an internet connection has the power to influence the purchase decisions of others. This influence may permeate across third-party platforms like peer-to-peer review websites, social networks, or online forums. Another venue, is a branded community website. That’s what we’re going to explore today.

What is a branded community website?

A paper published by the Journal of Consumer Research in 2001 defines brand communities as specialised, non-geographically bound groups based on a structured set of relationships among fans of a brand. The concept grew from the evolution and fusion of loyalty programmes and fan clubs.

Branded community websites are typically run by for-profit companies to fulfil a variety of key goals, such as increasing customer retention, enabling peer-to-peer support, or giving people a space to provide feedback and share their ideas. The thing is, customers are already doing this on their social media profiles and other online platforms. A branded community website goes a step further by consolidating these experiences and returning some control to the organisation behind it. Built on the principles of network effects, these community websites become a core digital asset in their own rights. Successful communities provide value to their customers by offering a sense of belonging and a shared vision.

A branded community website can serve a variety of purposes, and many serve more than one. The overarching goal, however, is to empower members to support each other. The core success metrics of brand communities include factors like distributed customer service, social shopping experiences, brand advocacy, and knowledge-sharing among your most valuable customers. Some brands even rely on their communities for product ideation. For example, Lego Ideas lets community members share their ideas for new Lego constructions and vote on those shared by others. Those with the most votes may eventually end up on the store shelves. Whatever the goals of your community, success is driven by shared experiences.

laptop on a desk

Premium programmes and customer loyalty

Although the term ‘brand community’ has barely been around for a couple of decades, it’s not an entirely new concept. Relatively recent developments in digital marketing continue to stress the connection between brands and their customers. However, the connection has been there for almost as long as recorded history. Brands have existed since ancient times, as have communities of loyal customers. For example, the Romans used commercial inscriptions to specify the origins and types of certain products like amphorae. Eventually, the concept of commercial branding gave rise to the progenitor of the modern brand community – customer loyalty programmes. 

Customer loyalty programmes appeared during the dawn of modern commerce. The first such programmes took the form of premiums, where merchants would give out tokens as proof of purchase, which customers could then redeem for products in the store. The first recorded use of such premiums occurred over two-hundred years ago. During the nineteenth century, these premium programmes evolved into things like tickets and trading stamps. By the late twentieth century, loyalty programmes had become an almost universal form of advertising. Among the pioneers of modern loyalty programmes was the aviation sector, which rewarded regular customers with frequent flyer miles. Another was retail with their card-linked offers.

Customer fan clubs and brand loyalty

The most successful brands don’t just sell products or services – they sell experiences as well. Some brands go so far as to sell experiences that are inextricably intertwined with their more tangible offers. For example, Harley-Davidson doesn’t just sell motorcycles – it sells a lifestyle, which is largely empowered by the Harley’s Ownership Group. Many major brand names do something similar. If they have fans, they work to bring them together. These fan clubs form the very basis of so-called cult brands and their devout followers. They thrive on a sense of belonging driven by shared passions and interests. While loyalty programmes foster customer loyalty to increase purchasing power, these fan communities build  brand loyalty.

Brand loyalty differs from customer loyalty in that it has no direct link to how much customers spend on your products and services. In fact, a fan of your brand might not spend much at all, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they bring less value. Brand loyalty is all about how people perceive your brand. Someone who perceives your brand in a good light and has a high degree of influence, can be the most valuable customer you’ll ever have. Just like customer loyalty programmes, fan communities have been around since the industrial revolution when customers would gather to form owner’s clubs. Eventually, the brands themselves started to recognise the potential in creating and nurturing fan communities of their own.

people at a concert

The fusion of brand and customer loyalty

As soon as the internet gave consumers a voice, scepticism in blatant advertising skyrocketed. No longer can brands simply hope to ‘buy’ their customers with traditional loyalty programmes alone. Today, they face the increasing need to engage their customers in non-obtrusive ways based on their perceived needs and desires. Whereas customer loyalty is still something that brands enjoy a high degree of control over, brand loyalty is all about how customers perceive your organisation and its products and services. Thus, community marketing was born out of the need to build stronger and more authentic relationships driven by common goals and a sense of belonging.

The rise of social media has itself empowered community marketing strategies in a way that simply wasn’t possible before. The enormous reach of social media has given companies new ways to distribute their customer loyalty programs. While many-to-many communication has enabled them to increase brand loyalty by building and nurturing authentic relationships. But it’s not as easy as it sounds, not least because mainstream social media has grown so large, and the companies behind them are themselves dependent on them for advertising revenue. Networks like Facebook, for example, make their money from sponsored advertising. Therefore,  they have little interest in helping your build your brand too, at least not unless you’re paying for advertising space.

man standing in front of group of men

The rise of branded community websites

With social media fakery on the rise, it’s harder than ever to remain authentic and get heard among all the noise on Facebook Groups and the like. To enjoy the benefits of the fusion of brand and customer loyalty, companies are now looking to branded community websites to regain a meaningful influence over the customer experience. This approach works because a good brand knows what its customers want. But, they’re not so overconfident that they’re not able to listen to them as well. A branded community website that you own and control provides the relationships and insights you need to foster an environment where customers can derive value from one another, and not just from your brand.

With their own communities at their disposal, brands can maintain full control over customer experiences to enable them to achieve their desired goals and obtain value faster. The brand is free to pick and choose the features and functions necessary to aid them on their journey. For example, they can integrate online shopping experiences and loyalty programmes. This can enable peer-to-peer support, product ideation, and knowledges-sharing over a platform that helps build and nurture relationships. That way, branded community websites empower both brand and customer loyalty and take business growth to a whole new level.

Disciple social spaces help brands enjoy all the benefits of community with an independent, valuable, and trusted platform in a safe space that they own and control. Start building your brand community by telling us about your community goals.