No matter the name of your brand, the industry you operate in, the products you make or the services you sell; your customers, fans and followers are your most valuable asset. They are the thing that keep your brand alive. Through engagement, advocacy, sales and revenue, happy customers are the difference between a company that’s surviving and a brand community that’s thriving.

One of the simplest, most affordable and effective ways to create a really happy customer base is to build a brand community for them to join and participate in. Successfully creating a customer community around your brand can turn your brand into a lifestyle, rather than just a product or service.

In this handy guide to online customer communities, we’ll take a look at some good examples of brand communities, the benefits of creating a strong customer community and some of the best ways to build an online customer community. So, let’s get started!

3 great examples of brand communities:

We’ve recently noticed some companies working hard to diversify their product and/or service offering in order to turn their most engaged customers into their community of advocates. Here’s what we’ve been seeing:

Apple

Building an amazing brand community was what took Apple from near bankruptcy in 1997 to being the leading contender in the race to become the first Trillion-Dollar Company in 2018. Steve Jobs really understood the importance of building a lifestyle rather than a product.

And that’s exactly what Apple has achieved. First with the iMac, then the iPod and now the iPhone. On the surface, they were selling tech products. Sure, they would be really useful, like any other mobile phone. But they wouldn’t change your lifestyle. Right?

Wrong! Apple’s awesome marketing campaigns never just focused on the tech product themselves. They sold a lifestyle. The people you see in Apple’s advertising campaigns illustrate the huge number of opportunities that can be unlocked using Apple products.

Groups of people easily making plans and meeting up with each other. People running together and tracking their fitness progress. People taking beautiful photos of beautiful scenery and sharing them with each other. These aren’t all things that were naturally associated with smartphones and tech when Apple first started these campaigns. But they are now. And that’s part of what made them so successful.

All of this together sold a beautiful lifestyle. It wasn’t just about the tech. It was about the opportunities that this tech offered and the connections that could be made using Apple products. And Apple really lent into this community-driven lifestyle aspect of their brand, with ideas and educational initiatives like Apple Field Trip and Apple Camp.

Through all of this, Apple became part of a lifestyle and, around that lifestyle, a community grew. This brand community is without a doubt the saving grace of Apple and the driving force behind its massive, rapid growth.

Harley Davidson

Harley Davidson is another great example of a brand community. In 1983, the motorcycle manufacturer founded the Harley Owners Group (HOG) – the world’s greatest motorcycle club. HOG offers Harley owners a chance to become part of a like-minded, lifestyle club. Benefits include HOG events, HOG handbooks and a quarterly magazine. Just for HOG members.

The beauty of this brand community lies in its simplicity. It’s not offering its members anything out of the ordinary. And what’s on offer doesn’t cost Harley Davidson a lot of money. But it really harnesses the fact that Harley Davidson riders see their motorbikes as a lifestyle.

Harley Davidson really lent into the rebellious, free, independent lifestyle that people naturally saw in their product. And it became the main thing that huge groups of in the US – and then the world – had in common. All Harley Davidson had to do was gather these people and bring them together into a closed community. Which is exactly what they did with HOG.

And this customer community is without a doubt one of the main things that has kept the company alive since 1903 through some difficult economic times and turned them into the successful, thriving company that they are today.

Fender Guitars

If you’re a guitar player (like me :)) or you engage with the Fender brand, you may have noticed that Fender are stepping up their brand community game. Fender are proud that their guitars are for life. They are quality-made guitars that will grow old with the owner and only sound better with time. This is one of Fender’s unique selling points.

The problem with this, however, is that this limits the amount of repeat custom they will ever receive from their customers. Sure, there are those super-engaged customers who have the cash to build out a collection of Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars. But that will most likely be limited only to a small group of super-engaged customers. For the majority of people, they’ll only ever buy one or two guitars from Fender.

So, Fender introduced their brand community: Fender Play – an online guitar forum and teaching service for budding guitarists. Customers pay a monthly fee to become part of the online Fender community and be taught how to play guitar by some of Fender’s professional musicians. Customers can connect with each other, whilst establishing a deeper connection with the Fender brand.

So, as you can see, some of the world’s most well-known and loved brands have achieved that status by using the concept of a brand community to gather a highly engaged following around their brand.

Disciple brand communities

Examples of online customer communities from Disciple

Here at Disciple, we help people build strong communities for their customers, readers fans, friends and followers. We believe that having a single-focus, dedicated app community for your most valuable followers is invaluable to a brand. Any brand.

We believe that this concept can work for anyone and any brand from any industry or any sector. No matter the size or style of your community, there’s a home for you and them on our platform. So far, we have helped music stars, film stars, health and wellness gurus, politicians and government members. The only thing they all have in common is community.

So let’s take a look at who we’re building brand communities with and how it’s helped them:

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones are often referred to as the greatest rock band of all time. They have one of the most recognisable logos in the world. You know the one. And they have one of the biggest fanbases in the world. I mean, 19 million people follow them on Facebook.

Their problem, though, was that it’s really difficult to make money from a social following. Even if it’s 19 million people.

This is firstly because advertising on social media is expensive. According to AdEspresso, the average cost per click on Facebook advertising in 2017 was $1.72. Furthermore, the cost of reaching 1000 people on Facebook is around $10.

Now that may not sound like much. But that means it would cost The Rolling Stones ~ $190,000 to reach all of their fans with their advertising on Facebook. And that’s before they’ve even clicked on anything!

The Rolling Stones wanted to get some of their control back. After all, these people are their fans who want to see content from the band they love. They shouldn’t have to pay to reach them.

So we helped them build a place where they could gather their most engaged fans. A dedicated app community in which they can communicate with 100% of the superfans who follow them. There are no complex algorithms that decide which content makes it into their fans’ news feeds. There are no other distractions in the app; no other brands competing for space. It’s just them and their customers.

And the fans are happy. They have a place to interact with each other whilst seeing exclusive content from The Rolling Stones and communicating with the band they love. The result is a really strong brand community.

Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock is a British politician. He’s both Minister of Parliament for West Suffolk and Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. This essentially means that he fulfills two roles politically.

Firstly, he’s in the Prime Minister’s cabinet. As Minister for Digital, Culture Media and Sport, he leads on policy decisions around things such as arts & culture, creative industries, sport and tourism. These decisions are made at a national level and affect everyone in all areas of the United Kingdom.

Secondly, Matt is a Minister of Parliament (MP) for his constituency – West Suffolk. This means that he has been elected as the parliamentary representative for the county of West Suffolk. In effect, he is the voice for all of the people in West Suffolk in terms of policy. Therefore, it’s really important that he knows what’s going on in his constituency and what matters to the people he represents, so that he can raise these issues in Parliament and help his constituents.

In our platform, Matt saw an opportunity to help him perform these two roles. By building a brand community with us, he established a new form of direct, digital democracy. One in which he could gather an audience of his constituents from West Suffolk to communicate to them whilst connecting and interacting with them.

Matt uses his app to tell his constituents about the work he’s doing but also – more importantly – to listen to their concerns and find out about the issues that really matter to them. His constituents have their own wall on which they can raise issues and discuss things with each other.

The app’s native post-ranking system automatically pushes the posts with the most likes and comments to the top of the wall. Hashtags gather together posts about the same topic. This means that Matt can instantly see which topics are trending or are a concern for a high number of people.

Whilst this may not be a traditional understanding of a brand community – as Matt is in a government role – his app functions in a similar way to a brand community. He is gathering a community, not only of his supporters but also those who question his policies, in order to engage them and build a brand community around the role of Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Madeleine Shaw

Madeleine Shaw is a well-known and much loved Health and Wellness influencer. She is known particularly for her lessons in yoga, mindfulness and healthy cooking. Madeleine has established a large social following but – as is often the case – found that she could not engage or monetise that social following.

She wanted to bring her most engaged fans, followers and students into her own brand community, into which she could build in-app purchases and turn all that engagement into revenue. So that’s exactly what we helped her do!

Madeleine’s brand community app is a fairly unique commercial model. The app is free to download and free users get access to a limited amount of the in-app content. They see what Madeleine is posting about and can see some of the classes and recipes.

But, if her fans, followers and students want unlimited access to all of her content, classes and recipes, they need to purchase Madeleine’s 8-week health and wellness program for £49.99/$70. This is a one-off purchase and gives app users access to eight weeks of structured recipes and classes as well as unlimited access to all content in the app.

And this is the fundamental difference between her online brand community app and social media. She has much more control over how she publishes content and monetises her following. When posting to the app, Madeleine and her team have the option to make posts exclusive, meaning that only paying users can see that piece of content.

This allows her to build exclusivity and value into her content, which in turn allows her to make money from her online brand community.

What are the benefits of a brand community?

More contact with your customers.

Establishing a brand community gives your customers so many more touchpoints and reasons to come into contact with your brand values and your messaging.

Normally, customers only come into contact with your brand when they’re purchasing or using your product or service. But, if they join and actively participate in a customer community, they’ll be thinking and speaking about your brand much more often.

This is known as lifecycle marketing. And the more your customers come into contact with your brand, the stronger presence your brand will have in your customers’ lives.

Show your customers you care about them.

Building a brand community will give your brand more identity and make you stand out from the crowd. Every brand says that they really care about their customers, as every brand should. But, not every brand cares about their customers enough to take the time to build an online customer community for them. But you do.

That already speaks volumes about your brand and how much you care about your customers. By bringing them all together into a brand community, you show your customers that you listen to them and want to give them a space to discuss your brand, the lifestyle your brand helps to create and any issues surrounding your products.

This essentially turns your customer community into a customer communication management tool. Similarly to a feedback loop, you’ll be able to see customers posting about how great your products are, but also, any issues they’re having with your products. This gives you the ability to be proactive and tell your brand community that you’re aware of the issues and are already resolving them.

Advocacy.

Gathering a customer community of your most engaged customers, fans and followers, will almost inevitably result in great advocacy. Advocacy occurs when customers are so pleased with the products and services they receive from a brand, that they essentially go and market that brand to all of their friends. For free!

Advocacy is a great thing for any brand because people are more likely to believe their friends than any of your marketing material. It is similar to peer-to-peer marketing because there is already a level of trust established between the advocate and the listener. You’ll be amazed at how beneficial advocacy can be for your business.

And building an online brand community is an awesome way to encourage advocacy. Gathering together a group of your most engaged customers, giving them amazing content and conversations to be a part of will ultimately lead to brand advocacy.

Instagram screenshot on a smartphone, example of brand community

Is social media really the place to build a customer community?

The rise of social media has brought the concept of brand communities to the fore. Especially recently. Almost every household or well-known brand in the world now has a presence and following on social media.

Brands, companies, groups and celebrities are using social media to build up a following and share updates, information and new releases with their fans. The idea here is that this will create a brand community and gather a group of people around a brand at the centre.

For a lot of companies, this appears to have been a real success. Larger, well-known companies have built up huge followings on social media. Nike has 29 million followers on Facebook. Google has a following of 20.1 million people on Twitter. Selena Gomez has a following of 134 million people on Instagram.

Those numbers sound really impressive. And they’re the numbers that a lot of companies have been focusing on for their social media marketing strategy.

But, what those numbers don’t – and can’t – tell you, is how many of those people you’ll actually reach. Well, recent stories in the news media have suggested that, on average, on social media you’ll only ever reach approximately 6% of your targeted audience. Some publishers have reported organic reach levels on Facebook as low as 2%!

So, what does this mean?

Essentially, this means that social media is not a place where you can meaningfully reach people and create a real sense of community.

Here are four reasons why:

1. It’s expensive.

We’ve already talked a bit about how expensive it is to communicate with your audience on social media. We looked at just two of the costs associated with advertising on Facebook – the cost per click and the cost to reach 1,000 people with your ads.

These are just two of the costs associated with social media advertising. There is an entire maelstrom of costs associated with advertising on social media. And each of the big social media platforms has its own overly-complicated and inaccessible list of implied costs that are designed to make it difficult to understand; making it easier for you to spend way more than you need to.

I know what you’re thinking. We’re biased on this topic. And yes, that’s true, but if you look around and do a few searches on Google, you’ll see that we’re not the only ones who decry the cost of social media advertising.

2. The algorithms are complicated.

This is firstly due to the way that algorithms of big social media platforms serve content to your existing and potential customers on their news feeds. As you may have read about recently, these algorithms are always changing. Mark Zuckerberg just announced that content from publishers would be deprioritised in order to make more space for content from friends and family. So, quite often, algorithms are stopping your content from reaching your intended audience.

3. There are too many distractions.

Secondly, this is due, in part, to the number of distractions and other brands competing for space on big social media platforms. Paid content and advertising is prioritised over organic content. Other brands are always competing with you for space. And you need to play by someone else’s rules in order to reach the people you want to speak to.

4. Communication is one-directional.

The third factor is just the nature of big social media platforms. The flow of information on any social media platform is one-directional. You, as the brand or content publisher, write a post and send it off into the ether, hoping it lands on your followers’ news feeds. They can then Like, Comment or Share/Re-Tweet/Re-Gram your message. But this isn’t a conversation. This is just a series of individual comments and actions that don’t really promote meaningful interaction and community spirit.

To conclude…

So. Hopefully we’ve given you some good insight into brand communities and how they can help you achieve your objectives. You’d be surprised at how beneficial an online customer community can be for a brand, regardless of the industry it’s in or the products and services it sells.

If you’d like to discuss any of the points we’ve raised here, please head to the discuss section below.