Not all members of cults are the victims of mind control. Few are socially inept or psychologically flawed. In fact, most cult members tend to be well educated and come from stable and loving family backgrounds. They tend to be “normal” like you or me or your neighbor. I wanted to find out why and how people can become so committed. And I wanted to apply the insight from the most intense form of belonging (cults, such as Krishna) to lesser and newer forms (brand cults, such as Apple, and online communities.)
That was six years ago, and those insights were published in a book: The Culting of Brands: turn your customers into true believers. Since then, brand communities have mushroomed. And so have the technologies that are enabling them. So now I think it’s time for a review: How well are brand communities being built? What strategies are being used? How well or poorly are companies using social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter? And why should marketers even bother to create brand communities?
Why go to the trouble of creating networks of passionate consumers? Well, partly because your consumer will insist you do. Engaging directly with them is the new normal. The ubiquity of social-networking tools has created an expectation of accessibility not just from friends and colleagues but from companies too. We’re now in a culture that celebrates and enables constant contact and responsiveness from everyone, like it or not.
But the real reason to go beyond conventional broadcast media, and even beyond constant engagement to the Holy Grail of community, is to create commitment in an environment that predisposes people to capriciousness.
In commodity markets, or ones where leapfrogging product innovation is the norm (most), anything that can create stickiness–and its sibling, word-of-mouth–should be embraced. And high-functioning communities of any kind tend to create commitment and recruitment.
What is “community” anyway?
Someone who should know–Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook–tells me that community is one of the most meaningless words in our language: “I think the word is overused, particularly on the Web. Everywhere you go someone’s trying to build a community. And I think we don’t pause long enough to think about what community is exactly and what we’re doing.”
I agree, and I’ve found real confusion during my conversations with brand people about whether they’re creating fans, followers or community members. Being a fan or follower is not the same as being a member of a community. Membership delivers a whole higher degree of commitment. It also demands a whole other level of engagement from participants and, consequently, a deeper appreciation by the community leader of their responsibilities. As Hughes said in our conversation: “I think that the deeper the connection goes and the more that people understand one another and what values they have or what goal they share, then the closer you get to a true community.”
To help understand the responsibilities of a community leader or enabler, here’s a list of the key “ingredients” of a real cult–or community.
–Does it satisfy a real need? Do its members learn more, have more fun, get more done or get support?
–Does is have a clearly articulated purpose?
–Is it clear about who belongs and who doesn’t?
–Is there interaction between members?
–Are there enduring relationships formed between members that go beyond the original reason for connecting?
–Do they contribute, do they participate, do they work together to achieve the common purpose? Being an audience is not a community.
–Do they feel responsibility for each other and the community at large?
–Are there roles, responsibilities and jobs performed by the membership?
–Is it self-policing? Do people censure or eject unruly or unreasonable members?
–Are there guidelines, rules, or norms of behavior?
The deeper the connection goes and the more that people understand one another and what values they have or what goal they share; then the closer you get to a true community.
Can something as pedestrian as a product or service ever hope to have a real community? I mean, come on, it’s only soap powder/a pen/a box of electronics/a mutual fund/carbonated sugar water. Can they really satisfy the profound need to belong and catalyze these core behaviors?
It’s not hard imagining a community centered around a product that is complex, that can deliver rich experiences or create strong identification with distinctive design … such as a car (the Mini or the old Beetle, for example), a computer (Apple), a motor bike (Harley-Davidson) or sports shoe (Vans). It’s tougher imagining a community centered on a prosaic product, such as a pen, a car part or a mutual fund.
It’s tough, but not impossible. In fact, it’s a real test of a community-enabler. Because you can’t rely on the inherent qualities of the product itself, you have to employ alternative strategies and–if done right–they can be the bones of a strong community. These strategies are outlined below, with brand examples. But first the strategy for the lucky brand manager.
Community Strategy No. 1:
Enable people who are passionate about your product to form community.
This is for the lucky ones. If you have a product like Smart Car that is unique, has a distinctive design and can deliver a rich product experience, then you’re also likely to have been given the gift of passionate product-lovers who can’t wait to find each other.
In Smart Car’s case, these people existed before they could even get their hands on a product. In fact they were prepared to cough-up a $99 deposit on a car they wouldn’t see for a year. Sixty thousand of them did that.
A year before launch, Smart USA took some European models on a road show and generated enough enthusiasm to get people writing checks without a test-drive. As Ken Bettenbeil, communications director at Smart USA put it: “It was very fascinating to us, actually.” This phenomenon prompted Bettenbeil and his colleagues to launch “Smartusainsider.com” in June 2008, six months after the cars were available. Said he: “We were amazed and honored that our customers were so passionate and loyal to the brand and we followed that quickly and stayed involved.”
The site was launched on the Ning platform, a social network specifically designed for people to find and engage with each other around common passions (unlike Facebook, for example, that is designed primarily for people who already know each other to share things). They e-mailed their $99 reservation program list and quickly populated the site. It now has around 11,000 members (there are roughly 40,000 Smart Car owners in the U.S.)
The Ning platform is a good option for community-makers in part because its tools enable relatively high interaction between members: blogs, updates, boards and groups. It’s the latter tool that is a key driver for recruitment and loyalty to the community. There are almost 200 groups, meaning there are 200 sub-communities within the larger network, formed around particular passions (including the “Red and Black Only” populated, not surprisingly, by owners of red and black Smart cars.) Most are local clubs (Bama Smarties, for example, with 56 members) who organize events. “Our owners love to run together,” said Ken when he described how Smart Car owners self-organized to pack their diminutive vehicles onto Lombard Street in San Francisco (the wiggly one) in an attempt to break a world record.
What’s a key indicator of community? Mutual responsibility and acting together. It’s definitely not just one-way fandom. Bettenbeil told a story where the community rallied together and displayed collective responsibility for the larger group. The transmission is unusual on a Smart Car, and the community got wind that one automotive journalist was panning it. The community galvanized itself into a militant force of opposition. It bombarded the journalist’s inbox with mail and his phone with messages defending the transmission and telling him that he “just didn’t get the Smart Car.”
The company did not stage this. The status update feature of the site tends to be the “alert” section that rallies owners to action when needed. A similar thing happened when a test on car safety looked like it was going to say big is better. Again the community rallied and posted stories and photos of how the cars had saved their lives and they made themselves available to journalists to hear a counter point of view.
Members of cults and communities want to be among “like” others.
Ken Wagar is organizer of a Central Florida owners’ club. He describes himself as someone who likes things others don’t and is proud of being out of the crowd and in the know. He saw Smart Cars in Europe before they arrived in the U.S. and was intrigued by their unusual styling. As a previous owner of a Mini Cooper, and a current owner of a Harley, he likes things that make a statement. “It’s tough to own a Smart Car if you’re naturally introverted. They draw a crowd. I like attention I guess.” Ken is a key local organizer and contributor on the community site. He confirms that Smart Car owners are different from most drivers and that they like hanging out with each other and talking about what makes their car–and them–different. And where they swap stories of stupid questions they get like when they’re asked “is it electric” while pumping gas.
Community Strategy No. 2:
Enable a community of shared skills.
Let’s face it, Sharpie is a good product, but it’s not a car. It’s a bit of plastic with some ink and some of them are sharp. Yet this utilitarian product has become a center of a community defined by its creativity. “Imaginative, curious, expressive and definitely not shy” is how Sally Grimes, VP of marketing, defines them. “They’re mostly designers.”
The company sees its role as a curator, a connector of the thousands of groups on Flickr, YouTube and Facebook, and a catalyst of member-to-member engagement using a blog, events and how-to videos all “with the purpose of inspiring creativity.”
Sharpie created Sharpieuncapped.com in June 2009 as a way for the existing communities of designers and amateur artists to find each other. “We were very lucky … there was already a lot of Sharpie love in late 2008 … there were over 2,000 Facebook groups.”
As well as connecting existing communities, it adopted the role of curator to “bring out what was already in themselves … it’s about self-expression.” They formed the “Sharpie Squad” of “20 select individuals” from the community to help them stimulate, curate and connect the rest.
This is essentially a loose federation of communities supported by the brand. They’ve adopted a realistic and humble position of “getting out the way and letting the experts [the members] take over” in the pursuit of self-expression. There’s member interaction and some limited mutual responsibility in the form of advice on boards. And the Sharpie Squad is a smart move to help the community help itself.
Community Strategy No. 3: Enable a community of shared needs.
Car parts. They’re not even as interesting as a pen. And the parts in question are wipers … not exactly the most thrilling part of a vehicle (I might be able to summon some enthusiasm for an electric seat-warmer or the engine of a Maserati, but never a wiper).
Autotexpink is a woman-owned company and leading supplier of windshield wipers and motors. Eighty percent of car purchases are either made or are heavily influenced by women, but you wouldn’t know it: The industry still reeks of testosterone. There is an opportunity for women to be armed in this last bastion of male hegemony by creating a safe place where women can share advice on buying, driving and maintaining cars. And it could be enabled by a brand.
Paula Lombard, the company’s founder and CEO, has this vision and is just starting to build it. She believes a community can be founded on real, shared needs and that a humble wiper company can play a significant role by enabling it. She has created myautotexpink.com (also on the Ning platform) and hired a female auto expert to stimulate engagement amongst its members by seeding content on its blog. It really is early days. But she’s attempting to include some of the key ingredients of real community-making: satisfying a real need and providing opportunities for members to engage, share and support each other. And importantly, she’s recognizing what the brand can and can’t do.
Adopting this supportive vs. center-stage role is being both realistic about the amount of engagement the product could ever generate, and it recognizes the new and valuable reality brands face: Be useful to people who want or need to share stuff.
Community Strategy No. 4:
Sponsor existing communities of shared needs, passions or causes.
An increasingly common strategy is to not attempt to create a community centered on brand enthusiasm, but for the brand to enthusiastically support existing communities that have a purpose separate from, but relevant to the brand. This has been the strategy of some major brands that have sponsored groups through Meetup.com, a New York company where I worked for a while.
Meetup is an online social platform with a difference. Its purpose is to get people offline in local groups around shared interests (pugs or extreme Frisbee for example), needs (cancer survival or skills-learning such as speaking Spanish) or causes (e.g., sustainable building or stopping human trafficking).
Microsoft, American Express Open, and Blackberry have all sponsored small business or entrepreneur Meetup Groups. Columbia has sponsored outdoor and hiking groups. Huggies is in its fourth year of supporting stay-at-home mom groups.
Sponsorship means anything from financial (like paying the monthly fees) to adding value in terms of training (Amex ran entrepreneur boot camps, Huggies distributed potty-training DVDs to toddler playgroup Meetups).
The brands benefit from engaging with already robust communities that answer real needs. And they can enjoy positive brand perception, loyalty and word of mouth based on gratitude for their role as supporter and nurturer. This comment in a dog Meetup group is common: “I think it is wonderful that Nutro is sponsoring our Meetup and we are going to start buying more of their products as a result!”
Community Strategy No. 5:
Champion a movement for social change.
Whatever your political affiliation, it’s generally recognized that the Obama team flawlessly executed an election campaign that owed much of its success to a new set of online tools and strategies. They created a movement: a community on the move.
The Obama campaign mobilized 13 million people to take action. That’s taking action, not just viewing pages. That action included everything from low-barrier initiatives, such as signing a petition to higher-barrier/higher commitment actions, such as organizing offline events and creating local chapters. The campaign used (and improved) many techniques already being deployed by some of the more advanced cause-related nonprofits and NGOs.
Not surprisingly, this has brands salivating. Creating values-based commitment manifested by members taking action is a different order of stickiness than you’ll ever get from a fan page. This is a new community strategy yet to make its debut in the brand world. However it’s coming. Brands such as Dove have only just got started creating loyalty to the brand by creating commitment to a movement for social change (in this case, redefining society’s definition of female beauty). Nissan, too, is trying to build a community for its upcoming Leaf car by rallying people who care about zero-emission vehicles.
Some utilitarian products can’t command loyalty based on unique design or rich experience, of course. The key insight here: Don’t attempt to make a community around the product. It’s unlikely to work. In fact, it can end disastrously. Instead, enable communities of members who share not passion for the product necessarily, but commitment to the things the product has appropriated or sponsored. They’re often intangible things like a cause, a skill or values.
These community members can be at least as passionate as product devotees. The role of the brand, however, tends to be one of enabler and champion vs. fan-object. This is not necessarily an inferior role. Members can be enormously grateful and become passionate supporters, loyalists and word-of-mouthers of your brand because you’ve helped them connect with others who share the same interests and needs.
Key findings, in summary:
1. Don’t fake it. Communities have to be authentic. They have to satisfy a real need (like sharing knowledge), or be about a genuine passion. Don’t pretend that people are passionate about your product when they’re really not. Find something they can be passionate about and champion that.
2. Enabling is often better than building. Following existing behavior is generally a better and easier strategy than trying to generate new behaviors. Some of the most successful brands have spotted existing passions and needs, and observed people’s attempts to share them. Then they’ve simply made it easier to do what they’re already trying to do. They’ll build a Web site or connect existing ones, or celebrate members and their achievements.
3. The golden rule in the brand-community business: BE USEFUL. You’re mostly viewed as a big corporation making tons of money, that doesn’t generally listen to its customers’ needs, and really doesn’t give a damn about anything apart from its own profits. That’s your starting point. Now work hard to prove that you care, that you love the fact that your customers love your product. Support their communities with money, ideas, content and publicity, whatever they need. Prove that you’re genuine and that you care about the people off whom you’re making money. If you do, the social networks will enable people to tell others. If you don’t, they’ll also enable people to tell others.
4. Be a partner or supporter, not a dictator. Most companies get this now. But until recently the posture of most brand managers was “command-control” not “support and nurture.” (A legacy of the command-control attitude is the militaristic vocabulary that’s still common: “target audience,” “campaign,” “conquering the market” etc.) With consumers more or less in control, the old marketing attitudes are dead. You’re now a co-creator with the consumer of their brand experience and, nowadays, even larger society-changing effects should you choose the strategy of championing social change.
5. If you want a community, then you need members–not fans or followers. There’s a difference. Receivers of tweet and fan-blasts are not members of a thriving, sticky community that acts together, buys into the goals and values, and feels responsible for each other. They’re an audience, often on the receiving end of just a new form of mass media.
Douglas Atkin is the founder and author of “The Glue Project: about the stuff that binds communities together.” It’s a blog and social experiment that deconstructs how the best communities work based on interviews with founders of social networks, community leaders and brand experts. He is a former chief community officer and partner at Meetup.com, a leading social networking site. Atkin is the author of a book on cults and cult brands called The Culting of Brands: How to turn customers into true believers.