What is a brand community?
A brand community is an online or real-life community formed on the basis of attachment to a product or brand. The internet in general and more recent developments in social media apps mean it’s easier now than it ever has been for people in most parts of the world to gather in communities based on shared interests rather than geography.
Brands are naturally taking an interest in these organic gatherings because a thriving brand community is a destination where they can gather feedback, encourage advocacy and garner support. “Community is a potent strategy if it is approached with the right mind-set and skills. A strong brand community increases customer loyalty, lowers marketing costs, authenticates brand meanings, and yields an influx of ideas to grow the business.” 
As a community builder with my team’s Geektropolis Toronto Geek Community, I’m always looking for new best practices on how to improve my interaction with and service to Toronto Geeks, and how my *no campfire required company can help others to do the same.
What’s a community for?
1. Community is a way for people to gather around something they love with other people who love the same.
In the past, if you came from a small town, it may have been difficult to find others who read Harry Potter and to be able to participate not only in reading books together, but also in sharing fan art, in themed meet-ups or events. That’s now possible all over the Internet in many different ways. For example, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling uses pottermore.com, described as “the digital heart of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World”, to nurture relationships with her fans, to involve them in her fictional world, and to talk to them about new content and products.
2. Community makes useful insights on future developments directly available from fans.
Startups can find ways to provide value to their potential audience on a regular basis, even when product isn’t yet launched. This makes the audience feel part of the process, which in turn makes them happy to contribute ideas and opinions and to make new improvements to something they love.
How should I start building a community?
3. Start by answering questions.
Get into conversations. Go where your audience spends time in real life and online. Get into conversations with them. Provide something they value, whether it’s advice or ideas, and then invite them to visit where you spend your time.
4. Provide enough information and/or resources so people can have their own conversations about what you make.
Trailers and still photos of an upcoming release are popular. Behind the scenes glimpses at new products are great. So are digital ways for people to play with your future products. As LEGO, for example, does so well, go ahead and let people play in your universe. Give them as much as you can to explore, without giving away your secret sauce.
5. As Anne Dévouassoux from Kylotonn Games said, you don’t need a lot to make a link with your future community.
A pre-existing IP (intellectual property) or universe does help. Think of how much speculation swirls around the release of a new Marvel or LEGO film or Game of Thrones TV season due to the brand community that these companies have formed. The power of a new trailer or product release increases exponentially when that many more people start talking about it and sharing with friends far in advance.
6. It’s about figuring out what the right connections are between product managers and the community.
For a startup company, the product manager may be the social media person that the community directly comes to trust through daily communication. In a larger company, it may be that the head of marketing has bi-weekly communication with the product managers and the community manager executes surveys with the community on their behalf.
7. You don’t have to have a great deal of money to effectively build your community.
It’s more about knowing what you want to communicate to your community and how. The better you know your people, the better you understand how to reach them, what to say, how and when. Get to know your audience as deeply as you can.
What should existing communities do?
8. For well-known properties, empower people who are invested in the property to create something of their own.
Some properties have helped and encouraged fans to create something in their world. LEGO Ideas lets fan propose new sets and gather support in order to get them in front of the deciders at LEGO, and potentially get them made. What better reinforcement could LEGO have as to the likely popularity of an upcoming set than the fact that 10,000 people already said they wanted it?
And on the side of the fans, it reinforces another piece of advice given by the GameON: Ventures expert panelists:
9. Encourage fans in your community by highlighting what they’ve created in your world.
Make them feel involved. Check out for example, what this Harry Potter superfan has thought through about the Harry Potter universe in Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”, as featured on The Fantastic Beasts Twitter.
10. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, said Zach Cooper of Ubisoft, it’s most important to show that you’re listening to the community and that their comments are acted on as much as possible.
When you are real and accountable, your audience will respond. And in return, you’ll have at your disposal a group of dedicated people willing and enthusiastic to be part of your projects for now and a long time to come.
Additional reading: “Getting the Most from an Online Customer Community”, by Charles Trevail in Harvard Business Review, June 3, 2016
Additional listening: A look at the future of digital communities and the behaviours that define them — Digital Jam Sessions Podcast, August 14, 2016
Thanks to GameON: Ventures expert moderator and presenters:
John Gardiner (Toronto) — Senior User Acquisition and Finance Manager, Big Viking
Zack Cooper (Toronto) — Lead Community Developer, Ubisoft Toronto
Jason Maestas (San Francisco) — Senior Director of Partnerships in North America and Support, Twitch
Anne Devouassoux (Paris) — Executive Producer, Kylotonn Games
Emily Smith is *no campfire required’s CEO & Head of Business Operations. She’s the primary person connecting with conventions, festivals, retail and tourism brands to promote the company’s products.