By David Franek – President SMG Washington DC

It’s always comforting to belong to a group that shares a common interest or set of values. It can be a fan club, a political affiliation, a hobby group, or even a trade association. Wherever there’s a passion for something, there’s always a community that’s talking about it, looking for ways to advance it, and seeking others who share their zeal.

Having a thriving brand community is the ultimate goal for any marketer. It’s achieving brand loyalty to a degree where your most loyal customers and followers are emotionally invested in your products or services, and your future. A brand community often even serves as an unofficial marketing partner and influencer group for you, spreading word about you to family, friends, and online followers at every opportunity.

Many people may be part of a brand community without even being aware of it. If you cannot imagine purchasing a mobile phone or computing device outside the Apple ecosystem, or getting your daily caffeine fix anywhere other than Starbucks—congratulations, you’re already in one.

How do you elevate your standing among customers from awareness and general likeability to devotion that borders on fanaticism? There are no hard-and-fast rules that apply to every situation, but there are several important steps that can help build the right foundation.

Define your brand purpose
Before you can start the path to creating a brand community, you have to be crystal clear on what your brand is. What change is it seeking to bring to the marketplace, or perhaps even to the world? Whose lives will it impact? What principles shape your brand’s existence? While these seem like rather lofty questions, they need answers if you want your brand to have a meaningful purpose. Brand communities and ambassadors aren’t created around lukewarm notions or ambiguous viewpoints. Strong emotions and convictions attract people to a cause—and to a brand that’s built on one.

Establish ongoing dialogue
Often the most direct way to understand how to improve your product and relationship with audiences is by continually encouraging customers to voice their concerns, observations, and suggestions. Social media is an obvious platform for this, but you may also want to explore more targeted channels such as email surveys, feedback opportunities at retail locations, event forums, online chat sessions, user groups, etc. The more you can make customers feel welcome to share their thoughts about you, the more they’ll feel that they are part of your brand community.

Reward followers
Showing repeat customers how much you value their investment in your brand is a no-lose way to strengthen loyalty. Rewards and loyalty programs demonstrate your appreciation and also provide an incentive for new customers to engage further in your brand experience. Exclusive event invitations and previews/trials of upcoming products extended to frequent customers are also proven ways of strengthening relationships and growing preference for your brand.

Build experiences for spending time with other followers of your brand
People who are enthusiastic supporters of a brand look for opportunities to share brand experiences with other fans. These can be an environment (Apple stores, Starbucks cafes), sponsored groups (Harley Davidson rider clubs), education opportunities (Home Depot workshops), or even grassroots activism (Patagonia Action Works). It bears reminding that great brands stand for ideas and principles that transcend their products. Creating new ways for followers to reconnect with those values over and over again builds brand communities and attracts new followers.

Create brand-exclusive traditions
Taking part in the unique customs of an organization or brand reinforces the feeling of being part of something special. One of the most well-known brand customs today is the Jeep “wave” (when a driver of a Jeep vehicle passes another on the road, a brief wave by both is not only common but expected). When a fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide encounters another one out in the world, an obligatory exchange of “Roll Tide!” takes place, with no preamble or explanation needed. The point is, establishing a special custom or practice that marks you as an “insider” provides additional interest and incentive for others to join the community.

Conclusion
The most important asset any brand aspiring to build its community can have is a deep understanding of what their customers care about. Be sure to take the necessary time and effort to gather this knowledge and thoroughly understand how it intersects with what have to offer. By doing so, you’ll be in a great position to explore all kinds of new ways for creating followers, fans, and evangelists for your brand.

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