How to build an eCommerce brand community – and why you should!
How do you stand out in a crowded digital marketplace?
For most eCommerce brands, that’s the million-pound question – and we’ve found for many, it’s often about embracing the community they sometimes don’t realise they have.
“It can be the difference between being a rocket ship as a small business or startup, or cementing your position in the market as a bigger company. It’s a vital ingredient, to embrace your customer base – and building a community is a perfect way to do so.” – Jamie Huskisson, CEO @ JH
For many of our clients, we’ve harnessed the power of their brand communities and unlocked the keys to their success on the global stage – and in this post we’re going to explore how eCommerce merchants large and small can build, nurture and grow their brand community to provide a benefit for their customers that runs deeper than the products or services they provide.
Starting to Build Your Community
It’s arguably easier to actively build a brand community when you can rely on brick and mortar locations. ‘Third place’ businesses – coffee shops, gyms, cafes, bars and many others – found that as well as attracting a local clientele, communities would form organically around them, giving customers additional reasons to keep coming back to their business. Even brick-and-mortar retailers can find it easier to build loyalty – and community spirit – when customers have to enter their store, interact with their staff, and gain the opportunity to speak to their peers around them.
So how do digital-only eCommerce brands get around this?
It’s definitely easier to reach people with a niche interest in digital commerce – when you’re not bound by geographical limitations – yet bringing those customers together into a community space is considerably harder. Historically, eCommerce brands have taken their community-building digital, into the world of social media. But in a world where every brand is on social media, how do you ensure your brand’s voice is heard – and community is built – while competing with some of the biggest names in your industry?
Trading in Social Currency
As humans, we love to be listened to, and we especially love to have our opinions and achievements validated. We also like to be recommended or advised by a real-life person – which is why customer reviews have such a powerful influence over purchasing decisions. These ideas could be a big factor in the reason social media has found such overwhelming success in the last 25 years – but how have brands ended up finding success selling their products there?
Here’s our theory – brands haven’t found a place on social media because of clever marketing, paid ads, or even corporate shitposting. They found success because people like to share their opinions. And as far as opinions go – everyone’s got one on a product or brand they loved (…or hated!). As much as we might try to deny it, products and brands do become part of people’s personalities – and user-generated content, and communities building around it, is a natural progression of that.
Whether it’s brands reposting content that uses their corporate hashtag – and consumers taking ever-more professional snaps to vie for a coveted place on their feed, with the possibility of being seen (and followed) by thousands – or hosting contests that require resharing a brand’s content to entrants’ own feeds, we’ve seen endless examples of consumers getting personally invested in brands’ marketing campaigns. While there is often backlash when brands take the wrong stance – which can range from a snidey Twitter reply to a full-blown PR scandal, depending on the context – overall, brands have been largely welcomed into our social media feeds, and most consumers are happy to have them there; 57% of users will follow a brand’s social platforms to learn about new products and services.
Every Industry Can Build Brand Communities
You might think the idea of building an online community is only applicable to a select few product categories, but the scope for engagement here is enormous. In the age of the personal brand and micro-influencers – and with a plethora of platforms and audiences to choose from – there are arguably opportunities for every type of brand to get involved.
Art or craft supplies? People love to show off their creative works. Pet care? Owners can’t resist sharing snaps of their cats, dogs, birds or bunnies. Makeup and skincare? There’s a thriving online community of makeup artists and product photography enthusiasts. Fashion? Style bloggers. Home decor? Interiors Instagram accounts. Food? Everyone on Pinterest has a recipe board (or twenty). Whatever you sell, there’s someone somewhere getting ready to snap theirs and share it online. And there’s twenty other people ready to comment, “OMG love this!! Where did u get it???”
Communities build even on what may appear to be a niche appeal – for example, the huge popularity of Mrs. Hinch – an instagrammer who posted videos of her cleaning tips and shared product recommendations, and kick-started an influencer career (she’s now reportedly worth over £1million) that led to media appearances, a series of books, and a thriving online community.
Some of these niche communities can also far outlive the products and brands that spawned them – there are still active communities online for PF. Magic’s Petz computer game, decades after the release of the original CD-ROM game, and years since current owners Ubisoft abandoned the franchise. (Hey, we did say niche, after all.)
Providing you enable – not abandon – the community around your brand and products, there are a lot of benefits to having this consumer-generated buzz. The social aspect associated with your brand can add to the hits of dopamine your customers associate with it, and really build positive sentiment towards your brand – not to mention help further with customer engagement across social media, email, and your website.
The problem is – every brand is on social media. It’s noisy.
How do you cut through the noise, and get heard?
Nurturing A Social Community
Building a brand community shouldn’t be just a marketing effort – and it shouldn’t be just a customer service effort, either. For the initiative to succeed, it needs to be part of the larger business strategy, and really be in tune with your business goals.
The most successful community-building we’ve seen is when brands take the time to carve out a dedicated space for their community – somewhere consumers have what feels like a direct feedback loop with the brand and their peers. For your audience, it’s not about feeling like a brand mouthpiece – it’s feeling like you’re adding to the conversation.
With a dedicated community space they can freely contribute to, and freedom to say what they want (within reason, of course – most communities have their own set of rules) your customers can be part of the brand story, really buying into your products or services emotionally as well as physically. Done right, the brand becomes the platform to connect with their peers, not the overall voice – it shouldn’t feel like a selling space.
Many brands already have community spaces – Facebook groups are a big one. The groups section of Facebook has arguably kept the platform going, and has grown to be one of the most popular features in recent years. It’s become an easy place to connect with people in your local community, or those who share your niche interests – and it’s no surprise that some of those niche interests surround a brand or product range.
But there are risks involved in building a community space within a platform you don’t own.
Although the Facebook algorithm does seem to prioritise content from groups, you’re still at the mercy of social media platform rules and algorithms – which can hinder community growth as well as help it. There’s also a lot of moderating that goes into larger Facebook groups, especially as they grow, and they can be an echo chamber for angry customers, or worse. The New York Times recently came under fire for abandoning their Facebook cooking group rather than investing time and resources in supporting the community of over 80,000 people they had built. Why? Because users were talking too much about their dogs, and not enough about New York Times recipes. Yes, the Assistant Managing Editor literally said that – “It’s a lot of people who want to post pictures of their dogs next to their soufflé” and “not a place where we were going to March people toward NYT Cooking.”
A Better Option for Brands
There is, however, another option for brands who want to invest in their communities. Creating your own dedicated community portal on your site may have a bigger initial outlay, but it can come with a bigger reward too.
Since you have more control over the look and feel of your community space, you can really build it as a bespoke fit to your brand and customers’ needs – no need to be confined by another platform’s rules. For example, when you make the rules, you can run your own competitions without fear of falling foul of Facebook’s community guidelines regarding contests, which can sometimes be counter-intuitive for brands. You can also build domain authority, because there’s a huge potential scope for additional backlinks – and probably most exciting of all, you give people an additional reason to keep coming back to your site. The more time customers spend on your site – the more likely they are to come across (and be tempted by) your latest new launches. Win-win, right?
There’s a slew of benefits for your customers too, no matter where they are in the purchasing cycle. New customers feel instantly more engaged because they immediately access a community space to connect with other people like them – it can feel risky trying a new brand, so introducing them to that community area feels like a room full of people who’ve been where they are now, and liked it enough to stick around. For customers who have been around a while but aren’t yet loyal to the brand, the community space gives them an additional reason to keep returning, slowly building brand affinity over time. And for community veterans, there’s a satisfaction in being a pillar within a community – answering questions from newbies, achieving notoriety in their knowledge, skill or contributions, and wearing their community time-served like a badge of honour.
Of course, it’s not completely hands-off! You’ll have your work cut out at the start – both to build the community space, bring in members, and keep the conversation going (without it feeling forced). You might need to consider additional perks to membership – many brands offer member-only discounts, or exclusive freebies to sweeten the deal, which may need to be factored into the costs. As the community grows, you’ll need to make sure it’s moderated to keep members safe. And not all forms of marketing appeal to every geographical audience – so you shouldn’t rely on this as your only channel.
Brand Communities in Action
There’s an almost limitless amount of applications of this idea when it comes to brands. Imagine if IKEA had a community forum for customers to share their upcycled IKEA furniture, gallery walls, or DIY kitchens, and discuss their choices with other customers? (They do have an #IKEAatMine page on their site, but it relies on IKEA staff reposting social media content that uses the Instagram hashtag. Not much community-building going on there.) What if Waitrose had a portal for customers to share, swap and rate recipes using their products? What if Dobbies shoppers could share snaps of their gardens with their green-fingered peers?
Anyway, enough imagining. To help you gather inspiration for your own brand community space, here’s a few examples of them in the wild:
- Lego Ideas – where fans can submit ideas for new products, vote on the best designs, win prizes and even see which ones made it into stores
- Beauty Insider Community – an online community hosted on the Sephora website, for peer-to-peer advice and tips on skincare, haircare, makeup and more
- Harley Owners Group – for a membership fee, Harley motorcycle owners can connect with other riders, receive an exclusive magazine, track their miles ridden, and even find and attend community events
- Craft World – hosted by a magazine publishing house that specialises in craft titles, this online community requires a membership to access inspiration, connect with others, and access exclusive offers and video content
- Fifa Forums – even in 2021, the forum for players of the popular football video game to interact with each other is still in use, with individual areas for different platforms and even spaces to suggest bug fixes and improvements to the game
- Duolingo Community – the popular language-learning app creates a community feel by allowing users to connect with others – a great addition to the app which brings it one step closer to the same buzz as in-person language classes
Is This What Your Brand Is Missing?
If you found this enlightening – and a dedicated community space sounds like the next step for your brand – then we’re here to help. Whether you need support building the community portal, or would like to explore what a roadmap might look like for your business, get in touch – we’d love to help you grow your business.