Building a Brand-Driven Community with Social Media

October 3, 2011

Branding is important. I gotta get me some of that. Social media is critical. I gotta get me some of that, too. Branding and social media are kind of squishy things. Industry thought leaders wax philosophically to the point that these terms have both become things we all nod our heads at with no real understanding of what they mean and, more importantly no knowledge of what we need to do next to fully realize their power.

In general, most accept that it’s in an organization’s best interest to build a strong brand. With over 1,500 daily brand messages waging war for each person’s top-of-mind mental real estate, brand building really isn’t an option — it’s a necessity. The same is true of being involved in social media. With Forrester reporting that there are over 500 billion brand messages transmitted via social media each year, it’s clear that this is an incredible branding tool that isn’t going anywhere.

Branding and social media seem like they should be a potent combo — the chocolate and peanut butter of your business. But how do these two things go together?

Brand First

For starters, you need to build a strong brand first. You have to be something before you can build something. Or as Lee Clow of TBWA/Chiat Day has said, “The reality of the new media world is that if your brand does not have a belief, it does not have a soul and does not correctly architect its messages everywhere it touches consumers, it can become irrelevant. It can be ignored, or even become a focal point for online contempt.”

With a clearly articulated brand you start to attract fans and followers both online and offline. Over time, this builds to a community of rabid followers. It’s nothing new. We see it with cult brands like Apple and Harley Davidson where long lines and waiting lists are badges of honor among community members. But these are big global brands with huge marketing budgets. This is where social media has created a shift, by democratizing media itself. Now brands large and small have the potential to touch millions for a fraction of what that reach costs in traditional media dollars.

It’s this simplicity, though, that leads many to dive in without heeding Clow’s words and clearly defining their brand DNA first — who you are, what you believe, why you do what you do, and what icons and visuals help you tell that story.

The Brand-Driven Community

If there’s another over-used and abused word in social media marketing today, it’s the concept of ‘community.’ Building community is great! I gotta get me some of that. However, using social media to create a brand-driven community of fans around your products, services, and organization provides a bit more of a graspable framework. We can even extend the ‘community-building’ metaphor from the brick-and-mortar world to the online world as we architect our brand-driven community with social media.

Just like you can’t build a strong community in the offline world without a town square, you also need a clearly defined center for your online brand community as well. Ultimately it has to be your website or blog — properties you own. While you may cultivate your audience on other platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, you have to own your own content to reap the true long-tail benefits such as enhanced search traffic over time. Like the town square in the offline world, all actives lead back to this central gathering place.

Walk into your community’s shopping mall at any given moment and you’re bound to see multiple people you know. The same can be said of Facebook — your online community’s mall. And like the mall it can be somewhat annoying as it can get crowded and hard to navigate. And there’s a pretty good chance you’ll run into someone you may not want to see. But we have to fish where the fish are. With over 750 million users, Facebook is certainly a population center full of potential customers.

Small businesses often “get” Facebook but are confused by Twitter. Why do I need to be on this network? Who’s on there? If you get the feeling — or better yet, research — that shows your audience isn’t on Twitter, I promise you there is still one constituency of value. Your local media. As such, Twitter can be the news outlet in your community and serve as your brand’s online briefing room and public relations hub.

Your community also needs entertainment. People want all their senses engaged. That’s why providing a steady diet of videos and other engaging content snacks is a good idea. These make great social objects for your website but also gives your brand legs on another social network, YouTube, which also happens to be the second-largest search network. Videos also allow you to humanize your brand.

Offline we foster professional networks via industry events and the local chamber of commerce. In our online community, LinkedIn is your brand’s chamber and industry gathering, allowing you to connect with others professionals in your industry, create groups, and build your company’s profile. LinkedIn, like the your chamber, can also provide unique opportunities to continue collaborative offline industry discussions online.

This is a nice little ‘Mr. Rogers. model town’ we’ve built but where do we go from here? With a graspable framework for building your brand with social media you not only have a quick and actionable social media plan that outlines how you will use each channel, you are also on your way to building that true, invaluable asset — the brand-driven community that will benefit your organization for years to come. Why are brand-driven communities so important? Stay tuned for a future post that focuses on just that.

What other landmarks (social channels) do you see in your brand-driven community? What other parallels do you see between offline communities and online communities?

Photo via Flickr users jaaron, jimmywayne, xcode, wili_hybrid, lumierfl, The Suss Man (Mike)

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is a strategist, speaker, educator, and author of Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World and Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. He is the Chief Brand Strategist at Brand Driven Digital, an educator at the University of Iowa, and host of the On Brand podcast. More about Nick.