Online brand communities (OBCs) have increasingly gathered the attention of marketers as they can generate several positive outcomes for brands. An online brand community is a specialised group of people that gathers in online environments with a shared interest (usually a brand, a brand category, or a particular web page). These online communities become a space where consumers share ideas, feelings and opinions about a product or a brand. In this article, we will examine this phenomenon from an SME perspective as we believe that understanding how these communities work can also be beneficial for small businesses.
What’s the hype with online brand communities?
In today´s digital world, consumers have developed a strong need for communication among brands and other consumers. A quick Facebook search through Fan pages and Facebook groups will result in hundreds of these communities: from fashionistas sharing their latest findings to foodies discussing their passion for new culinary adventures.
Online brand communities are valuable to SMEs as they provide a direct channel of communication between consumers and the brand. Especially in the context of SMEs, which operate with limited marketing budgets, engaging with consumers and potential customers through online brand communities can be a sensible marketing strategy to drive traffic to their website or brick and mortar shops. Despite the marketing potential of brand communities for SMEs it is important to be cautious when approaching these environments, especially since they were initially thought for consumers only. SMEs need to understand that for many online users, brands can quickly become that uninvited friend that crashes a party and ruins the mood of the party by constantly talking about themselves and not letting others take real value from the interactions occurring in the community. In order negativity towards the brand, marketing managers and business owners need to understand the motivations behind consumer interaction in these types of communities to engage in them smartly.
A typology of consumers in online brand communities
There are different motivations for consumers to engage in online brand communities. However, research into consumer behaviour has identified six main motivations to engage in online brand communities. Based on these motivations we could classify consumers into six categories. Keep in mind that consumers change hats between these typologies depending on the context, the product involvement (e.g. expensive vs. daily use products).
Something to keep in mind is that motivations to engage in online communities can vary depending on context. For example, exploratory research conducted by digital marketing and design consultant Marimar Portilla in the context of fashion and luxury brands has found two additional types of consumer motivations in this particular context. Her findings suggest that consumers are highly inclined to engage with OBCs when they own a branded product. This makes consumers feel an increased sense of belonging to the brand and the brand community both online and offline. An example of this would be what is already happening with some luxury brands, where lower priced items are sold and this in turns increases the sense of belonging to the community. SMEs selling luxury or fashionable products could change their marketing mix to facilitate ownership of branded product, and this could potentially increase the engagement and advocacy of those consumers both online and offline. In addition, the research also found that ownership contributes to increase the level of desire for new products. Hence, consumers’ future purchase intention also increases.
Another important motivation for consumers to engage with OBCs is inspiration. In many cases, consumers’ intention to engage with these communities is underpinned by the need to gain inspiration for their daily lives through designs, ideas and trends posted by the brand. Also this motivation is highly associated with future brand purchases as the consumers are looking for new products or services.
Tips to build and manage a successful brand community online
- First of all, it is very important for brands to identify and understand the motivations of their consumers to engage with their OBCs. The typology of consumers outlined in this article should be a good start to increase this understanding.
- The life of an OBC directly depends on the committed participation of the members of the community, and it is really important to keep them involved continuously. The type of content posted in the OBC should convey and contribute to the participation of the community members. Visual content is more appealing and consumers feel more attracted to inspirational videos, picture and illustrations. Also through inspirational content community members tend to perceive a stronger connection with the brand.
- Community managers should create original and visual content that show consistency with the brand identity. This factor represents a challenge for any brand, as misperception regarding communication between online and offline brand communities may dilute the strength of the brand associations.
- One of the most relevant factors to succeed is to update the OBC frequently and to post new content regularly to gain consumers´ attention and engagement.
- Finally, it is important to strategically manage the development of negative comments about the brand as it may cause brand equity dilution. This represents a sensitive task for brand managers because community members have the right to share their opinions and ideas openly.