How to build true brand community for the long haul
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If there was ever a buzzword for 2021, that word would be community.
It swept the internet like a freight train. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a founder on Twitter mention community, I’d be stupid rich! In the mid-late 2010s, all brands used to care about was good branding and low-cost acquisition funnels to entice customers and users. Then, suddenly, Ads became expensive, and brands were forced to start selling everywhere. Overnight, it felt like everyone was then looking for a Head of Community, or Community Manager, to cultivate relationships with an existing customer base.
It seemed that no one cared about audiences anymore and everyone cared about tribes, dedicated groups of people who support your cause.
Community. Everyone talks about it, and yet few seem to understand it, let alone get it right. So, I’d like to introduce a few community experts into the conversation, people who actually understand what it takes to build and grow tribes of their own. Because if we’re all supposed to be building communities, we should probably know why we’re building them in the first place, and what we’re (possibly) up against.
Kim is a leader in the Community space with experience building a diverse range of IRL and digital-first communities. She spent five years building the Glossier community from the ground up and has since helped numerous brands, organizations, and individuals build their own communities through her work at Geneva, an all-in-one group messaging app for communities of all shapes and sizes.
What’s 2022 going to be all about for brands and creators at large? Is there a playbook we're supposed to follow when building a community?
I think 2022 is about brands and creators taking a harder look at what they really mean by “community.” We’ve heard a lot of dialogue over the last year around community, a non-negotiable when building a brand, whether that brand is centered around a product or a person. That said, people still struggle to separate the ideas of what their community can be from what their audience is.
In 2022, I think we’ll see both brand and creator communities flipped on their head. The next generation of innovative brands and creators will form from communities.
You work at Geneva. What traits, marks, or characteristics of a strong and vibrant community are you seeing?
I think there are a few core elements that make online communities strong:
- Democratized leadership. Even if the community is brought together by one core entity or person, ensuring that many people within your space feel a sense of ownership and leadership will diversify the voices driving conversation and encourage more people to take part
- Rituals. This is not a new concept to any community leader, but establishing rituals in your space (even if they’re as simple as everyone coming together to share their weekly wins in a chat room on Friday afternoons) will help create a culture and sense of consistency within your community. Not only will it keep people coming back, but it will also create a sense of tradition that makes more people feel comfortable engaging.
- Constant evolution. I strongly believe that no community is fixed. Community members’ needs, wants, and experiences change over time, and with that, the way you structure, organize, and engage your community should evolve too. Some of the best communities using Geneva are the ones that are constantly changing their homes—deleting rooms, adding new rooms, trying new events or activities—that level of iteration is healthy. It shows a sense of knowing and intuition about the people you’re building for.
What are some brands that crush it with community, and why are they so good?
In DTC/consumer—August! This brand was truly built out of community. They’ve grown and nurtured a thriving community using Geneva well before launching products. You can see that they have a people-first mentality that radiates in everything they do.
Tech/startup—I love how Public has become community-oriented, shifting its focus to make investing collaborative and social!
You ran Community for Glossier. How did you think about community-building when you were there, and what's different/similar to what you're doing in your Geneva role now?
At Glossier, brands weren’t really “building community.”
Everyone was focused on building audiences on social media and other marketing channels. There was no playbook, so we got to test and experiment. Inviting people to join a Slack group to talk about beauty with other customers generated a lot of question marks.
Building community didn’t use to be sexy or flashy. There was a level of naïveté associated with building community. In the work I do now at Geneva, I’m constantly pushing myself to stay open-minded about what community looks like in 2022. I think the beauty of community-building is when you can be authentic and human with your approach; as soon as you try to create a formula, you’ll lose the meaning.
Erin Mikail Staples
Erin is a community builder and product thinker currently head of community at Orbit. Outside of Orbit, she explores being a forever student exploring curation, fandom, media ethics, and community through collaborations with NYU, Rosieland, and her own personal blog. She’s been talking about community before it was cool.
2021 felt like the year of community. How did it become such a buzzword, and why did last year see all the board rooms and Slack channels start shifting their focus to "community"?
The concept of community has (literally) been around since the beginning of time, but I think we sought this community out more in 2021 because of how isolated we felt. We wanted empathy, connection, kindness, and understanding when we felt so alone.
Of course—when it’s a trend, the brands try to jump on to make a buck, which has led to an explosion in the industry. I predict next year we’ll start to see this level out again.
So what’s 2022 all about for brands and creators at large? Is there a playbook we're supposed to follow?
In 2022 I hope we see less emphasis on “building communities” and instead asking “why” we’re building them. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but pausing and thinking about why we want a community in the first place and if a community is even the proper output to our goals can lend itself to healthier, more vibrant communities.
For existing communities—I feel as if there’s going to be a rise in both the community creator, but also people who are leaning into their niche. We’ll see fewer giant communities in terms of members and more communities that are that go deep on a specific topic.
What are you seeing from a Data POV that shows what areas of community that brands & creators should invest more in?
We over-index on the actual number of members or even engagement so much when it comes to community. Looking forward, I hope that we can learn to understand that quantity does not equal quality, and that scale does not equal growth.
We should find metrics in the communities that we work with that are reflective of the goals of the members—how are we facilitating member growth? How are we helping our members achieve their goals? How are we sharing these wins?
These are metrics I want to see more of.
They’re more difficult to measure but I believe they have a greater impact.
What questions should a brand ask for themselves when it comes to thinking about community in 2022?
Again, asking the why question. Do you even need a community? Why are you starting it in the first place—and if you are starting it, how are you setting this up for success?
We should also talk roles and hiring more—community folks should have the autonomy and resources to experiment, grow and advocate for the communities they work with.
I believe we should also use better words than “community manager.” Communities (people) don’t want to be managed, they want to be advocated for, encouraged, cheered on, empathized with, and more.
What are the tools and resources right now that brands and creators can actually leverage to show what they're doing is working?
Orbit, for starters! Orbit helps connect the analytics dots across different platforms on what’s happening, who’s active, and how they’re participating within the community. Through Orbit, you can start to see who are your key members, and who’s starting to drift away—and actually act on this.
This information can later be used to create ambassador programs, see what type of activities the community is participating in, and even identify trends across one’s community.
Other tools I use both in my day job + as a community creator:
- Notion (and the notion web clipper!)
- RSS + Mailbrew
- CleanShotX (Great Screenshotting tool!)