The Social Networking Evolution
How Brands Can Take The Lead
As part of our Business Insights Hub, we commissioned research to examine how brands can take the lead when it comes to operating social networks. Have a read and learn how to future-proof your brand, establish a direct connection to your customers without going through third party social media aggregators.
Read content below:
There is a whirlwind ripping up received wisdoms about marketing and the traditional levers and pulleys of customer engagement.
The promise of the digital revolution has engendered frustration on the part of both consumers and brands. Banner ads are ignored. Retargeting campaigns cause consumer frustration and the use of ad-blocking technology is still rising.
The ‘digital duopoly’ still sucks up ad dollars but smart brands are looking for other options that can create a richer relationship with the consumer in the ever-evolving, connected world and provide marketers with first party data.
Consumers now want more control over how they communicate and share information. They are looking for consistent, unified digital experiences that deliver value and utility. This applies across the board. People expect the same high-calibre experiences when using tools and apps, whether it be in work mode or in their leisure time.
They want information and help from trusted sources and to be able to share and network within communities, without being targeted with irrelevant advertising and heavy-handed messaging.
Such places exist and have existed since the early days of the internet. Communities have formed and coalesced around interests, passions, academic subjects and brands.
But the latest technology and business practices are making it simpler and more cost-effective for brands to develop their own networks, while offering members of such groups more tools, more control and an ease-of-use not previously available.
This paper examines how branded communities are being retooled and revitalised. It includes bespoke research to illuminate current consumer attitudes and behaviours towards online communities and strategic advice for those looking to invest in such initiatives.
Communities Meet A Human Need
Communities of people who want to disseminate information, find help or connect with others who share their passion pre-date the internet. It’s a human need. Huge international fan clubs have surrounded bands like The Beatles and groups focused on specific interests, like the Volkswagen Owners Club of Great Britain, have existed for decades.
The arrival of the internet expanded our opportunities to communicate. Enthusiasts embraced the digital world and jumped onto platforms like Friendster and Friends Reunited. Features such as discussion forums, chat rooms, co-creation initiatives and wikis proliferated, and companies were quick to see the opportunities for customer engagement.
Then scaled-up social media platforms arrived. Early pioneers like MySpace and Bebo introduced people to the idea they could connect with anyone, anywhere, in real time, in a customised, personalised environment.
Finally came the social media titans – today’s predominant platforms. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Whatsapp are often the first place to turn to set up or join a group or community.
Unsurprisingly 51% of those polled in bespoke research for this paper who joined an online forum or community did so first via Facebook. It has been a global gateway to connectivity for nearly 15 years and has overwhelming scale with 2.23 billion monthly active users[i].
MySpace ranked second as people’s first community – showing how the platform grabbed the interest of a generation when launched in 2003 (the percentage of people who joined MySpace peaks with those aged 25-34), Whatsapp ranked third.
Social media networks form the top tier but there are also huge online communities with their own platforms. Some are overtly commercial like search and review business Yelp and others were originally set up with a unifying aim at their core, like Mumsnet.
42% of those polled have joined one or more forums or communities set up by a Higher Education body.
Academic communities are a phenomenon with their ability to bring students or researchers together, more than 42% of those polled have joined one or more online forums or communities set up by a higher education body. Nearly a third of people aged 16-24 have joined more than one academic community, showing how comfortable they are with the concept and how such groups meet a myriad of needs for students.
But there are developments in the online world that suggest brand communities, especially those hosted on the leading social media platforms, are undergoing a period of re-evaluation by both users and businesses.
Commissioned Censuswide research of 1,013 adults who have ever joined an online forum or community, September 2018.
Houston, We Have A Social Media Problem
Businesses acknowledge it is getting harder to get cut-through and make a meaningful connection with potential customers. There are too many messages bombarding the consumer (if not quite the apocryphal 3000 ad exposures a day) and too few making an impact.
The behaviour of the modern, connected citizen is tending now towards indifference to brands. More than half the brands scrutinised in a German study had more ‘indifferents’ and ‘rejectors’ than fans. Zalando, Puma and Kia had the largest share of indifferents. Winners included Adidas and Amazon. The study concluded:
The less a brand is perceived as distinct – in its offer, its experience, employee behaviour, and communication – the fewer fans, recommenders and repeat buyers it has.
It’s evident that brands need to find new ways of providing value to their potential customers.
Communities have been invaluable to brands and businesses over the past two decades. They have provided free focus groups for R&D feedback, sped up and reduced the cost of customer service queries, delivered useful tools for employee empowerment and engagement and facilitated ‘social selling’.
But the current social media behemoths are no longer providing the right platforms and environment for the development of useful and meaningful brand communities and connection. Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and others are reporting declining user numbers and engagement metrics.
Facebook reported falling daily and monthly active users in Europe for the first time, from 281 million to 279 million and from 377 million to 376 million, in July 2018. Average revenue per user (ARPU) for Europe also dropped in Q2 2018 against its peak in Q4 2017.
Snapchat seems less attractive in the wake of a very public disowning by global celebrity Kylie Jenner who tweeted “does anyone else not open Snapchat any more?”. The tweet caused a $1.3bn loss to the company’s value.
As one marketer stated at an industry conference: “We played around with branded groups, but users said they don’t want to be in a branded group because they felt we’re selling to them, which makes authenticity go away even though Facebook says it doesn’t.”
It is becoming apparent there is too much ‘noise’ across the mainstream social media platforms. They are too big and too cluttered for people to feel they are the right place to hold useful, credible and relevant conversations and interactions.
There is a feeling that there is too much ‘I’ and not enough ‘We’ existing on these platforms – that they are for self-promotion and ego-bolstering rather than sharing and connecting.
It is forecast that 3 million under-25s in UK and US are expected to leave Facebook in 2018. Where are they going? Smaller, niche and closed communities is one answer – college networks such as Campus Society, smaller focused communities, for example Anime Amino (for Manga and anime fans) and brand-led communities.
 "What To Do When Consumers Don’t Care About Brands?". Brand-Trust.de, 2018, https://www.brand-trust.de/en/studies/when-consumers-dont-care-about-brands.php.
 "Peak Social Media? Facebook, Twitter And Snapchat Fail To Make New Friends". The Guardian, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/aug/10/peak-social-media-facebook-twitter-and-snapchat-fail-to-make-new-friends.
 "Facebook Stocks Plummet More Than 20% Amid Concerns Over Growth". The Guardian, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jul/25/facebook-stocks-second-quarter-revenue-user-growth.
 “Why Geeks Are Leaving Facebook for Nerd-Friendly Amino App” Forbes.com, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurenorsini/2015/08/12/why-geeks-are-leaving-facebook-for-nerd-friendly-amino-app/#15ad10e41dcb.
Brand Communities Are Back and Buzzing
‘Closed Brand Communities’ (CBCs) are not new but the connections, tools and services they can now offer participants are quicker, slicker and more enticing. The opportunity is therefore larger than ever for those brands willing to consider becoming involved in such groups – either as a platform-owner or a commercial partner.
Successful brand communities launched in recent years that demonstrate the power of a community include Unboxed, set up by Made.com. The group connects potential customers with previously satisfied shoppers to share ideas and show off furniture in a real home setting, rather than a showroom.
A more recent example is B2B community Young Foodies, set up to provide guidance and support for foodie start-ups. It now connects more than 250 FMCG brands who share business advice.
Businesses looking to develop a strategy for a community platform need to understand the reasons why people join such a group and how they interact once on board.
42.5% of those polled in research for this paper had joined one or more brand-led community forums. There is clearly an appetite for being involved in such groups and scope to entice more people once the benefits have been clearly laid out.
The motivations for joining a brand community are led by a desire to keep informed of new products and services (46% of those who have joined such a community, with a slight female skew), followed closely by the attraction of special offers (42%) and to learn more about the product/service (41%).
Note that incentives to join ranked lower than ‘to interact with other enthusiasts’ – people are motivated to join and share ideas, tips and information.
It’s important for brands to examine the reasons why people do not wish to join a community, so they can avoid pitfalls and craft an engaging offering.
We can discount the 27% who say they are not interested in brands at all – it’s wasted resource and energy to target these refuseniks. There is more potential in the 26.5% who say there is no reason. They are just awaiting the right prompt.
A failure to see the value of joining ranks third at 24% on a suggested list of reasons. Demonstrating that you provide value is essential to running successful community – people need to feel there is a suitable trade-off for their time and attention.
Avoiding spam and lacking time to check in are also important to note. Consumers are actively trying to avoid irrelevant, badly-targeted advertisements – this is a big driver for joining a brand community.
The reasons one might expect to be near the top of a list for avoiding joining a community, such as fear of online abuse and annoyance at comment moderation, come low down in the ranking.
The Benefits Of A Branded Community
Marketers face difficult choices about how to allocate their budget and every decision must be weighed carefully. Short-term tactical investment must be balanced against brand-building projects that will help reinforce consumer awareness, insulate against economic downturns and build trust.
Persuading the C-suite and other stakeholders of the benefits of a branded community and articulating the vision for such a project requires clearly setting out the benefits.
12 Arguments For Investing In An Owned Platform Branded Community
1. Improved customer service offerings – fast, speedy responses will be appreciated by customers and it is easier to pick up on individual or wider problems within a group.
2. Enhanced reputation – branded communities demonstrate a willingness to empower customers, signal you are in listening mode and provides members with a superior experience. Their interactions are not competing with baby pics and selfies dictated by someone else’s algorithm
3. Availability of new audiences – engaged group members will be brand advocates and share their experiences to their own networks, bringing in potential new customers.
4. Feedback for R&D – monitoring and reviewing will quickly provide insight on the needs, wants and habits of your customers that can be fed into product development. Insights into what topics are of interest to your brand’s enthusiasts, what is puzzling them and what they are purchasing is invaluable.
5. Increased traffic to the brand website – communities have a halo effect for other brand digital real estate and properties.
6. Increased social selling potential – integrating your brand’s shopping experience and rewards and loyalty platform with a branded social network provides more control over decisions regarding what your customers see and do.
7. High level of engagement with ‘super fans’ – any community will contain a coterie of superfans that will participate in co-creation projects and will defend the brand if negative stories arise.
8. Cost of entry and maintenance - suppliers are now able to offer competitive rates for branded communities that rival that of the social media companies. The cost of comment moderation is also falling thanks to technology, such as machine learning.
9. Opportunities for productive commercial partnerships - consumers will be receptive to ‘light touch’ messaging about products and services that are relevant to their needs and wants and have affinity with the community’s values.
10. Useful data is retained by your brand – data-driven insights deliver a competitive advantage. Communities are a marvellous opportunity to gather first party data. Otherwise you are allowing third parties access to your community, social capital and data.
11. Your brand is represented in a safe environment - free from potentially damaging content. Social media platforms have proven unsafe environments for advertisers because brand messages appear alongside unsuitable content and consumer data is being both compromised and exploited. For both these reasons many enterprise-level brands, charities and government organisations are reconsidering their investment in such platforms.
12. Expand loyalty programmes – embellish existing loyalty programmes while incentivising community engagement, peer to peer support and product recommendations. This can complement an existing scheme, to win new and loyal customers and enthusiasts, and draw your existing customer base into your community.
 "Brands Boycott Facebook Amidst Cambridge Scandal - Adnews". Adnews.com.au, 2018, http://www.adnews.com.au/news/brands-boycott-facebook-amidst-cambridge-scandal.
Integrated Apps – The Future of Community Engagement
With the rise of mobile has come the rise of the branded app – and the best opportunity for creating a successful closed brand community - 92% of smartphone owners use apps regardless of age and gender.
It’s an initial hurdle to persuade consumers to download a brand’s app – but once downloaded it can engender stronger loyalty if it proves useful. Ads shown on mobile apps are more likely than those shown on a desktop to be memorable, create a positive brand association, deliver a better ad experience and drive actions leading to conversion.
It makes sense from both a brand and consumer standpoint to create an integrated offering that allows users to access the community from the general brand app. Our research shows nearly two-thirds of respondents have downloaded a branded app in the past 12 months with a slight skew towards women (65% of female respondents versus 60% of male respondents).
42% of those that had downloaded an app said they did so because they “liked” the brand. This indicates there is a sizeable segment of app users ready to engage on a deeper level with fellow admirers and enthusiasts via a brand-led community
Something For Everyone: Why The Growth Of Mobile Apps Is Good News For Brands. Ipsos MORI And Google, 2017.
Keeping A Community Fresh And Functional
A grasp of how people interact with branded communities can provide insights into how to structure and keep your offering fresh.
90% of those who have signed up to a brand community say they have written a comment or question at least once. And 86% say that they have responded to a question with advice at least once. People will communicate, seek advice and help others if a brand provides the forum.
We now live in a visual age, so providing functionality to upload an image should be a hygiene factor. 80% of respondents who had joined a brand community had uploaded a photo at least once. People are also willing to step up and take responsibility with 51% of respondents taking on an administrator role at least once.
Competitions still have a strong tactical role for engagement with 87% saying they have entered contests within a brand community at least once.
This data should give brands an insight on the type of interaction and engagement that motivates members of a community.
HOW TO SET UP FOR SUCCESS
Be clear on the purpose of your branded community: who are the prospective members? What are they looking for and why would your community serve them better than any alternative?
Plan ahead – develop a high-level strategy that is revisited regularly and tactical plans that advance this strategy. Tactics not anchored in the strategy will divert resources and focus.
Create robust processes: make sure it is obvious who is leading the project, establish clear reporting lines and accountability.
Set ambitious but achievable goals: there need to be membership targets and regular monitoring to see if the programme is undershooting or overshooting. However, they must be realistic and scaling too quickly is as problematic as slow growth.
Identifying The Right Technology Partner
There are plenty of companies offering to build branded community platforms but if you are committing to running a branded social network you do need to plan for the long haul. Unless there is some promise of longevity you will end up driving a negative perception of your brand.
Social Network As a Service (SNS) is a growing area of exploration for brands who want to minimise risk and ensure their projects are steered by experts.
A checklist of questions for auditing potential SNS supplier should include:
Is set-up and implementation easy and simple? A plug ‘n’ play system that is easy to integrate with your current app or website and that allows you to test and then implement is recommended.
Is the technology solution based on a modular system that allows you to pick and choose functionality and add more services as budget increases?
Can the technology support a variety of content? People are accustomed to posting rich content with images, videos and gifs on their current social feeds.
Can the technology support scaling? The aim will be to scale any community, in a managed way. Does the technology facilitate this?
Data security is now of the highest priority to consumers. Does the technology meet international security standards?
Moderation is still an issue and it is necessary to remove offensive comments and weed out ‘bad actors’ who can toxify a community. Is there a solution that is simple, fast and financially cost-effective?
Is there round-the-clock technology support for the community? Downtime can be costly in terms of reputation and revenue.
Does the supplier have a track record in setting up successful communities that have met the KPIs?
Brands need to find new ways to hold meaningful and direct conversations with their customers that can cut through clutter. They also need to offer frictionless, enjoyable experiences that will engender loyalty and customer retention. Branded communities – particularly offered via an existing brand app – can deliver on these consumer expectations.
Connectt is a Social Network as a Service platform that provides branded social networking solutions to businesses, organisations and influencers. Enabled by a marketplace of configurable features and functionality, Connectt was founded on the principle that people are always looking to make meaningful connections with others with similar interests, but major social platforms no longer deliver this experience.
For more information, visit: What We Do