Creating a Superfan: The Behavioral Power of Online Communities

“I love this site. So many wonderful people who have never met me, and most never will, offering fantastic advice and encouragement. Thank you everyone.”

“You will be fine. [J]ust keep yourself busy and don’t worry about it.” 1

These are comments from real online communities. What kind of group do you think would inspire this kind of emotion and connection? While you may assume that these must be sourced from some kind of online support forum, they are, in reality, messages from an online branded community—for a cruise line.

Online branded communities, while not a new concept, are becoming a popular marketing tool. Through the use of social media and online capabilities, brands are curating online spaces for their customers. If you visit the websites of many brands, you will likely find a “community” section where users can talk and connect with each other. Prime examples of these communities include Sephora’s community for makeup connoisseurs, or Lego’s community for creative builders.

As these communities increase in popularity, behavioral science can inform best practices in creating and capitalizing on online brand communities.

The passion economy and social commerce

The growth of online communities coincides with the growth of social commerce, which combines word-of-mouth marketing (usually on social media) with online shopping.2 Brands leverage social networks and allow customers to be brand advocates, using online platforms to reference and promote products.

Yet another driver of this community movement is the shift towards what’s known as the “passion economy.” While the past decade has been defined largely by the “gig economy” (spurred by the rise of precarious contract work through services such as Uber and SkipTheDishes), the passion economy refers to the influx of creative individuals who are turning their passion into a livelihood by building and scaling an audience. These hobbies include anything from artwork to video game streaming. Take, for example, the Twitch streamer Ninja (the username of Richard Tyler Blevins), a 29-year-old who makes $6m per year streaming the popular game Fortnite.3,4

The success of these individuals, and the ascendancy of the passion economy, are testaments to the power of community as a marketing tool. Sure, creators like Ninja attract an audience through showcasing their talents, but they’re also building a close-knit community of like-minded individuals. On Patreon, where users can pay a monthly membership fee to their favorite content creators in exchange for various rewards, it’s not uncommon for membership benefits to include access to private Discord servers or other community spaces that are open exclusively to dues-paying fans. For many people, the chance to participate in these groups seems to be a major reason that they continue to support content creators financially.

Based on the Pareto Principle (which dictates that 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your customers), brands recognize the need to curate and retain loyal customers who are particularly committed to the brand. Online communities help them achieve this, driving increased customer loyalty and purchase intentions. Given this shift, many online creators and community platforms have emerged to help users curate online communities, including companies such as Mighty Networks and Tribe. And as the movement grows, more creators are attracting “superfans” who will pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for extra or bespoke content. On Patreon, the number of users paying more than $1200 a year for content has grown by 21 percent.3,4,5

Paradoxically, this shift towards more curated community content is arriving at a time when more users are hoping to disengage from social media. A report on social media engagement during the pandemic found that 60% of users don’t trust media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and 52% are ready to “cut the cord” from social media.6,7

Enter: niche communities. The same study found that 50% of participants would join a new social platform if it were dedicated to their personal interests. During the pandemic, audiences have been more engaged with their hobbies and passions—not surprising, given that social distancing restrictions have rendered many of our previous pastimes impossible. The rise of the passion economy, and people’s changing social media preferences, demonstrate the shift in consumer culture towards curated communities, something brands can utilize to further connect with their customers.

Hidden benefits of online communities

The last decade has seen key changes in consumer behavior trends that highlight the increased utility of branded communities.

First, the traditional model of the “customer journey funnel,” where customers narrow down their choices from a set of options, is outdated. Instead, the customer journey is a circular process, in which customers cycle between considering a product, buying it, using it, and again considering the product for repurchase. However, successful brands will establish a “loyalty loop,” in which satisfied customers skip the continuous “consideration” stage and instead further bond with (and advocate for) the brand. Communities have the opportunity to expedite this process.8,9

Source: Competing on customer journeys. (2015, November 1). Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/11/competing-on-customer-journeys

To see how online communities can affect this process, let’s look at the consideration step. One report found that customers rely less on “pushed” information (for example, brand advertisements) and instead actively “pull” information to aid their decision-making, relying on word-of-mouth recommendations and online reviews. Online communities allow companies to monitor online discussions around their products and potentially help curate these major touch-points as consumers consider a brand.10

In addition to the loyalty (and subsequent purchase intention) that online branded communities generate, brands are turning to these outlets for other unique benefits, including:

  • Gaining personalized information about customers: In a study on banks, researchers found that 90% of all online conversations about a banks’ products occurred on forums and message boards.11
  • Providing better customer relationships and support: Online communities are cost-effective ways to connect with customers and solve customer issues.
  • Idea generation: Through online communities, businesses can gain user feedback and curate new ideas. Both Lego (with Lego Ideas) and Starbucks (with Starbucks Ideas) use this tactic to generate new ideas for their products.

Using behavioral science to improve online branded communities

Behavioral science is incredibly useful in understanding why these online communities work so well and how practitioners can better curate these communities for their users.

Showcase the benefits

The scientific literature agrees that brands can best improve online community participation by maximizing the benefits and reducing users’ costs. This insight can be explained through social exchange theory, which holds that humans tend to maximize benefits and minimize costs wherever possible, especially in social networks.

With this insight, brands should work to showcase the benefits of online community participation. Providing rewards for participation, discounts, exclusive information, and ensuring that users find quality content on brands’ websites can help nudge users towards increased participation.

Additionally, users also participate in brand communities to fulfill hedonistic needs. Brands can better engage users by providing entertaining content and encouraging fun interactions that benefit users. Branded Twitter accounts, which often use memes and colloquial Internet-speak to engage users and create viral content, are one famous example of this.

On the other hand, brands should work to reduce the costs by allowing communities to be free to join, and streamline the process of joining to allow for easy access.2,12

Encourage identification with the brand

Our participation in online communities is rooted in social identity. Typically, customers consider the brands they use to be a part of their identity, and psychologists have theorized that the performance of customers’ favorite brands is relevant to their self-esteem.13 Research has shown that participating in brand-related groups can increase customers’ feelings of loyalty, and their intentions to purchase from the brand.14

Promote knowledge-sharing and customer feedback

Researchers from Griffith University in Australia found that a firm-sponsored brand community’s primary use was for knowledge-sharing purposes (compared to user-generated communities typically driven by emotions).1

Users engage in online communities for both self-promotion and altruistic reasons. Brand “experts” can showcase their knowledge by advising other community members on brand products or services, or demonstrating their talents by using the products (see Lego Club). Brands can leverage this insight by recognizing users who actively engage and help other community members (such as through providing “expert” status).15

While users benefit from altruistic and self-esteem purposes, brands also benefit from encouraging user feedback and knowledge sharing. More organizations are using a “lean” strategy, prioritizing customer feedback for innovative product generation.16 Online brand communities are a streamlined method to gain customer insight while simultaneously increasing customer loyalty and acknowledging customers for their expertise.

Promote product advocates

Researchers found that customer “citizen behaviors” (behaviors outside of purchasing a product, such as promoting the brand) are contagious. That is, customers will imitate other customers who are engaging in customer citizen behaviors. Therefore, brands should recognize credible customers, share their content, and provide rewards for promotion and knowledge-sharing.17

Trust is key

Beyond social identity and social exchange, a key driver in online community participation is trust. Trust is a prerequisite for online purchases due to the uncertainty a first-time user feels when considering a product online. Branded online communities can help curate this trust by allowing customers to engage with current users.

Beyond helping customers buy a product, trust is essential for users to commit to and engage in a branded community. Researchers found that user trust predominantly influences the relationship between social presence and commitment and loyalty in online brand communities.18

To commit, users need to feel safe using the community, and brands play a key role in this. Brands can increase trust by clearly demonstrating the community’s purpose, acknowledging and supporting engagement, or even modifying the website’s design to be more visually appealing and elicit trust.19,20,21

Build customer relationships

Research shows that relationship quality with the brand in online brand communities is a key determinant of brand loyalty. Brands that build relationships with users survive longer and have improved user loyalty and commitment. By actively facilitating customers’ social interactions, brands can directly engage with users and form stronger relationships to enhance loyalty.21,22

Conclusion

To conclude, with the growth of technology and social media, more users and brands are turning to online communities to promote their products. Behavioral science is essential to understanding how these communities work and implementing insights to improve connection, increase engagement, create trust, and boost loyalty.

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