Jan 26, 2011

Brand Communities Aren’t Really Communities

Does Starbucks have a brand community? How about Dell? Both companies have incredible social media presences. They have engaged their consumers proactively. They have created a back-and-forth dialogue with their customers. They ask for ideas, and they incorporate that feedback directly into their products.

A lot of marketers hold up Dell and Starbucks as examples for the new era of “brand communities,” but I’m challenged by that notion. Having a lot of active followers in social media platforms does not mean you have a community.

Ok, maybe I’m splitting hairs here. A strong social media program leads to customer engagement not community. A community is something more. It’s special. A community is a group of people with shared interests, a common history and can be identified through their association to the group.

Harley-Davidson Has a Brand Community

Harley-Davidson has built a “cult-like brand.” Every March thousands of Harley owners converge on Florida for the Daytona Bike Week. It’s a week dedicated to enthusiasts passionate about motorcycles and the motorcycle lifestyle.

Members of the Harley Owners Group, or HOG, are easy to spot at the event. You can pick them out of the crowd with their distinctive “fashion sense” of leather vests, jackets and even pants. You can identify them by their colors: orange and black. You can spot them by their passion of Harley motorcycles.

The Harley Owners Group is a community. They are a group of people held together by their passion for Harleys, their shared identity, and how they connect and organize themselves both online and offline. What’s even more remarkable is they could exist without the sponsorship and support from the brand. They are a distinctive group that happens to associate their identity with a company.

Dell and Starbucks on the other hand don’t have the same kind of engaged community that Harley-Davidson does. The HOG Community is an exception.

Mastering Social Media Achieves Engagement Not Community

What Dell and Starbucks do with social media is impressive. The sheer size of their groups is daunting. They have made a concentrated investment to engage their consumers with social media, and it has worked.

Social media mastery does not lead to a community. If Dell and Starbucks stopped investing in their “social media communities,” their communities would disappear. Harley-Davidson’s HOG Community on the other hand will keep trucking along whether Harley sponsors it or not.

What Dell and Starbucks have is a little different. They have “customer engagement.” Their platforms are remarkable in themselves, because they are drawing together a huge number of people and engaging them in a dialogue. That’s something to take note of. In the era of mass media, customer communication was push driven. Brands could communicate through radio spots, TV ads, billboards and print ads. They bombarded their customers with their message. Today Dell and Starbucks have changed the communication paradigm.  They have embraced the social media tools of the present, and created a push-pull dialogue. That’s cool. That’s powerful. But let’s also put it in perspective. That’s not a community.

Make a business decision

Here’s the question. What do you want? Do you want a “brand community” or “customer engagement”?

It’s an important distinction. Not all brands can have a community. Do you really want to join your accountant’s community of customers? How about your CRM software provider’s community? Maybe, but not likely. Rather you want to work with companies that serve your needs, respond to your questions and interact and support you when it’s needed.

The added benefit of social media engagement is it provides a platform to connect with other customers so that you can learn and share together. Again, I don’t consider this community. I group this type of customer interaction under engagement, because it’s a one-to-one dialogue to stay informed, solve problems and get the most out of your investments.

What’s your take? I welcome your comments and perspectives on this topic.

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