The State of Online Branded Communities

I know sometimes we all get so head’s down in the business of every day that we don’t look at the larger industry trends. We are going to help with that by bringing the latest trends to you. To start off, Kathy Baughman, of ComBlu, shares the insights coming from their State of Online Branded Communities study. Not sure if your community competes with the best of the best? Read on to find out!


"Social Marketing is Growing Up" by Kathy Baughman, Principal & Founder, ComBlu

The single biggest takeaway from ComBlu’s second annual “State of Online Branded Communities” study, is that far more top brands are demonstrating a strategic and cohesive approach to community as means to build long term customer engagement. Adopting a Center of Excellence orientation, many brands are consistently applying best practices across all their social assets. This is in sharp contrast to the more experimental and campaign-oriented approach exhibited last year.

In ComBlu’s study, we closely examine the community and social marketing programs of 78 companies across 12 industries. We joined and evaluated 241 communities, comprising a mix of feedback, advocacy and support communities. One of our major goals was to gain firsthand experience with how these communities engage and interact with their members.

Specifically, the research assesses the brands’ effectiveness in:
• Providing a meaningful experience for members.
• Integrating their brand strategies across multiple communities and social media.
• Applying best practices to strengthen customer engagement.

Key Take Aways

Last year, few brands in our study exhibited any evidence of an integrated approach to social engagement. Many communities were built around multiple—but unrelated—viral or online campaigns. They seemed less about long-term customer engagement and more about trying the latest social tools or applications.

This year, the number of brands with a cohesive approach to social engagement increased significantly. In addition, many companies are standardizing to a single community platform to facilitate tighter integration between properties. This also allows for a single login and the ability to reward points wherever the member is engaging and prevents “gateway” confusion.

Good News

We found plenty of encouraging news in this year’s study.
• The percentage of brands exhibiting a Cohesive Strategy increased from 20% to 33%.
- The number of companies that are High Performers (scoring 35 or more points) jumped from 11% to 33%.
- Activity levels in online communities are also significantly higher. This is the expected outcome when communities give members more ways to contribute and connect with each other; reward their actions; showcase accomplishments of high performing members; and provide topical information on what’s new and exciting. Each of these best practices has higher adoption rates in this year’s study, with some brands showing a three to four times increase in usage levels over last year.
• Brands are doing a much better job delivering diverse engagement experiences by providing members with multiple ways to participate.
• Communities with the highest activity levels tend to focus on a specific need or interest. Those with creative engagement tools, but no clear mission, have less activity.
• Gaming and Entertainment industries have the most active communities, followed by Insurance, Technology and Telecommunications. With the exception of Insurance, these are also the highest scoring industries overall.
• Many companies are standardizing to a single community platform to facilitate tighter integration between properties. This also allows for a single login and the ability to reward points wherever the member is engaging and prevents “gateway” confusion
Our research also found much greater integration between a brand’s sponsored community site and its other social assets such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. However, only 61% of brands offer sharing functionality, which limits members’ abilities to be catalysts for community growth and content syndication.

Still Room for Improvement

While this year’s study uncovers significant positive momentum in the adoption of best practices, no brand scored in the highest quartile (50 or more points). We were surprised that fewer than 40% of the communities we joined have any kind of rewards or recognition program. “Microfame”—defined as a member’s status within the community—is one of the key drivers for sustaining participation. In addition, a best-in-class reputation management tool will allow the community manager to mine member actions for deep strategic insights.

Nearly half of the communities we studied still have no active community manager visible as the “face of the brand.” This misses a huge opportunity to personalize the brand and create a human connection.

A few of the brands in our study are creating communities across all three pillars of social engagement—Feedback, Advocacy and Support—but the vast majority focus on Advocacy. The brands that focus on support tend to be among the highest scoring communities; these communities are the most mature and have evolved consistently over time.

The lowest scoring communities provide no real path to engagement. They tend to have a Social Web model that allows some interaction with content, but provides few ways to connect with peers, build on the thoughts or ideas of others or provide any feedback.

In contrast, the High Performers (brands scoring 35 or more points), provide highly customized, meaningful experiences to members. They push content aligned with both the information provided by members during the profiling process and their actions in the community, thus making their experiences better over time.

We’ll explore this further at this year’s Social Media & Community 2.0 Strategies Conference.

ComBlu will use this study as a basis for discussion at this year’s SM 2.0 Conference. Three of the Top Performing brands from the study—Verizon, NBC Universal and Dell—will comprise a general session panel to do a deeper dive into their strategies behind the results.


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