fingers crossed
PHOTO: Artotem

There are two ways to build a brand community: ask for budget, cross your fingers and hope you’re gathering the right people in the right way; or research potential and existing members and leaders in your organization to find out exactly how a community can best serve the needs of both groups. The latter sounds tedious and time-consuming and, as a result, many people opt for the former.

But it turns out the much more time-consuming and frustrating approach to take is to try to launch a brand community in an effort to add more brand experiences for your customers, and then painstakingly attempt to reverse-engineer a reason for its existence. This approach leads to failed experiments, executive impatience due to lack of quick wins, and causes many companies to give up before a community can ever have the impact that its potential promises.

The “cross your fingers” approach to brand community has become the status quo because of massive success stories like Dell’s Idea Storm, LEGO, Salesforce MVPs and the recent explosion in a number of branded Facebook Groups. Organizations view these successes and assume that they too can readily recreate such feats, devaluing the work of community builders in turn. 

An experienced community strategist can help you avoid all the mistakes of an inexperienced one, and yet businesses balk at investing in one because, in the words of an organization I spoke with recently, “Isn’t community something we all naturally build?” No. It isn’t.

So to buck the status quo, you have to opt for the more “tedious approach” — do your research. 

Related Article: Customer Communities: Strategy or Tactic?

Reasons Community Programs Need Research

Research doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds. Research has gained a bad rap with connotations of heavy lifting and murky insights without statistical significance. But whether you’re used to hiring pricey market research teams or you associate research with academic stodginess, it’s time to rethink the importance of research in launching communities.

Community programs are notoriously complex, but you can avoid many mistakes by doing just a bit of research before you go all-in.

1. To assess a shift in strategy, from the member or organization perspective

An education startup in San Francisco was recently assessing where a community should fit within their organization. Their community leader had reverse-engineered the impact that community had on multiple departments up to that point. That is, they had decided to experiment with communities and then fit them into their business strategy. This was intended to show where they could fit community within the silos of the organization.

The main problem with this approach is your customers don’t care about your internal silos. They care about the value they get from connecting with others. If that isn't crystal clear to them, they have a million other things they could be doing.

Secondarily, this approach assumes that community can always solve a business problem. The truth is, this is putting the cart before the horse. Community cannot, in fact, solve all your problems, so don’t start putting one together until you’re sure what it will impact, and you’re sure that you have the internal resources to support the often-years-long work of building a successful brand community.

To solve this problem, the startup decided to measure their community’s impact on multiple departments. The findings? Community, in fact, did not solve any of the department’s problems particularly well, nor did it solve member problems particularly well. It was time to move on.

At this point, if there is a strong enough need for creative marketing, they may assess the need for ambassador program, or if NPS scores flag, they may look into instilling community connections within the product itself. But they won’t have to reverse-engineer again. 

Related Article: Digital Customer Experience Isn't Child's Play. Just Ask Lego

2. To assess whether you’re ready to launch a community

A learning and development business launched a community without testing their assumptions against member needs. The result has been community growth that has slowed to a crawl and a lack of a cohesive purpose.

When I spoke with this company, they asked me: “How can we grow our community?” But when I asked about the mission of the space and what members get out of it, the value proposition was unclear. It was time to do research.

Together, we began speaking with members about how they see themselves within the context of the community. We asked them each if they identified with certain key terms, and while they all said they did, they also said they would never have used these terms to identify themselves on their own. Then they told us how they do see themselves, and the immediate needs and pains they had.

This research revealed a few clear member needs as well as natural language for the movement the company was sparking. These key insights will now save that business months of wasted time and effort, and will positively impact future growth of the community.

Related Article: Proving Community Value Is Vital to Survival

3. To proactively gather feedback on how well you’re meeting member and organizational needs

There comes a time in every community’s life where both members and the organization ask (either overtly or subtly): “Are we really doing all we can do in this community? Could it be more impactful?”

This again is where member research is invaluable.

Now, you may be asking: I have a dashboard of metrics to measure my community’s health. Isn’t that enough?

Yes, you should be measuring (if you’re not yet, please change that), but measuring community health, performance, and business outcomes still won't tell you about missed opportunities. Measurement can lead us astray, and talking to members and observing them to uncover the ways in which they could be more meaningfully interacting is at the heart of innovation.

The shape the research takes is less important than that it takes shape at all. Doing research does fly in the face of the “move fast and break things” mentality of startups, but it doesn’t have to. Instead, research can take place over just two weeks, with a handful of interviews, a little bit of ethnographic research, or even doing a competitor audit over a few days.

Save your organization priceless time, money and resources, and do the research in your brand community. It shows deep humility, willingness to listen, and patience to do right by your members, so their loyalty to you is actually justified.