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What makes an online community successful?

Last week I spoke at the Social Media & Community 2.0 Conference about Non-Traditional Insight-Driven Community Building and I’ve had a few emails asking for me to elaborate on one of my slides so I thought I would post the answer here.

When you use social media to create an online community the biggest challenge is going to be how does your brand stand out from your competitors who are all trying to get the same consumers into their online communities? One of the keys to success is to build your community so consumers see some kind of value in their participation in your community. That value is critical because while both traditional and online communities form around shared interests, the bond to the digital community is really thin.  This happens because a community that is formed in the real world is based around physical proximity and participation so people have to go to that community to be a part of it.  The effort required to physically go somewhere to participate in something is much, much higher than the 5 seconds it takes to click a ‘Follow’ or ‘Like’ button. So because of that difference you have to work much harder to keep the digital community working, keep that consumer seeing the value and keep them from losing interest and breaking that thin bond and dropping out. I have found that when consumers see value it falls into three different kinds of modivators.


They join or participate in the community because they have an emotional connection to the communities subject matter. It could be a cause they are passionate about or a brand they connect with on a personal level. Of the three different triggers this is the strongest because the bond is on a personal and emotional level which will be harder to break than the other two. The best examples are communities for brands like Apple, Microsoft Xbox or Toms Shoes.


They join or participate in the community because they want to either give or gain knowledge round the communities subject matter. The members who want to give knowledge feel a sense of empowerment for being a teacher who can speak with authority on the subject matter. The members who want to gain knowledge join the community because it allows them to learn from a community that would not be geographically possible outside of the virtual world and it removes the intimidation that could be found if the situation was taken into the real world. These could be founded around large and generic subjects like cooking or brands like Adobe, Ford or Twitter.


They join or participate in the community because that participation brings them financial gains or savings like discounts or special offers. It could give be as straight forward as  coupons that translate into dollar savings or access to special merchandise that isn’t offered to the general public making them feel like an insider who has special access to the brand. The best examples are communities for brands like or

How do you use these triggers?

I have found a lot of success building communities to cater to and take advantage of all three of these different motivators by cycle through these three different motivators in the marketing messaging. This means that one week give out some tips about the brands area of expertise (intellectual), the next week talk about something that is core to their business (emotional) and then the next week send out a discount or offer to drive sales or customers into the store (financial). By cycling through the messaging you keep the communication fresh so it isn’t the same thing over and over again, you cater to the individual motivators as well as consumers who fall into multiple categories and  you are able to build the brand and drive sales.

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