The big mistake in Starting a branded community (and how to fix it)

When you’re starting out with building a corporate community there is an important step you need to take, that of defining business objectives. Without being clear on your objectives it’s kind of difficult to achieve much. However, this is just one half of the equation.

Typical business objectives

Company ObjectivesMost business driven branded community initiatives pursue objectives like increasing business or maybe reducing costs, or enabling word of mouth marketing.

Typical Community objectives

Community Objectives

Most communities are focused around getting help, access to expert advice, learning more about the product/service, it’s about helping one another, stepping up and being there, and networking.


The challenge with community programs

Isolated Objectives

How do you match business objectives with community objectives? You need to create and evolve shared objectives as starting your community with only your business objectives is not going to go too far.

You need to evolve shared objectives

Shared Objectives

Examples of Shared Objectives

1. You want to reach potential new customers via free word of mouth marketing – Empower them – Make the community members feel special, provide them first and exclusive access to your products and services. Heck announce it via them, make them a part of your product or service launches. Example Microsoft often launches new software products along with key speakers being from their communities, their MVP’s and RD’s or community leaders. Leverage Influencer and Partner Networks

Making them a part of your programs, empowers them, compelling them to share with their networks. This gives your messages massive reach, enabling word of mouth marketing, the most convincing method for enabling a sale.

2. You want to reduce support costs – Most community members often pay it forward. They want to help others and they do like the gratification of being seen as experts. Everybody likes to be recognized and rewarded. You need to evangelize the key contributions made by your key community members. Microsoft MVP’s answered more than 10 million questions a year. Can you even begin to calculate the ROI of that.

3. Innovation – We all want our products to be better, matching the exact requirements of our clients, we want them to provide feedback on our products and services. It obviously helps to reduce the R&D and the testing costs. Provide the community the opportunity to  Engage with you. They often know your product better than your internal employees as they are using it day in and day out. Enable them to tell you what they want the product to do, encourage engagement and feedback. Let them know how their feedback is changing the way you are evolving the product.

Business Objectives Community Objectives
You want free word of mouth marketing Empower them – They want first, exclusive access, make them feel special.
You want to reduce support costs They want to help others and be seen as experts, They want to be recognized and rewarded – Evangelize the advocates.
You want to innovate and want feedback on your product Engage – They want the product to do more specific things which help your product innovate. They test it, helping you iron out the bugs. It helps if they get first access.

Shared Objectives

You need to evolve the specific shared objectives between your business goals and your community members goals.


Most corporate communities anyways run the risk of becoming online ghost towns. Beginning with shared objectives enables you to involve your community members upfront and get deeper buy in.

What are the shared objectives you’ve defined for your community. Drop me a note in the comments below.

How to solve the content creation and reach problem?

This is crazy, he said. I could see the frustration on his face, that one thick vein which pulsated especially when he was stressed – How do we keep generating so much content, how do we make sure we’re on top of Google searches, how do we ensure that our content is relevant and is reaching the right audiences? Oh! One other thing, how do we ensure that this content marketing is done globally at low or no cost? He finally breathed after that really long non-stop barrage of questions…

The problem with content marketing is real and getting bigger by the day

There was 1 website in 1991 online and today we’re close to a billion. Note: This is just the number of websites not the content. The Indexed Web contains at least 3.32 billion pages (Thursday, 10 July, 2014).

There is upwards of 1.5 Billion pieces of content created on Facebook daily, Million plus videos added on YouTube daily.

Social media doesn’t make it easier

If you have a Facebook page you’ve got some interesting challenges less than 3% of your content is visible to people who have liked your page (3 percent reach is still better than nothing) and we know how difficult it is to create content which people like.

Summary of the content marketing problem

1. Create loads of relevant content

2. Ensure the content is found

3. Ensure that the content is relevant

4. Ensure it is reaching the right audiences

5. Deliver it at a low or no cost?


Is there a magic bullet?

You want it don’t you. Well, yes and no. It’s a technique which was in use from cave man times and is relevant even today. But it’s not a magic bullet, one shot doesn’t solve it. You need to work at it. If you’re willing? All the above five problems are easily solvable.

Yes that includes the low or no cost.

Brand Advocates

Brand advocates are your passionate customers. They are passionate about your brand and it’s products. They typically have a deep commitment to helping others, voluntarily sharing their passion.

Prepare to be amazed at what they can do for you.

Here is an example from Microsoft

imageFigure 1 Source Microsoft MVP Awards Program

The above is just a small snapshot of content created at low or no cost.

Do they do more?

What else do the brand advocates do?

Help improve your products – by participating as early adopters and sharing feedback.

Organizing community events around your products (Nearly 200 MVPs ran almost 10,000 events on SQL Server 2008 and virtualization around the world.)

Online Promotion and Virtual events – Proving the popularity of social media, U.S. MVPs used new social media spaces such as Facebook and Twitter to deliver 22 virtual sessions reaching thousands of people. In a tough economy, MVPs created an online, global version of PDC (Professional Developer Conference), enabling more people to attend virtually.

Customer Support – Together, they answer more than 10 million questions a year!

A variety of forms of relevant content

From content for offline events in terms of presentations, demos, to online events, across social media and directly reaching out and providing answers to other customer problems. Millions of pieces of content are being created by brand advocates.

It’s not just written content. It’s presentations, videos, demos, all possible types of content.

The best part is that the content usually has extremely high relevance. Most brand advocates create content about your product about areas that they might have expertise in, or on areas they find other customers are struggling with etc.

Reaching relevant audiences – The perfect referral engine

clip_image002The most important advantage of working with your brand advocates is the reach they provide. They’re already your customers and they are reaching out via their activities to other customers. It’s the perfect referral engine.

It’s not dependent on Google, or the ways it changes its search algorithms.

It’s not wasteful advertising.


Multiply your reach – The Network Effect

Leverage brand advocates networks 2

Each brand advocate who engages with you has their own independent network of connections and followers.

Each brand advocate you add to your network, multiples the reach of your content.

When you involve brand advocates in creating content for you or sharing your content, you have potential access to their networks.

The advantage is that their audiences are typically relevant and share the same interest as that of the brand advocate and helps increases your reach to relevant audiences.

Well these are big brand tactics it’s not relevant for the small biz, or is it?

Brand advocates are leveraged by not just big corporations but even small ones. You don’t have to have thousands of brand advocates, begin with one. Yes I’m serious, that’s how most of these large corporate brand advocacy programs began.

They didn’t at the outset have 1000s of brand advocates. For e.g. I remember when Microsoft started their Cloud offering of Azure, they initially had less than 50 brand advocates who were interested in it.

You could begin with just one. That one brand advocate can help reach out to their network thereby multiplying your reach tremendously.

What about the cost?

The benefits of content created and promoted by brand advocates far outweighs the costs of managing a brand advocacy program. As the above examples showed, brand advocate contributions benefit the organization in a lot of ways – Content creation, helping it reach relevant customers, helping support other customers etc. The low cost high benefit of having a brand advocacy program is just phenomenal.

The stress on his brow had reduced. He could now see how leveraging brand advocates could help in his content marketing goals. He smiled and was breathing easily, he did have more questions… about how to setup a brand advocacy program etc. (That might just be another article).

To Summarize

Content marketing is tough, you need to create a lot of content and ensure it reaches relevant audiences and this can be expensive. Brand advocates, your most passionate customers are the best way to enhance your content marketing efforts at low or no cost.

Why barriers are essential for the success of your brand advocacy program

His brows raised high up, mouth wide open, in total awe he said, can you believe it they have a one year waiting period to get into their brand advocacy program, what’s even more amazing it’s limited to just a 130 people worldwide. How can I get in? Could you tell me what to do?

And in another completely contrasting conversation, Just fill this form and you’re in, part of our loyalty program… what did you think I did, I just smiled and walked away.

The first conversation was by a person who wanted to know how to get into a particular brand advocacy program by one of the largest software companies in the world. The other conversation… it’s not worth even mentioning.

The barrier advantage

Barrier to entry

As soon as you see a line of people snaking outside a store, you’re almost certain there is something of value. You curiosity is definitely piqued.

But there is a bigger reason to have a barrier to your brand advocacy program, it allows you to get the most passionate the most dedicated people in and keeps the masses away.

Note I’m not saying the masses are bad, but when you want a tight knit team you can depend on, you need to be extremely choosy.

And barriers help you qualify, and not just have anybody who may not currently be right for your brand advocacy program.

In fact you’ll realize that for different stages of your brand advocacy program you’ll probably need different kinds of brand advocates, more on that in another article.

Won’t barriers piss people off?


It will piss people off, and mostly those are the kinds of people you really don’t want in your brand advocacy program.

In your brand advocacy program you want the people who are cheering for you, the people who are concerned about you. No, they’re not yes men, they’re probably your most open and vocal critics but they’re providing you that feedback because they believe in you and hope that you do the needful.

They’re not the kind of people who just want to poke holes and look good. They are passionate well-wishers. They’re the kind of people who don’t need to be really told, they’re the ones who passionately reach out to others as they want to help them.

So yes barriers can piss people off and you need to be careful of the kind of barriers you put in place to ensure that you get the people who are appropriate for you inside and the others outside.

What are the good barriers you need to put in your brand advocacy program?

1. Expertise


Brand advocates are typically experts about a product, they’re passionately interested and others look up to them for advice as they know the innards of the particular product.

It’s easy to spot these experts, they could be authors of articles, books or even passionately blogging or speaking about your product or service. Providing tips and sharing best practices and supporting others.

You want these passionate experts to be a part of your inner circle of brand advocates. You definitely want this barrier in place to ensure success of your brand advocacy program.

2. Activity level

Activity Frequency

Brand Advocacy is never a onetime activity.

Unlike a person who likes a typical Facebook page and then in all probability never returns to the page. The brand advocate is a regular, who is constantly involved with the product and regularly interacts with your team, provides guidance on a regular basis or blogs regularly about your product or service.

A good way of evaluating a brand advocate is the level of activity, for instance the number of conversations or blog posts or sessions they speak at about your product or service.

Moreover, you might want them to report back to you about their activities. Making sure that they are aware of this can at times ensure that only the most active participants make it into the program.

Often you might ask them to share why they should be considered to be part of your brand advocacy program. This could be in the form of them sharing for instance their blog posts or list of sessions they’ve spoken at or similar other activities they may have been doing.

It helps to ensure that they are aware that you expect to know and encourage the regular sharing of activity details as part of the program.

3. Time


This is a different one with multiple aspects, so do pay extra attention.

Brand advocates though they’re long time participants, are not necessarily good for each stage of your brand advocacy program. Sometimes your best brand advocates might not necessarily be visible online or might not be visible publicly. However, in the start-up phase of your brand advocacy program you might want to include people who are more vocal online or offline and are more visible out there in the public view. You might want people to be included whose frequency of visible activity is on the higher side.

As your program grows over a period of time you might focus on a different set of brand advocates.

Additionally, you don’t want your brand advocates to just be around, so putting in a time barrier like a renewal period for e.g. once a year might be a great idea to ensure that your brand advocacy program has the relevant advocates in them.

It also ensures that your brand advocates clearly know that they will be revaluated at a certain point of time. This is a very different kind of barrier and you need it to ensure the success of your program.

Can you have different brand advocacy programs with different barriers? Should we have one or more barriers?

Yes can definitely have different barriers for different brand advocacy programs. For e.g. look at Microsoft’s brand advocacy programs, you have the MVP and the Regional Director(RD) program. Here there are various different kind of barriers. The MVP program has close to 4000 people as part of it, whereas the RD program has typically had less than 150 members in it. Similarly in the MVP program MVP’s are selected based on demonstrated expertise in one specific product. The MVP program duration is for a period of one year, the RD program is for two years now, it initially was a yearly program too.

There are multiple different kinds of barriers in play here, however be careful, you don’t want to piss of the good guys. You want to be selective for sure, but not restrictive to the extent of alienating the people you want to be inside.

Barriers are essential to ensure a healthy brand advocacy program

To summarize, barriers can prove to be extremely beneficial, and judicious barriers are essential for the success of your brand advocacy program. Barriers ensure you have the right kind of participants at different stages of your brand advocacy program to meet your success metrics. You need to evaluate which barriers put in place to get the apt brand advocates for your program.

Get and Retain More Customers with Low or Shrinking Budgets – via Brand Advocates | Using Digital, Social Media, Communities, Technology and Visual Thinking