Written by Lisa Lobensommer
“It’s all about the people!” – With the large variety of brands, the power of brand communities around them became a main part in marketing and business research. Internet technologies along with the development of social media support the shift towards more peer-to-peer interaction. Hence, marketers are trying to actively manage consumers’ engagement and drivers for online brand community participation, concepts that have direct effects on brands’ intended goals.
The modern social media population is heavily dependent on sharing, posting and presenting their everyday lives, interests and belongings on social platforms. As brands play a vital part in our daily activities, brand communities make it possible for companies to gain easy influence worldwide. And this almost without any expenses (Sloan, Bodey & Gyrd, 2015). Today’s consumers provide brand-related content at every time to everyone which remains a great opportunity for other consumers to get direct user information. Moreover, user-generated content allows for brands to strengthen their relationship with the public and their online brand communities. Besides that, it has a huge impact on traditional advertising, which already lost a lot of its power (Smith, Fischer & Yongjian, 2012). With these concepts in mind the challenge for brands is, how can they successfully enable established online brand community members to transfer their brand experiences in social media – and thus worldwide – for free?
One example in this context is Nike and its lifestyle community which evolves around the platform Nike+. Nike+ is a modern platform that integrates many products and features. The content of Nike+ is created by the members themselves through sharing and interacting on the platform and on diverse social media channels. Nike+ motivates members to actively connect with each other, which further leads to strengthening the connection between the brand and its users.
Building strong online brand communities
Muniz and O’Guinn define a brand community as a “specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relations among admirers of a brand” (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001). In a nutshell, this is a place allowing the connection of people from everywhere in the world and can either have a real life existence or can be virtually based. With the rise of the internet and social media platforms, online brand communities increasingly gained attention mostly due to the fact that they are the latest step in a long evolution of communities.
The main characteristics of suchlike online brand communities are (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001; Habibi, Laroche & Richard, 2014):
consciousness of kind – members see a distinct separation between in-group and out-group members, the perceived membership gives them the feeling of belonging to the online brand community
shared rituals and traditions – within an online brand community members build an interconnected, own set of values and experiences around a brand that differentiates them from other communities
moral responsibility – members gain the feeling of being morally committed to their online brand community peers
social identity – it is the self-concept each member develops around the brand based on knowledge and value relationships
Motivation factors to participate in an online brand community include, as stated by Wirtz et al (2013):
· members’ interests and passion for a brand
· social relationships with others
· receive of direct user-information
· entertainment and
· intention to improve skills
One of the factors that has made the Nike+ brand community so successful on the social media platform Instagram and beyond, is its understanding that being passionate about a sport means being part of a community. This idea holds, regardless of the type of sport. These communities are not defined by country borders, but are instead arranged of fans and athletes from around the world. Brand stories created and shared by users through social media influence not only existing brand community members but also new ones, who might get confirmed in their brand expectations and gain more trust towards the brand (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012).
The power of visual user-generated content
Gone is the time of leading traditional advertising techniques (e.g. billboards, television ads, radio spots) produced by a company’s’ marketing department to achieve intended brand goals. Thanks to the rise of the internet allowing permanent access to information for everyone, the spread of brand-related content happens automatically. For many years consumers have been limited to receive information from companies about products just to allow them decide whether to purchase or not. The internet and especially social media sites drive radical changes in marketing communication enabling two-way as well as many-to-many conversations between various authors (customers, competitors, employees, observers) (Muniz & Schau, 2011). Thus, user-generated content has become an impactful tool in the distribution of brand messages.
Communicating content about brand experiences through various social media channels empowers consumers to become “brand ambassadors”. They further act as an influential part in a brands’ reputation (Gensler et al, 2013). User-generated content can be transmitted in several formats such as text, audio, image or video messages (Burmann, 2010). Although the most effective way to spread content is by visualisation. Researchers in this area discovered that 90% of the information transmitted to the human brain is visual and that the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text (thomsonreuters.com, 2016). With 300 million active users daily and 95 million regular posts per day, Instagram – the image-sharing platform – offers a huge network for brands to reach people (Instagram.com, 2016).
In regards to Nike, the brand shows the successful creation of a strong relationship with its online brand community demonstrated by an active customer engagement.
The platform encourages its brand community members to post photos of their workout on different social media sites by offering templates and animating hashtags. In that way, sharing goals, struggles and achievements with either friends or strangers motivates Nike+ users themselves as well as other brand community members. Additionally, they spread information about Nike and its products and act as stealthy brand ambassadors.
Particularly on Instagram, Nikes’ brand community members transfer their experiences in form of individual images under a collective hashtag #nikerunning or #nikeplus. Thereby they express their commitment to both, the brand and the brand community. The results of Nikes’ winning concept are more than 5k daily posted images reaching around 8 million followers on Instagram and Twitter with the use of the online brand community’s hashtag #nikerunning (see example in Figure 3, keyhole.co).
Successful bridging between online brand community and social media
Stimulating consumers to promote products and services of a brand on social media sites indicate an inexpensive and effective way to increase awareness (Burmann, 2010). Nevertheless, it is not an easy task to solve. The main challenge for a business to gain a desired outcome is the activation of an online brand community to share their brand experiences with others on social media sites. An interactive, eye-catching platform together with a perceived impression of adding value to the user can be essential in consumers’ engagement in an online brand community (Wirtz et al, 2013). In addition, a company has to determine whether and how it intervenes in its online brand community. Well-established online brand communities show that the best concept is a balanced style of firm-generated content combined with user-generated content (Sloan et al, 2015).
Hence, marketers should stimulate content which will further be distributed and developed by consumers.
Nike simply encourages its brand community to “Just #tag it” when sharing their brand experience on social media channels. Last year Nike promoted a campaign under the hashtag #betterforit. The company called for an empowerment of women “to be better through services, product innovation and athlete inspiration, motivating each other to push to the next level" (adweek.com, 2015). Within a short period of time (90 days) the #betterforit hashtag received over 800k tweets with images from across the world on different social media sites (adweek.com, 2015). A successful hashtag campaign like this one, will encourage traffic longer – even after the campaign has ended.
Consumers tend to consider the brand more trustworthy, if there is a perfect match between an online brand community and social media performance. This further leads to long-lasting relationships with the brand (Geurin & Burch, 2016). Hence, it is important for companies to take this link between their online brand community and the social media environment serious as it provides lots of hidden capabilities to succeed in competition.
In the following some operative guidelines should help businesses to develop their skills in this field:
Improve the link between online brand communities and social media platforms:
· Storytelling: Give users content to create a story around – create a #hashtag campaign that animates existing members and gains new ones to actively participate in the diffusion of brand-related content
· Value-adding: Provide perceived utility for an online brand community which they want to share with others; reward them for achieving goals; offer possibility to get fast information
· Visualising: Deliver eye-catching content for brand community – set your platform apart from the ordinary; leave space for personal customization – offer a template where users can personalize their images, texts, symbols, before they share it with the community
· Socialising: Offer a meeting point to connect people around the brand that truly delivers the feeling of belongingness
Concluding, brand communities are everywhere, online, offline or both. Today’s social media has greatly advanced the ways people can get involved and gain information about a brand. The variety of online brand communities offer consumers easy accessible ways to get connected in areas that interests them and with people who share same mind-sets. Hence the challenge for companies is to provide settings which attract their brand users to become active in an online brand community and share their perceived experiences with others.
The importance of visualisation combined with user-generated content is and will be influencing the future of online branding in many ways (shoutmeloud.com). Using hashtags, as an example presented above, is one effective way of encouraging action in online brand communities. But suchlike possibilities for companies are constantly growing. Therefore it is a must for social media authorities to keep on track in the fast-moving online world all the time.
Nike demonstrates a very good role-model, from which every brand can learn a lot. Through their interactive platform (Nike+) Nike delivers opportunities for their brand community members to freely engage in the distribution of brand-content either on social media or on the platform. Nike never stops developing innovative ideas to catch the attention of its brand community. With millions of followers on every social media platform Nike knows exactly how to successfully establish the link between online brand community and social media performance. If you ask them what is their secret to success, they would probably answer: Just do it!
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Figure 1: Nike plus community, Available online: http://www.nike.com/us/en_us/c/nike-plus [Accessed 27 November 2016]
Figure 2: Instagram post, Available online: https://www.instagram.com/p/BMlfxjyjp9V/?taken-by=noye17 [Accessed 12 November 2016]
Figure 3: Keyhole.co Hashtag tracking, Available online: http://keyhole.co/realtime/dzf7rx/nikerunning [Accessed 27 November 2016]
Figure 4: Instagram post, Available online: https://www.instagram.com/p/BNPqJVlAHBx/ [Accessed 27 November 2016]
Figure 5: Nike plus training app, Available online: http://www.nike.com/us/en_us/c/nike-plus/training-app [Accessed 27 November 2016]