There are many strategies that exist to create, shape, or support your brand. You can invest in positive PR opportunities, use a marketing campaign to reach a new target demographic, or even undergo a rebrand if you're itching for a fresh start. But one of the best things you can do for your brand is actually one of the simplest--at least in theory: starting your own brand community.

What Is a Brand Community?

A brand community is essentially a group of people (ideally, your customers and/or target demographics) who identify your brand, and use your brand as a platform or backdrop to exchange ideas and contribute content.

It's best to understand a brand community through a handful of examples:

  • Starbucks. Starbucks encourages users to share their own ideas with the company, and interact with other submissions--and it's worked well, considering they generated more than 70,000 ideas in their first year.
  • Sony PlayStation. Sony PlayStation offers gamers the chance to define their habits and preferences, and engage with people who have or want similar experiences on interactive forums.
  • Humm Kombucha. Humm Kombucha attracts a  wide network of health-conscious brand enthusiasts and gives them a place to come together with its "Community" website page. Members of the community share images and stories of their interactions with Humm's main line of products.
  • What's Good Games. A video game podcast run by four women in a traditionally male-dominated industry, the brand maintains and expertly manages a community of over 60,000 listeners across its Facebook, Twitter, and Patreon groups.

The Advantages of a Brand Community

So what exactly are the advantages of building a brand community, rather than flat-out marketing and advertising your products?

  • Brand evangelism and loyalty. Customers who have a place to express themselves will feel more loyal toward your brand, as will people who meet new friends and brand loyalists through your platform. Your top contributors may even become brand evangelists, telling other people about your company because of the sheer value they get from it. Brand communities escalate retention and differentiate you from your competitors.
  • Feedback, information, and ideas. Customer-driven forums are also a tremendous source of new information. Depending on the types of conversations you foster, this could be a source of feedback (helping you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your products), or new ideas (serving as an advanced variation on a suggestion box). Either way, you'll be able to make better and more profitable products for your users in the future.
  • User-generated content. All those users generating content can be valuable for your content marketing, SEO, and overall inbound marketing strategies. New articles and new threads will be indexed by Google, serving as flagships for users who might be experiencing the same problems, asking the same questions, or are interested in the same ideas. This will also bolster your domain authority, so you rank higher in general, and can serve as a point of discussion in your email and social media campaigns.
  • PR opportunities. Depending on the popularity of your forum and the types of content getting posted there, your community can also give you a variety of PR opportunities. For example, you can ask your community to volunteer for a charitable cause, or coordinate a guerilla marketing campaign through them.

How to Build One

Though the actual execution is more complex (for example, you'll need to do extensive market research and customize each step of the process for your target demographics), the steps involved in the brand community building process are fairly straightforward:

  • Create a space. Before anything else, you'll need to create some kind of space where users can interact with both your brand and one another; you'll need your brand to be present to make it your signature community, but the real strength of a community comes with users interacting with one another. This may come in the form of a forum, a social media network, or some other platform for interaction.
  • Incentivize early contributors. Your earliest contributors will be the hardest to get, since there won't be a community already in place to attract them. Offer some other incentive to encourage their participation; for example, you could offer them discounts, entries for drawings, or more one-on-one interactions and guidance from your team members. Go out of your way to make your earliest contributors happy, and invest in acquiring more.
  • Nurture the community. Once you've reached a base of a few hundred users, the platform will start to grow on its own. You're best served nurturing the community from a distance, offering incentives and value to your community members and regularly contributing to discussions, but ultimately letting the community shape itself.

If executed properly, a brand community can be a powerful and supportive strategy to develop your company. Obviously, this depends on the type of community you're building, your demographics, and the quality of your ongoing execution--but so long as you keep your users' wants in mind, and you're willing to provide value to them, there's virtually no downside.