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Building Stronger Brands through Online Communities

How can companies use brands to expand customer relationships? Many marketing strategists believe they can strengthen consumer brands by building online communities around brands. Observing the power of community spirit in noncommercial brand communities on the Internet, companies now want to establish dialogues with their loyal customers and provide consumer-to-consumer communication in realtime. If the digital pathway is the correct route for cultivating brand loyalty, how can companies nurture brand-based communities?

Factors that can help the brand strategist, the author argues, include examining successful communities, addressing management issues, and developing community leadership skills. The popular Geocities Web site, for example, attracts "dwellers" to a familiar "environment" and offers community members a sense of involvement as well as entertainment.

Managers also need to understand the difficulties inherent in creating and managing brand-based Web communities. Brand focus and strategic objectives will determine the characteristics of the content offered on the Web. But managers must also exercise community control, establish guidelines for authenticity and ethics, attract volunteer managers, and monitor community size and composition.

Ultimately, managers must recognize that the brand community is not just another communications vehicle. Successfully managing a brand community requires professional managers to lead and promote interplay among community members, to manage community volunteers, and to exercise sound editorial judgment in content development.

Equally important is integrating a brand-based online community with traditional marketing practices and a company's total brand strategy. When fully developed, says the author, this type of online community will become a vibrant public manifestation of the company.

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