Online Brand Communities: Advantages & Challenges


This is our third and final installment of the online brand community series. If you haven’t already, read the first two posts, Understand What Drives Customers and Outcomes & Results.

Continuing with our closer look at the paper titled Managing Brands and Customer Engagement in Online Brand Communities published in the Journal of Service Management, we’ll now examine the advantages, challenges and goals of engaging customers online.

How do your customers find you? Online? Obviously.

Rarely do I make a purchase without doing a bit of research online.

  • Can I find it cheaper?
  • What did others think of the purchase?
  • Are there alternatives?
  • Does the company utilize ethical business practices?
  • Is customer support responsive?

There a lot of questions to be asked!

Anticipating that your customers are going to seek answers online, you should use every tool you have to meet them in that space.

Now, once they find your online presence, are your customers compelled to stay? That’s up to you.

Building and managing an online brand community gives you and your customers a level ground to meet each other’s needs. After you’ve determined what your customers are seeking, you can create an online interface to attract, please, and keep your customers interested and returning.

But successful online brand communities are not easy to achieve. Many challenges exist in the initial set up and along the road. However, these challenges should not be a deterrent and are quickly outweighed by the numerous advantages of engaging your customers.

Advantages for your business

Once you have an active customer base engaging in your online brand community, you will have instant and continuous feedback. This invaluable market research can assist you and your team in choosing where you allocate human and capital resources, how you update and improve your product, and what products you develop for the future.

Research also shows that online brand communities cause companies to have better cross-department collaboration. Open and public comments can be seen by the entire company and make it easier for the technical and sales team members to hear the voice of the customers and develop cohesive strategies.

Online brand communities also strengthen the brand itself, giving the brand a face, a shape, and a story. This gives your customers the opportunity to associate your company with more than just the purchased item. The community breathes life into the company’s brand.

But why is any of this important?

It drives sales.

Again and again the study shows that an online brand community can influence sales by having a “positive impact on immediate purchase intention” and “retaining both experienced and novice consumers”.

Challenges of managing an online brand community

The dreaded bad review, unrelated negative comment thread, or vacant participation altogether…

Remember when I said that the community breathes life into the brand? Well sometimes that community can spit on the brand too.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s all sunshine and rainbows. Managing an online brand community means you’ll also have to manage the challenges that come with an open and public forum.

Here’s what to look out for:

Anti-brand comments and anti-brand communities

Someone will be dissatisfied and someone dissatisfied will get online and write about it. This could be directly on your site, on social media, or in extreme cases a site created just to be anti-your-brand.

Negative associations

I used to live in Washington, DC. During tourist seasons the city became bloated with slow-walking people crowding the sidewalks and metro. Even though I wanted to sternly tell the high school class, group of seniors, family of five with two strollers, whatever, to leave room for those of us trying to get to work, I couldn’t bring myself to ruin what could be those individuals only time to see their country’s Capitol. I would imagine someone’s memory of looking upon the Washington Monument being interrupted by my impatient words – and that wasn’t an association I wanted for my city.

But not everyone on the internet is as nice as I am to tourists.

Whatever content is floating around in your online brand community will be associated with your brand. Moderating your community is tricky. Moderate too much, and it looks like biased censorship. Moderate too little, and the brand could quickly become less than family friendly.

Allocating resources

Even with SaaS companies and free lancers ready to lend a hand (for a price), pulling off a polished online brand community takes a lot of time and effort.

Quality is a large component of any successful online brand community, and quality doesn’t come easily. You’ll need to make sure every effort has the resources to be done properly, which limits how much you can achieve.

Engaging consumers (who have plenty of distractions)

Without some sort of stake in the matter, consumers are not likely to engage. Online brand communities perform better when there is a sense of “co-ownership” between the consumers and the company.

Achieve this sense of “co-ownership” occurs when there is a mutual relationship between the company and the customer to nurture and grow the brand.

Let me put it this way: your customers will not be invested in the online brand community that only asks them to leave comments on a coupon.

Instead you should find innovative ways to ask for their participation and make their participation mean something.

Don’t be discouraged

Every time I have complained to my grandfather about how hard something was (piano lessons were a big one for me) he would say “If it were easy, I’d be able to do it.”

The benefits of managing an online brand community far outweigh the effort it takes to overcome the challenges. Facing and overcoming these challenges is what can set you apart from your competition.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Look at the research.

RumbleTalk for your community

I took an interest in this research because at RumbleTalk, we are all about online brand communities. This is the whole reasons our company exists.

I’m always impressed with the creative ways companies use group chats to build their community and improve their brand. We’ve seen our group chats used in numerous fields from churches to financial traders and everything in between.

We provide a community building tool, for more information check out our homepage here.

Let me know in the comments what you think of the research, how it applies to your online presence. I’m listening.