The world of community management is lacking in rigorous research.
Sure, there are wonderful reports published about community management (like the recently published Community Industry Report), but when it comes to the behavior of members within online communities, there is a woeful lack of scientific study. Social media: continuous research published. Crowdsourcing: plenty of great academic research. Branded social communities: crickets.
Brand communities like the ones run by thousands of CMX members act as gathering places for millions of people. Shouldn’t there be more published research on these valuable online communities?
Dr. Khobaib Zaamout (at the time a PHD candidate at the University of Calgary) thought so, so he partnered with our team at Chaordix to explore the kinds of interactions that take place in these interesting and powerful branded social networks.
Dr. Zaamout analyzed data from a private brand community of fans and customers of a major phone company. The community was made up of over 5,000 brand advocates interested in mobile devices and accessories. Engagement was fueled by rewards, including exclusive access to company information and frequent merch giveaways. The research analyzed an anonymized log of over 750k member interactions over five years.
You can read the full research summary online. Or, read on for our top takeaways for community managers.
Three Top Insights About Brand Communities
1. Shared interests lead to membership stability
Relationships between members of a brand community are very different from relationships on social networks. On social networks, members know most of the people they’re interacting with — family, friends, or former co-workers.
In a branded social community, there is no reliance on bonds outside the community. Relationships between pairs in the community are formed because of shared interests. In fact, members of branded social communities often remark that they prefer to keep their passions private from friends or family.
The research showed that this dynamic helps make brand community membership relatively stable. People are eager to engage with new members despite having no prior relationship with them, because they share interests.
2. There are two distinct participation styles, and both are valuable
The strength of the shared interest among members determines the intensity of interactions. Members who share more common interests tend to interact more frequently than those with fewer common interests. This led to two distinct interaction styles: Frequent and infrequent interactions. Each style plays an important role in the success of a branded social community.
Frequent interactors tend to produce query responses. This means that if a brand launches an activity or starts a discussion, frequent interactors will contribute their ideas and submissions. On the other hand, infrequent interactors tend to kick off discussions around the original response. One group contributes ideas, the other provides feedback and conversation.
Though they are just 20% of total interaction pairs, frequent interactors produce approximately 80% of interactions, mirroring the famous Pareto Principle.
3. Leverage gamification and “follow” opportunities to increase participation
Branded social communities often use two different levers to incentivize participation: One is gamification, which allows members to earn badges and points for participation. Another is the ability to “follow” or be “followed” by other members.
Gamification and follows work together inspiring more engagement. When someone “follows” a member, their response rate to community activity is quicker. But the “follow” effect wears off over time. Being rewarded for participation is not initially as effective at inspiring participation, but has a longer effect than following.
Put simply, I am most likely to respond quickly when another member follows me, but over time I care less about being followed, while my desire for badges and virtual currency is sustained over a longer period. Anyone managing a branded social community should consider both levers and how they work together.
Key Takeaways for Community Managers
For community professionals looking to make informed decisions about community management, moderation and technology, here are the most valuable takeaways from Dr. Zaamout’s findings.
The research showed that community growth tactics should put less focus on encouraging members to invite their friends, and encourage members to share the community with other topic-focused groups they are a part of.
We know that moderation is an important ingredient in a branded social community. This research showed that moderators should focus on the 20% of folks who contribute the most. At the same time, infrequent contributors should not be ignored, as they play an important role in feedback and comments.
Finally, these findings showed that branded social communities should use both gamification and connection for speedy participation. Badges or points should be awarded for quick responses, and for following other members.
Maybe Dr. Zaamout’s findings confirm your existing strategies and tactics, or maybe they prompted an “aha” moment that helped you sharpen your approach to community management. Either way, we believe that the community world gets a little clearer each time thoughtful, in-depth research is done, and we are happy we could be a part of that research.