Lessons Learned: Branding and Online Communities

Back in 2000 I was the leading an interesting experiment at one of the world’s largest software companies. The idea was simply this: if we build “communities of interest” around a specific topic (e.g. “database management,” or “innovation,” or “quality of experience”) we’ll be able to attract a significant number of our “target” audience and convert them to paying customers over time.
In a year and a half, we built seven distinct communities each supported by an ecosystem of vendors and partners. For four years we tried to make these communities work, and we did, with various levels of success. Along the way we learned several key lessons and I mention them here because while they seem basic, few companies ever seem to get them right:
Communities build Brand Equity
Unaided brand recognition for our company went from 12% to 84% within two years. Our “agency” did the survey and couldn’t believe the findings. Like most agencies, this one was focused on producing “creative” work rather than figuring out how to be useful to the consumer. Of all the sites we built, this was the only one which received “full funding” and was strongly supported ($) by the sponsoring business unit. It became a major hub in the ecosystem we were competing in, and we literally had about 50% of the “target audience” “opted-in” to our email newsletter. Furthermore, in terms of online referrals, this community accounted for as much as 40% (yes, forty percent) of referrals to the online store.
Communities are Self Segmenting
We learned we didn’t have to target or segment anyone. The content did the work for us. Because each community was “vertical” and concentrated on a specific subject, the only visitors we got were people interested in the topics we wrote about. In fact, the some of our more successful sites became the hub in the marketspace we were targeting.
Stop Selling, Start Learning
We didn’t push products on the sites. In fact, we tried hard not to sell. Instead, we focused on educational content from the world’s leading experts. The result, we had “stickiness” numbers even I couldn’t believe. On our best site, the average user spent over an hour per visit. And this number held up every month, for three years in a row. While we tried our best to teach, we also spent a considerable amount of time learning. I’d spend afternoons poring over site statistics – trying to figure out what was going on.
The 90/10 Rule applies
As we studied visitor behavior, we looked at content and author popularity, the clickthroughs and conversion rates, and resilience – which articles or discussions stood the test of time. Surprisingly, we noted that 5% of our authors drove 95% of our traffic. And 5% of our readers drove 95% of our sales. This was the pareto-principle on steroids (Richard Koch was right)!
Communities Drive Demand Generation
10X better than traditional online techniques like SEO and PPC. Our cost per lead was so low, our EVP of Sales couldn’t believe it. He became one of our biggest supporters.
Corporate Marketing is the Enemy
Don’t ever sell “communities” to a marketing department that thinks in terms of quarters and campaigns. As our communities took off, we experienced all sorts of difficulties, not from the outside, but rather from the corporate marketing staff. My boss believed that companies must drive traffic to their branded company URL, and not to a myriad of niche sites with funky names like linuxvalue.com (the site no longer exists, but it did work). Luckily my boss got zapped before I did, and I was able to keep the experiment going over four years and three different corporate marketing regimes. To this day, they don’t get it.
Forget the Wisdom of the Crowd, Focus on Thought Leadership
Communities are not necessarily social networks. We learned early on to allow the leading experts in the field to write about their pet peeves and passions. Sometimes they would come to “virtual blows” – one expert against the other – each presenting their views with wit and learning (and the occasional threat).
Manage the Ecosystem
After a year of slogging, we suddenly noticed that we didn’t have to worry about keywords or search engines ever again. We had become Google favorites. Almost anything we wrote about on any of the sites rose to #1 in Google and stayed there for years. Why? Because we had built a strong enough ecosystem- not a business ecosystem, mind you, but a consumer ecosystem. Our readers loved us. The experts loved us. Google loved us. What a game! All we had to do was focus on quality content. Our ecosystem became impenetrable. We had built a firewall against all competition. One example is particularly striking. Even after we stopped updating the site in question, we remained at #1 in Google for a highly competitive key phrase – not for a month or two, but for straight three years, after we had stopped touching the site at all!
There were a few more lessons we learned as well, but I think I’ve done enough jabbering for today. The end game for me was Double Loop Marketing™ and Ecosystem Intelligence™ – both direct offshoots of my time spent figuring out how to make communities succeed.

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