Creating a branded online community can have significant benefits for your brand.

For instance, a well-run community can improve customer engagement, by giving your customers a place to gather and get excited about your brand and products. Many companies have built popular online communities, making smart decisions that have helped them build strong, highly visible brands. In 2017, some of the best included Sephora and the Lego brand.

Online Communities can turn Customers into Brand Ambassadors

When customers really love a product or a brand, they love talking about it. Creating a community helps your customers do just that. They get a place where they can talk to one another about the brand and its products, and when customers have a place to freely share recommendations and give product advice, it typically translates into more product sold.

The beauty brand Sephora does this to great effect with its online community, Beauty Talk. The company learned soon after launching its community site that active participants spent more than twice as much on Sephora products than the average customer, and quickly became invested in developing a strong online community base.

The Sephora community now consists of a massive forum that allows users to ask and answer questions, share ideas on makeup, beauty, and body care, and talk about Sephora products. Adjacent to the forum is a gallery where community members can upload pictures of themselves wearing Sephora products. For Sephora the gallery, previously known as the Beauty Board, was a particularly inspired move. When users upload pictures they tag the products they’re wearing—and those products then feature alongside the picture, with links to purchase pages on the Sephora sales site.

In 2017, Sephora created the Beauty Insider Community, which is now one of the world’s biggest online beauty forums. This move involved reworking and combining several of its original online features to create one massive community site, which includes groups, a “secret” forum, and the user-submitted photo gallery. Another new feature allows users to get product advice from other community members in real time, to help them make purchasing decisions. This is a smart move on Sephora’s part, as it hinges on social proof and customer testimonials, which are hugely powerful purchase incentives.

Online Communities can improve Customer Engagement and Retention

Giving your customers a place online to talk about your products helps turn them into brand ambassadors, but that’s not all. It encourages people to get engaged with your brand, and it also helps improve customer retention too. One reason for this is that an online community provides another avenue for customers to get assistance from support staff.

Having an online hangout also helps to build excitement and interest simply because it gives people a place to talk about something they love. Being able to talk with like-minded people builds interest and helps people stay invested in your products.

Online Communities can reduce costs of Customer Support

An online community gives your customers a place to get help, whether its from support staff or from other brand users. And providing a way for customers to get direct access to customer support actually helps you reduce your overall support costs. This works because community moderators and managers can field questions, comments, and complaints from customers, and can generally deal with most customer interactions fairly quickly. They also have the option to escalate an interaction and send it higher up the customer support chain if necessary. Overall it means fewer call centre and support staff are needed, because community moderators can solve minor issues and take feedback much more quickly than call centre staff can.

Online Communities are a Source of Customer Feedback

One thing that the biggest and most successful brands tend to do well is encourage—and listen to—customer feedback. If you ask customers what they want they’re happy to tell you, and they’re happy to know that you care about what they want.

For brands, creating an online community is a smart move, because a community that is well-run, popular, and full of highly engaged customers is a place where direct feedback is there for the taking. Other methods of obtaining direct feedback, such as focus groups, are expensive and time-consuming, but running a weekly poll on a community site provides fast feedback and is virtually free.

There is no company that does customer feedback more effectively than the Lego brand. In fact, the company literally develops its product line according to what customers themselves design and support. In addition to its own core products, Lego offers fans and customers the chance to design their own Lego sets, which are posted on the Lego Ideas website. If an idea receives 10,000 supporters and is approved by the Lego design team, the set goes into production, and the designer receives royalties on all sales of the set. The Lego brand created Lego Ideas in 2014, but has received an increasing amount of attention in 2017 thanks to a product idea from designer Maria Weinstock, who developed an idea for a Lego set featuring women of NASA. The theme of women working in STEM fields helped the design—and Lego Ideas—garner extensive publicity, and the Women of NASA Lego set was released for sale on November 1, 2017.

Build a Stronger, More Visible Brand

Ultimately, the online community gives you a chance to build your brand’s visibility in a natural, organic way. Building a solid online community can take some time, but it’s a relatively low-cost project that can have huge benefits. For most organisations, a common goal is to build a stronger brand, with better customer relationships, and creating an online community is a great way to start achieving that goal.

Building an online community takes time and requires an investment of ideas as well as resources. If you’ve got a great example to share, please contact me! @AnnmarieHanlon on Twitter