Breakdown: A Strategy for Engaging Passion Communities

Network MapLeft: A social network mapped out, this one is of influential photographer Kris Krug’s social graph.

These breakdown posts often contain content that didn’t fit into research reports, and contain input from industry experts or deeper client engagements, see other ‘breakdown‘ posts.

Unsure how to deal with the most passionate communities your market has to offer?  One of Altimeter’s large brand clients was struggling with this same question, a brand cannot simply waltz in without fully realizing the commitment being made and impact to brand relations.  Our client specifically wanted to know from myself and colleague Sr Researcher Christine Tran on the “best way to enter and exit a passion community”.  I interviewed Jenna Woodul from LiveWorld (software and services), Robb Meier from InternetBrands (they host/manage lifestyle communities and Stefania Pomponi B. from Clever Girls (manage a network of influencers) to get their take on this specific task.

A Passion Community Defined:  Is one that contains highly focused brand and lifestyle advocates often on a third-party (one which you have no control over) website that the brand does not manage. This is a high-intensity group, containing members that pose opportunities to engage with influencers, but also risks of brands being unable to manage in a scalable manner.  The most engaged members of these communities, we will refer to as Passionistas.

Passion Community Scenarios

Scenario Actions Impacts
Don’t Engage Passion Community Do nothing.  For some brands they choose not to engage these communities, but most often they are monitoring.  I know of one airline who was observing Flyertalk, but involved in the other, in order to find out how customers were “gaming” the system. While not engaging can mean less resource commitment, it does not mean less risk. By not engaging, brands may not have a foothold for product launches or dealing with crises that may arise.
Dive Head First Many a companies, and their agency partners, may dive headfirst into passion communities without first bothering to plan.  In most cases, companies have already deployed some resources or have an adhoc community manager involved. Rapid deployment, often without having to deal with legal or corp comm checking off every step, but the downside may be much greater as companies are unable to scale, deploy resources, or answer all the questions.
Approach with a Strategy Companies that step back, analyze the situation, the develop key relationships are examples of these scenarios.  This can include either a long term or short term engagement. While the chances or doing it right increase, the opportunity to do it fast, or even beat competitors to reach these groups.

Risks to Engaging a Passion Community
What are the risks of jumping into a passion community without a strategy?  We have identified at least four key risks:  1) May setup unrealistic expectations with passion customers who may now expect your commitment, 2) Disrupt your existing customer relations business processes for sales, support, or communications. 3) Trigger discussions around your product or company that you’re not prepared to discuss, 4) May disrupt the business model of the hosts of the third party site, who may be monetizing the support or service of your product line.

Case Example:  Top Tech Company Jump Head First –Then Backs Out
A few years ago, a top tech brand shared with me they involved their highly coveted engineers in a discussion at Digg (pre-Reddit era), only to be surprised and slightly overwhelmed by the amount of questions and discussions that no human nor one brand can respond to.  The tech community reacted so positively to see this blue chip involved that it created such a large set of questions that this brand had to reset expectations, and ensure there were enough resources to provide the right experience.

Key Principals of Passion Community Engagement

  1. Passion communities may outlast your brand. Often, communities have existed before your brand, and may also exist if your brand ceased to exist.  Robb Meier of InternetBrands shared that; “I think the biggest point you make, is that passion communities existed before the brand knew of them, and will very likely continue on, even if the brand doesn’t. Prime examples are the thousands of Vehicle model specific communities, based on cars no longer in production. Brands should recognize that passion communities have their own power source. Don’t attempt to become that source, instead, figure out a way to complement the existing energy grid”.  Remember, these communities can self-sustain –even without the brand.
  2. Passionistas may be a small group that don’t reflect your larger customer base.  It’s key to remember that these passion members may not reflect the greater market, and brands should understand their place in the ecosystem.  Robb shares that; “One other side point, is that in a typical passion community, the vast majority of the discussion comes from a small percentage of the participants, usually less than 10%. If a brand can engage community members from that group, they can potentially realize far more benefit, than by trying to engage the community as a whole.”
  3. You’re a guest in their house –even if the community is about your brand.  These communities often are self-maintaining without brands around, Jenna Woodul from LiveWorld shares that; “Pasionistas have a very proprietary feeling about their community; it’s their space. Until you’ve been around long enough that you really become a accepted member, comport yourself as a guest. If you don’t plan to stay and become a member, consider arranging with the moderator to go in on a promoted forum event basis.”
  4. Expectations on brand involvement may have already been set by them. Passionistas may already expect brand to participate, and may be upset if you haven’t already.  Once you enter a community as a brand representative, the community may expect you to stay and participate.  Robb shares a couple of points; “Passionista’s may be upset when the brand comes to discuss, especially if the brand rep can’t provide an in-depth enough amount of information.”
  5. Third party business models may create a unique dynamic. Third party web hosts (forums, communities, user groups) may have a business model around the community that may stem from ads, education, cross-selling services, sponsorships, or lead generation activities.  They make work with your competitors, or offer their own complimentary product or service.

Three Stages for Engaging Passion Communities
Stage 1: Preparing: with the Ears and Eyes
  1. First, deploy a listening station.  Don’t jump in without first knowing your community, take the advice from Jenna at LiveWorld that: “Assuming the forum is publicly accessible, have an internal team or outsourced agency listen and report on both issues and culture before you go in to a Pasionista community. What are forum members saying about your brand already, and what is the prevailing sentiment behind it? Listen for the community culture — how people interact, the tone they use with one another, how they treat new people, the role of the forum moderator, the leaders/influencers.
  2. Conduct analysis of topics and cultural nuances.  Listening alone is not sufficient, companies must make it actionable by analyzing the tone, frequency, and who the key leaders are. Robb from InternetBrands writes: “The nature of text based communication is such, that careful attention must be paid, as each community has grown around different conventions. Words may carry entirely different meanings between two similar, but separate communities. Making a communications gaffe in text, can have consequences that are far reaching.”
  3. Identify the Influencers, specific tactics may be required. Find out who’s really running the show, Jenna suggests: “During the listening prep phase, identify the squeakiest wheels and, if possible, plan how you might give them some ownership in your brand-relevant message (e.g., providing them with materials and/or answers). That helps to affect the tone they communicate to others”
  4. Then make the decision to engage –but have clear goals up.  Brands must have clearly defined goals in place, priorities and success metrics, and the proper resources setup with commitment from the orginzation on how and who will interact.  Be able to articular these goals both internally, as well as externally, in the next phase.  As discussed above, a decision may be made to not engage, and that may be a sensible decision rather than brand risk.

Stage 2: Build Rapport with Community Leaders

  1. Build a relationship with community owners or moderators.  Recall the prior principals, some website owners may be threatened by the presence of a brand as it can offset community management, or even revenue capabilities. Jenna from LiveWorld suggests that brands should:  “Create a relationship with the moderator or owner of the page. Explain what you are planning to do and get their input”.  I’ve observed situations where community owners discourage links to other competitor communities –even those owned by the brand –as it disrupts traffic and monetization options.
  2. Be accessible to community leaders and influencers..  Offer a direct line of access to the key influencers or website owners, they’ll appreciate the special access, and your willingness to do business on their terms.  Jenna from LiveWorld suggests you make yourself very accessible to the community managers; “Make sure that the moderators have your direct contact information so that if they get complaints when you go in, they’ll need to engage you when it happens. If they can’t get you, you lose the chance to give your side of a story or offer a possible solution.”
  3. Engage the community –but with clear goals outlined. Once you’ve built a set of agreements with the website owner, be prepared to enter the community, but be clear on goals.  In some cases request that the website owner introduce you to the community or even key influencers in private before meeting the masses.  When entering, beyond the civil pleasantries, be clear on your role, will you listen? respond? support customers?  Will you source ideas?  If you’re not going to support products or answer questions be clear on where you plan to do it.  Lastly, be clear on what topics are off-limits, and the best way is to indicate where you want to focus the discussion –not list a bunch of limits.
Stage 3: Engaging when you’re a Guest –Mind your Manners
  1. Deploy best practices as you engage with community. Now that you’re engaging with the community, a few tactics we learned: Go in as a person –not a logo.  Logo’s don’t have mouths (unless you’re selling orthodontics and that’s still weird). Consider creating a dedicated thread to consolidate conversations on one topic that can be answered there, esp around support, so if you need to be focused on lifestyle and marketing discussions, areas of focus can be maintained.  Jenna from LiveWorld suggests brands should have a measured approach: “Begin your engagement with responses, versus starting topics. Once you get past the listen and learn part, start commenting and adding value to the discussions happening in the community — not as an authority; just as a participant. By responding to other people’s topics, you are engaged in what they value vs the topics you select. Once you are an active part of a community, then begin to start discussions.”
  2. To scale, work with outsourced agencies –but only if your brand can digest this.  The concept of outsourcing community outreach to PR, or specialized groups is an often debated ones.  The upside is scale and community expertise, but the downside is lack of control, and potential inability to discuss deeper topics that only brand management teams may know.  Savvy companies know that not all services should be outsourced and will apply the right mix, see this matrix on community management outsourcing to learn more.
  3. Exist as graciously as you entered.  For some brands, entering a community is a short term engagement, depending on company goals, community needs, and resource allocation.  It’s key that brands exit as gracefully as they entered by: being clear with community owners that their time will taper off,  then letting community members know where the brand can be found.

Related Resources

Pragmatic Recommendations: Key First Steps
We’ve found that to be successful, companies need the following two pieces in place before moving forward:
  1. Prepare your orginization for the politics ahead of time.  Companies that are very bureaucratic will struggle to quick questions posed by passionistas.  Companies must deploy education, and risk mitigation plans, in advance, in order to prepare the company for the real time discussion that will occur.  Make it clear on what your company will talk about –and not talk about.   Stefania Pomponi Butler from Clever Girls expressed that:  “only to take days and weeks to reply to direct questions with awkward, formal corporate statements that need to be run through 27 levels of approvals. At that point, it’s probably better for the brand to be completely uninvolved.” I agree.
  2. Obtain resources to engage at levels the community will require.   This isn’t a press release, these are real world relationships that just happen to be on online channels, and you must treat them as such.  Stefania from Clever Girls reminds companies must be prepared: “Not only in terms of budget & time allocated to involvement, but in terms of really thinking through staffing. Meaning, “Who is going to be the brand rep. and how much authority will s/he have to respond and engage in a useful way?”.  I agree with Stephania, that not only do dedicated resources need to be in place, but working with outside providers and agencies can help leverage off hours and campaigns that require intense engagement over a short time.
  3. There are some passion communities that you should not engage in at all –just avoid.  If a community doesn’t want you there, it may be best to avoid completely, or deal with friendly individuals on other channels.  Jenna from LiveWorld reminded that anti-brand communities or even competitor communities should just have an ‘ears-only’ strategy of listening –no engaging.  This stance of listening in, and knowing key times to go in to correct ill-facts, or respond to specific questions may be appropriate, but caution is required.

In closing, this is a brief breakdown of engaging with passion communities, but kindly leave a comment if you’ve further resources, recommendations, or expereiences.