Guest Post by: Mark Jennings

Brands are learning and applying a more focused and disciplined approaches to their social assets, the November 2010 ComBlu report finds.

The “State of online branded communities” report evaluated 241 communities from 78 enterprise level companies in the US and shows that the percentage of brands exhibiting a ‘cohesive strategy’ increased from 20% to 33%.

Top scoring brands such as American Express, EA, Discovery Channel, HP, Sears, Verizon, Activision, Kimberly-Clark, AT&T and Sony delivered online communities with three primary purposes: Feedback, Advocacy and Support and were measured against their member engagement.

The report highlighted that the “design of community marketing programs must deliberately follow a best practices road map and generate business intelligence that provides a diagnostic for maximizing impact and return on investment (ROI)”. Community Management was highlighted as core to this yet nearly half of the communities still have no active online community manager visible as the “face of the brand.

An Online Community Manager is key to stimulating and growing the community’s audience (as FreshNetworks have seen in the success of the RS Components DesignSpark community, and Jimmy Choo Facebook page). Community Managers also actively engage brand advocates, which the report highlights are being ignored, with only 20% of the scored communities have a visible advocate or expert group: a huge missed opportunity for their brands.”

That said, brands are doing a much better job delivering diverse experiences by providing members with multiple ways to participate. The report found that the use of aligned engagement tools nearly tripled, growing from 28% to 76% and activity levels in online communities are also significantly higher. This hub-and-spoke model of social media engagement is a something we feel strongly about – that people operate in different modes in different social spaces.

Brands that focus their communities on support tend to be among the highest scoring; these communities are the most mature and have evolved consistently over time. The lowest scoring communities provide no real path to engagement. They tend to allow some interaction with content, but provide few ways to connect with peers, build on the thoughts or ideas of others, or provide any feedback.

Best practice was defined as a clear Welcome message, Connection to offline engagement, Advocate programs, and Community managers. The five most improved brands—Verizon, Hewlett-Packard, JPMorgan Chase, American Express and Microsoft — have all adopted practices that allow for a customized experience, facilitate interaction with both the brand and community peers, and provide recognition for contributions and efforts.

One of the more relevant findings was that there is now a much greater integration between a brand’s sponsored community site and its other social assets such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, with 61% of brands offering content sharing functionality.

Some specific market highlights:

Banking and financial

JPMorgan Chase went from an unpopulated community with little to no member activity to very active (more than 2 million fans) by using a tight focus, such as using the community to determine where to “invest” its charitable donations. The communities that do well tend to focus on a very specific segment, such as small businesses or support CSR initiatives.


Activity levels dropped across the sector, with 78% of the communities exhibiting low engagement levels. The decrease in both content aggregation and content tagging along with low level of social bookmarking functionality was suggested as the reason for this – impeding the seamless social shopping experience.

One of the emerging best practices for this industry is the aggregation of product reviews, research info and peer-to-peer conversations at the point of sale to help customers make purchase decisions.

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