Future-proofing your brand: Harnessing the potential of brand-owned communities in a pay-to-engage social world

Molly Clouse, Marketing Program Manager, Khoros


The evolving landscape of social media has had a significant impact on brands. Because traditionally, brands have relied on social media platforms as an affordable (if not completely free) way to connect and engage with current and potential customers.

However, as social media platforms have matured, the best benefits they provide to brands increasingly come at a cost. As a result, some brands are weighing this "pay-to-engage" model against alternative ways to foster and maintain organic reach.

And to appreciate why this is happening, we first need to understand how the relationship between social platforms and brands has evolved over the past decade.

Social networks: From free-for-all to pay-to-engage

Like many aspects of the Internet, social networks got their start primarily through organic models. Anyone, both businesses and individuals, could post content. If you liked what someone posted, the forebears of our modern social algorithms would do their best to show you more of that content.

At this first stage of social media’s evolution, the major players were primarily concerned with growing their user bases and figuring out how to transform these groups into highly engaged, brand-loyal online communities. Eventually, however, these platforms grew large enough to explore monetization strategies. And, for most, the way forward was paved with advertising.

Initially, these forms of advertising were a sideshow, existing in the borders and backgrounds of a user’s feed. This meant brands could still reasonably expect the same organic reach their posts had generated in the past. But soon, platforms became sophisticated enough to inject advertising directly into a platform’s user experience (UX). And this advancement, and how this change began to eat into the organic reach once enjoyed by brands, laid the foundation for social’s pay-to-play turning point in the mid-2010s.

With ads now normalized as part of a platform’s UX, algorithmic changes began to limit the reach of organic content. Brands were told this was for the good of the users, the goal being to prioritize content from friends and family in a given user’s feed.

But for brands, these changes decreased their ability to reach users organically. This reach could be sustained however, if a brand was willing to pay to maintain it. Many were at the time, which is why “pay-to-engage” models are now the norm in social media.

This catches up with the modern relationship between social platforms and brands, where the ability to see effective ROI on social media necessitates a need to invest in paid channels, especially for brands to access new monetized features and formats introduced by platforms like sponsored posts, shoppable posts, and the ability to target advertising at specific audiences.

Some brands have gone all-in with social platforms, feeling the benefits outweigh the costs of staying engaged with their customers through paid channels. But just because it’s the new normal doesn’t mean pay-to-engage works for every brand. This is why many are rediscovering the value of truly organic, community-fueled growth in the form of brand-owned communities.

Why brands are turning to brand-owned communities

In contrast to the third-party platforms comprising the social media landscape, there are those online communities that the brand owns, including websites, industry blogs, forums, or platforms hosted by companies like Khoros on a brand's behalf.

In addition to providing the ability for like-minded customers to gather and share opinions, information, and content, these online communities typically offer some degree of customer service by creating a self-help content portal with answers to members' questions or providing access to customer service or brand representatives who can also provide support.

Increasingly, highly engaged members of these communities also take on the role of brand advocates–effective drivers of user-generated content (UGC) — inspiring other community members to share reviews and testimonials that showcase the positive impacts products and services are having in their lives. 

Advantages of brand-owned communities

As more brands invest and engage in community building, the benefits become more apparent. Once again, brands are seeing natural boosts to customer engagement and loyalty. By cutting out the social middleman, they can better control and cater to the specific experience their customers appreciate. And the data from these interactions end up back in the hands of brands.

Better customer engagement

Content generated by a brand-owned community tends to rank highly in search results, meaning businesses can increase their organic traffic while building a database of first-party data.

Additionally, hosting community UGC allows brands to capture, curate, and amplify the best discussions to help encourage more customer engagement and purchasing. This UGC can also pull double duty, as peer-to-peer content shared through communities can help increase average spend per customer.

A more rewarding customer experience

Control of a communal environment and a dedicated spot to provide ongoing support naturally lead to a self-serve repository of information and FAQs dedicated to your brand, which can help reduce operating costs.

By making it easier to stay connected to customers after their initial purchase, brand-owned communities can also improve post-sales experience, which is critical to maximizing lifetime value. Moreover, consumers increasingly seek and trust peer validation to inform their purchase decisions over traditional static content (e.g., websites, blogs).

Brand communities address both of these challenges by delivering a unified post-sales environment for customers to solve issues while forming peer-to-peer connections and providing valuable feedback.

In this way, communities enable businesses to create a self-driving support system that facilitates an active post-sales relationship — strengthening trust, loyalty, and retention with the brand and, ultimately, increasing customer lifetime value (CLV).

Data ownership and insights

Finally, brands that diversify their methods of maintaining organic reach gain access to more data and insights as their customers engage with each other and brand representatives regarding products, services, competitors, news, updates, and more.

The increased ability to harvest this wealth of knowledge related to customer behaviors, needs, and preferences can lead to significant competitive advantages and even propel further product development and innovation.

Best practices for building a brand-owned community

As we cover in-depth in another article, best practices for building any brand-owned community more or less involve the same seven steps:

  1. Identifying your audience

  2. Defining your purpose

  3. Setting performance-based goals

  4. Clarifying how you'll organize

  5. Choosing the right platform

  6. Creating good guidelines

  7. Establishing content and engagement plans

Strategies for driving traffic to a brand-owned community

First, by focusing on the play (and forgoing the pay), gamification can be a productive way to motivate ongoing content contributions. The more user-generated content a community produces, the more organic traffic it attracts, leading to more informed product discovery.

Second, leveraging content syndication can extend the reach and impact and impact of community content. By extension, this syndication can fuel organic growth, increasing search performance and attracting new customers.

Lastly, the consistent use of analytics and moderation helps brands identify their most engaged customers, which, in turn, creates the opportunity to empower a select few as brand advocates while also providing valuable insight into what’s working (and what isn’t) with products and services, additionally fueling holistic brand growth.

Real communities, real results: PowerSchool

Again, this isn't speculation or wishful thinking. Many successful brands have already pivoted from paying to play in social, having built and leveraged their brand-owned communities. By examining their strategies, challenges, and results, we can gain valuable insights into what makes a brand-owned community thrive.

An instructive example: In 2021, PowerSchool won our Best in Class: Community Award. Their goal had been to foster a community that would enable members to create connections across all facets of the educational ecosystem. Teachers, administrators, and students now use the PowerSchool community to post original content, answer common questions, and create discussion threads about critical topics in their social and professional circles.

This thriving ecosystem also drove stunning results in 2021 for the PowerSchool brand, including:

  • Over 70,000 net new community members

  • Over 50% YoY growth in member logins

  • 40% YoY growth in posts

  • 2.4 million unique visitors (14% YoY growth)

  • 12.2 million page views (14% YoY growth)

  • 88,000 solution views (47% YoY growth)

Of course, this educational oasis didn't explode on its own. Both hard work and partnership with Khoros enabled these incredible results. And PowerSchool's use of user-generated content (UGC) is now one of the most essential pillars of their community implementation.

Moreover, organic search is currently the primary means for new users to discover the PowerSchool community through a potent combination of brand content and UGC. These results demonstrate the impact brand-owned communities can have on search engines and the members themselves.

Brand-owned communities: Looking ahead

Brand-owned communities are poised to play an increasingly vital role in the evolving social media landscape. As pay-to-play models become the norm in social media marketing, brands that take the strategic initiative to invest in building their own communities may end up with the best of both worlds.

By taking the initiative now to regain control of their communication channels, deepen customer relationships, and gather valuable insights, these brands can ensure these competitive advantages will endure in the long run.

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