Engaging Online Communities with Your Brand

Companies can increase the likelihood of achieving success with their marketing programs by more deeply engaging specific groups within their target market. It’s no secret that the most effective marketing strategies typically have a well-defined target. However, the proliferation of online groups over the past decade has created significant opportunities for companies to become more focused with their brand communication efforts.

In his book “Here Comes Everybody”, Clay Shirky details how the web has brought down barriers to group formation. Costs and geography, amongst other factors, have reduced risk and provided opportunities for people with extremely specific and unique interests to connect.

Consider the website Meetup.com, an online social networking portal that facilitates group meetings in various locations around the world. Founded in 2001 by Scott Heiferman, Meetup had 66,725 groups as of September 2009. Many of these groups are very focused in nature – for example, there are over 200 Pug Meetup groups. On a local level, what a great opportunity for a pet food store to become involved, perhaps organizing dog walking events so that pug owners can meet and connect.

Beyond Meetup, many companies are now creating their own brand communities online. Urban Reserve is an online and offline community for wine enthusiasts, sponsored by RJ Spagnols and Vincor (disclaimer: I am a Community Manager for Urban Reserve in Vancouver). Urban Reserve enables people to share their love of wine – with the enticement of belonging to a fun and unique community. People have the opportunity to connect online, and offline through wine tasting events.

There are many groups of people out there who might have an interest in your brand. What are you doing to connect with them?

A Difficult Decision

I made a tough decision over the weekend.  I pulled the plug on Sip Social Group, a social club which I co-founded with my friend in May 2007.

Actually, my mind was already made up a few weeks ago, but I wanted to take some time and ponder whether it was really something I wanted to do.

And it is.  When I took over as organizer for the dining out group on Meetup.com, I really felt that there was a need in Vancouver for an open, inclusive and fun social group geared towards young professionals. I also wanted to explore Vancouver’s food and restaurant scene, and help promote establishments that truly stand out as being unique and first class.

Initially, we had aspirations of transforming Sip into a business, and we discussed ways that it could be monetized. Membership structures and advertising packages were conceived, with the hope of creating a unique brand that would be synonymous with fun and friendliness – one that could be extended and franchised to other cities.

In total, we held over 30 events at restaurants and pubs in Vancouver, including Irashai Grill, Salt Tasting Room. and Central Bistro.  We made a number of great friends at our events, which were well attended and generated positive word-of-mouth – as you know, the most powerful form of marketing. In the end, through Meetup, and group on Facebook, and our mailing list, Sip grew to over 1200 participants – making it one of the largest social groups in Vancouver.

However the reality is, Sip was not poised to generate revenue, not even a minimal amount to justify a part-time venture. In spite of the quality of events we created, and the reputation we garnered, there are just too many free social group alternatives in and around Vancouver. They may not be well-known, in fact part of our goal with Sip was to grow awareness outside of Facebook and Meetup, but their presence made it very difficult for us to even charge a nominal fee for our events.

In the end, with many lessons learned (more than what I can summarize here), the time has come to focus attention elsewhere.  In the success literature I have read, over and over again I learned about instances where entrepreneurs failed once, twice, three times and even more before achieving success.

I think Sip taught me a lot. And for that, I am grateful.