Every founder is often tempted to imagine their customer base as a community – a loyal group of supporters passionate about their mission and excited to be part of their journey. However, most of the time, it’s far from reality.

A standard customer base usually consists of unrelated individuals interacting with a brand in a purely transactional manner. If another brand offers a better, cheaper, or more convenient product or service, most will transition to it without a second thought.

That’s why nurturing a community is vital to the brand-building procedure – and founders should consider it as early as possible when planning to scale up.

We were fortunate enough to chat with Clare Sutcliffe MBE, a community strategy consultant passionate about utilising the power of community for benefit and revenue. She believes that community building entails making customers feel linked to the brand – and to each other – via common values, mission, or passion. Once customers are emotionally engaged with a brand, they will stay with them for longer, becoming proud brand supporters, eager sources of feedback, and possibly even a support avenue for other customers.

The primary distinction between a customer base and a community lies in community members being connected to the brand and each other. Consequently, not every brand can effortlessly transform customers into a community. For instance, a toothpaste manufacturer might be more successful by focusing on being the most affordable or well-regarded product in their category, instead of trying to create a passionate group of toothpaste enthusiasts.

However, building a community from the beginning should be a top priority for any brand carrying emotional resonance. Here are the five essential stages to navigate while fostering an active and engaged community.

Phase 1: Laying the groundwork

Creating a community is fruitless if an organisation hasn’t established an excellent customer experience. Sutcliffe points out that every interaction with the brand shapes customer perceptions – from the first exposure to consideration, purchase, and beyond. If customer experience isn’t designed to meet expectations across this journey, transforming customers into fans and fans into a community will be difficult.

Phase 2: Clarifying your community’s objectives

The advantages of customer loyalty stemming from a sense of community belonging are evident. However, community-building offers much more than this, and companies need to understand how the community can serve their business, such as providing valuable feedback and insights as the brand refines its products or introduces new services saves time and money on research. It also prevents potential missteps.

Similarly, communities can enhance customer support and alleviate the pressure on the in-house team by sharing experiences, offering tips and advice, and promoting faster issue resolution. Sutcliffe elaborates that this approach is ineffective for routine enquiries – the community will quickly grow bored answering repetitive questions. However, it’s a highly effective method for addressing unique situations.

To achieve objectives, conducting comprehensive customer research is imperative to understand what customers might expect from joining a specific community. Identifying the common ground between a company’s aspirations for its community and what the community seeks from a brand makes it possible to identify areas where the most significant impact will occur.

Phase 3: The Setup

Organisations need a shared mission or purpose to launch the community. Therefore, they should start by crafting a mission statement for the brand that resonates with customers and outlines their values. Once established, they need to be transparent about it – tucking it away in a hidden corner of their website is not an option.

Next, creating an environment for open discussion and conversation is essential, either through social media, a forum, or a specific platform. Organisations can invite others’ opinions, feedback, and ideas, and encourage customers to express their thoughts and feelings. However, it’s vital to acknowledge feedback – the more they do that, the more customers will feel inspired to participate in discussions, fostering trust and creating deeper connections.

Lastly, while it’s ideal for every customer to praise the brand consistently, only a few customers will ever be genuine superfans. Identifying who they are through sales or historical data, social media posts, or ongoing discussions will be pretty straightforward. Incorporating these superfans into the inner circle is the next step, as they will be eager to take on a central role within the community. They will be prepared to have more asked of them and will expect preferential treatment as a reward.

Phase 4: Providing Value

Setting up a community and expecting it to thrive independently is not enough. Instead, companies should create moments and milestones that encourage community members to continuously engage with the brand and each other. Producing unique content is key for everyday community building, whether sharing valuable tips, behind-the-scenes looks at the brand, or stories that captivate the audience.

However, content alone cannot unleash the community’s full potential. Instead, events and meetups can bring customers together, online or in person, depending on preferences and locations. As a brand, it’s imperative to determine what connects people and devise the right incentives to encourage participation. A little creativity can make a significant impact.

Phase 5: Reward, Empower, and Celebrate

Rewarding customer loyalty is crucial, and acknowledging the valuable contributions of loyal community members is equally important. Therefore, organisations should recognise and reward their most engaged members with exclusive discounts, early product access, or other perks to express gratitude.

In addition, companies can empower their communities by equipping them with the necessary tools and resources. Sutcliffe explains that this will vary significantly from brand to brand. For example, a B2B services provider could give community members access to industry insights, networking opportunities, or mentorship programs. For a B2C lifestyle brand, it could be about offering access to relevant festivals or masterclasses.

Finally, brands can go one step further by celebrating their community’s achievements and milestones, highlighting individual achievements, hosting shared events, and honouring top-performing members.

A Long-Term Process with Rewards

Building a community isn’t an immediate process – it requires time, patience, and expertise. Even with dedicated resources, it may take at least six months before the community starts generating tangible value. Rushing the project may lead to missed connections or pushback, as it won’t feel like a genuine endeavour.

Community-building also demands ongoing improvement, learning from feedback, experimenting with new initiatives, refining existing programs, or investing in novel technology. It’s crucial to trust the community and listen to their valuable ideas, but equally, it’s important to collect feedback from multiple sources, not just the most vocal advocates.

Since community building necessitates investment, companies should establish clear measurement systems and metrics to gauge the success of their efforts and enhance their strategy based on the results. Sutcliffe advises that there’s a risk in being overly rigid about what the community should look like from the beginning. It is, therefore, essential to focus on the business objectives and develop community goals related to these while maintaining flexibility.

By treating community building as a cooperative, iterative process, companies will quickly discover practical strategies and valuable areas of focus, simplifying the measurement of their efforts as the community expands.

CEO and Founder at KOOS | Website | + posts

Taavi Kotka is the CEO and co-founder of Koos.io, a company building a new form of ownership to serve organisations who are committed to giving a true stake to their contributors.

Taavi is a serial entrepreneur and the first CIO for the Government of Estonia. Awarded the European CIO of the Year in 2014, Taavi pioneered e-Estonia, the world’s most advanced digital nation, and co-founded the world’s first e-Residency programme.

Named as one of The Brightest Business Minds in Northern Europe 2016, Taavi is an angel investor in Wise and a special advisor to European Commission vice-president Andrus Ansip on European Digital Single Market.