Can a community be successful with low brand awareness?

Ok, here is something I’m wrestling with: Can a community be successful with low brand awareness?

If you are a big tech brand like Dell or Microsoft, you have no problem launching a community. In fact, many of these organizations have several communities.

But what if you are a small SaaS vendor? Forget costs for one moment, and resources for another (chuckling) – can you attract enough community members to make it go?

Think about the last great party you went to (technically I have never been to a party – but if I had…) where there were a ton of interesting people, lots of great conversations, etc. Now contrast that with the opposite – the party where only 10 people showed up and there were too few conversations happening in too large room. Can you really blame the partygoers if they feel weird and don’t come to the next party?

So here is my question for you: Are community plays the domain of large brands only? Or can a small brand have a thriving community, too? What’s your view?

22 comments to Can a community be successful with low brand awareness?

  • Ramon Ray

    I think it really depends on the fervency of the potential community. I was in Phoenix recently at an Infusionsoft conference for their users (CRM product) and this “community” of people were fired up and excited about Infusionsoft’s software.

    I also think of the startupnation.com community – another very vibrant community who follow and love the sloan brothers.

    Ramon Ray, Editor & Technology Evangelist, Smallbiztechnology.com

  • Csalomonlee

    I agree with Ramon. Any company can create a fervent community. The key is how active one’s members are in evangelizing your company, product or service. The mistake that I think marketers fall into is that they don’t want to start building the community unless the community becomes huge or well-known.

    The goal should be creating an environment that allows your community – both internal and external – to participate and be heard.

  • Britton Manasco

    My thinking is that online is generally not the place for small communities (for all the reasons mentioned by Paul). You are lost in cyberspace. It ends up being a distraction of time and effort for everyone involved. There is no there there. Better to get together at conferences, over drinks or in thought-provoking “salons.”

  • Buzzoodle Ron

    I think it depends on the goals. I just launched a community that will close (for a while) after we have 20 paying members – because I really work with those 20 before we let more people in.

    I do not expect it to be full of buzzing comments, but I do think it will be full of value and clutter free.

    I’ll let you know how it goes – you can read about it at http://virtualbuzzassistant.com

  • Pat McClellan

    I think the key element isn’t the brand, but the passion. If you have a critical mass of people who are passionate, it makes little difference if that passion is recognized outside the community. The question is, how many is a critical mass, and the answer is likely tied to your goals for the community.

    Pat McClellan
    SVP, Global Tech Practice
    Jack Morton Worldwide

  • Paul Dunay

    Great discussion Ramon and CeCe

    I think inherent what you are pointing out is – start with a passionate group (perhaps an offline group) that can be ported online and made into a community

  • Paul Dunay

    Ron

    I like your example of a small sized community that you are growing. 20 seems manageable to start but eventually I would imagine you need it to grow larger to be more “self sustaining” – what I dont know from your example is how strong is the brand and is that the attraction or is the community the attraction?

  • Paul Dunay

    Pat

    Great point – I would take a passionate group of individuals any day over a much bigger group of less passionate players

  • Sensible Marketing

    Yes, of course!

    Small companies and even startups in niche industries can benefit from building an online community and I think they should be key components in your marketing plan.

    A successful community enables companies to reach out beyond traditional corporate boundaries and budgets! It allows customers to blog about their ideas, discuss what they care about and ask important questions.

    My advice for other tech markets considering an online community?Make damn sure it makes sharing fun and easy for the users otherwise it will just collect dust.

  • Paul Dunay

    Sensible

    well that sounds … Sensible

    What you describe for small companies almost sounds more like a really hopping blog rather than community

    is it fair to say that?

  • Bruce Pharr

    I helped a small niche technology client build a community. Here are some of the details:

    1. I developed a “How To” guide with descriptions, diagrams and a glossary that was offered on an opt-in basis through targeted trade media, direct mail, and PR to get the community started. The headline of the mailer was, “Hard Facts About…, Without A Hard Sale,” and there was NO product sales pitch.

    2. A dedicated client employee provided customer-focused “How To” information, answered questions, and monitored exchanges. Product information was only provided if it was specifically requested, and new product information announcements were short and usually included at the end of a relevant “How To” message with a link for more information.

    3. The company conducted annual independent brand research to measure awareness and ensure that it’s reputation as an, “Industry Expert,” was being received and believed.

    4. Over a 3 year period, the company’s brand awareness with its target audience increased from 1% to 47%, as a result of traditional and new media marketing. While high awareness with the general public is not necessary, I think it is essential with your target audience in order to maximize community involvement and growth.

    This was a very rare client (a small family-owned private company) that was willing to invest time and money in understanding customer needs and in providing useful information, rather than pound away with product hype. The company experienced a 45% CAGR over 4 years and executed a successful acquisition exit that left each family member a multi-millionaire.

    Bruce Pharr, Nuvere Technology Marketing & Communications
    http://marketingmuses.typepad.com

  • Dan N

    Great Discussion! Brand awareness at the beginning is not always the key, it certainly helps at launch for the building a community. If you have interesting enough topics to start with, a group of engagers (those that you have a realtionship with and are influencers already) and a way to measure where the conversation is going, you will be successful. Measuring where engagement is taking place is key to success. This makes sure you promote those areas with the highest level of engagement rather than the highest level of page views of posts.

    Most communities are being built with a campaign mentality (short term) we need to think about them as a long term relationship at least if customer to customer engagement is the goal. By letting the community go in a direction determined by the members they will have ownership and ultimately will feel some sort of affinity– perhaps it is the new brand affinity measurement– How engaged is your audience?

  • Tamar Belkin

    We’re currently struggling with this exact question. We’re a small startup that’s planning to allocate some of our scarce resources into creating a community around our existing blog for our niche market (most of them potential customers).

    We hope boost brand awareness, help establish ourselves as the thought leader/authority in our market and, of course, better understand the needs and requirements of the market.

    We’re planning a low key promotion when we launch (again, budget issues…) mainly through direct mail, PR and online media outlets that cater to our market.

    Can we make it work, create excitement around the idea and attract enough people to join? I certainly hope so. It’ll be interesting to see our results at the end of the year.

    One aspect that hasn’t been brought up is the target audience – age, location, tech expertise, etc. Obviously, building the community will be much easier if the people you’re hoping to attract to your site are younger and more tech-oriented.

  • Sensible Marketing Blogger

    Paul,
    No, I am talking about not only a blog..but topic/product-based forums, RSS user feeds, real-time presence based “whos online” Instant Messaging (IM), file sharing, user feedback/ratings, user uploaded content/files and more.

    One such open-source solution that is perfect for small business (and large) is a web application framework called DotNetNuke (http://www.dotnetnuke.com). I have deployed and used DotNetNuke in a 10-person startup and even in a large, public company website. If you are running ASP.NET, I highly suggest you check this out.

    A commercial application that I have tested and heard quite a bit about lately is ClearSpace. From a few conversations with their sales team, I gather they are very affordable and within the budget of most companies who are just starting out or are “fiscally constrained.” Clearspace is a product of Jive Software. http://www.jivesoftware.com

    So, my answer is yes..any company who has little or no brand recogntion and even a small budget, can benefit from a community. To stay competitive and build your brand in today’s Web 2.0 world, you need more than an online product brochure..you need a dynamic and engaging web portal that people remember.

  • jhon

    i think it,s a great post.

  • Paul Dunay

    Sensible

    I think you get the award for the most practical (and Sensible) advice on this post for a firm with low brand awareness contemplating community (as we all should be)

    thank you for your contribution and I know I will be looking into your recommendations

  • Rodolphe

    My company is also thinking about creating an online community and I fully agree that one should set for long-term goals…
    If brand awreness is too low to sustain the expansion of a community, I would probably use a small group of customers to sponsor the community. They should be:
    -passionate about your products/services
    -looking themselves for visibility and recognition
    -working for a well-known company that is recognized for technology leadership
    These people can be the attraction factor for your community early stages…

  • Nate Nash

    Paul – I think the Internet is the only viable domain for small brands to create thriving communities. Assuming small brands don’t have the budget to pursue other more traditional means, the Internet seems like the only logical choice.

    One of my favorite books We Are Smarter Than We, posits Cookshack as an example of a small brand that leverages a rich community. A quick look at the site reveals it is very vibrant, yet very niche. Sounds like success to me.

  • Troy Bingham

    we are a small SAAS and are launching a community site right now. We have taken the approach of prioritizing content and incentive above all else. i’ll let everyone know how it works out.

    lrmguru.blogspot.com

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