Loycent Gordon, owner of Neir’s Tavern in Queens, NY.
- These five small-business owners have built online brand communities that bring customers together.
- A community founded by Neir’s Tavern in New York City helped save the business from closing when it faced financial difficulties.
- Experts identified 3 key factors to building a brand community that businesses can rely on for support.
- This article is part of “Marketing for Small Business,” a series exploring the basics of marketing strategy for SBOs to earn new customers and grow their business.
Loycent Gordon didn’t plan on building a brand community when he bought Neir’s Tavern, one of the oldest bars in New York City. He was simply passionate about preserving historic businesses. As he shared his story and passion with customers, he started forming a community of people who cared about the mission — and when the business nearly had to shut down because of rising rent costs, this community came together to help him throw a fundraising event, get press for his cause, and, ultimately, connect with the mayor to strike a deal that would save the tavern.
“Brand communities are groups of people who share mutual concern for one another,” Carrie Melissa Jones, whose consultancy helps businesses build online communities around their brands, told Insider. Jones said the marketing and business influence of a true brand community could be huge, from carrying you through “the highs and lows of being a business owner” to improving customer retention and loyalty to boosting traditional marketing metrics like email open rate.
Carrie Melissa Jones
When the people on the receiving end of these communications realize that this is not just a transactional relationship, Jones added, they’re more likely to want to engage.
“Community support is the most resilient and productive resource that any small business can prioritize,” Amanda McLoughlin, the CEO of the podcast-production company Multitude, told Insider. McLoughlin credits the growth of her company to a dedicated community of listeners who engage with the business through a Discord server that has 800-plus members.
But can a business grow from a following to build an official community? Gordon, Jones, McLoughlin, and other small-business owners shared their tips with Insider.
1. Give people something to rally around
Jones says the first step in building a successful brand community is to think of your customers as whole human beings and consider the things you can use to galvanize them — in addition to loving your brand.
“The question that we ask is: What is your business uniquely positioned to bring people together around, and what do you also feel energized by creating community around?” she said.
There could be a bigger mission or cause, like in the case of Neir’s Tavern. In 2021, Gordon rallied his community to not only save his historic business but also support other struggling businesses, such as by going on a group trip to visit a historic ice-cream shop on Long Island, New York. It can be helpful to give your community a name, he added, so they have some sort of shared identity; his is the Neir’s for Years Community.
The rallying point for your community could also be a shared passion. For instance, Steve Sando of the heirloom-bean company Rancho Gordo saw significant growth for his business when he launched the Bean Club subscription box and corresponding Facebook group. The community serves as a place for people to connect over their love of beans, quality food products, home cooking, recipe tips, and more. Thanks to the passion of the “people of the bean,” the Bean Club now has 17,000 quarterly subscribers, with only a 2% churn rate — and a waitlist of over 35,000.
2. Create a vessel for connection
The next step is planning how to gather your community. For fellow small-business owners, Jones recommended asking, “What is one thing we can do to bring people together around this purpose?”
Edmond Georges said that when building a community for his collectibles retailer, Hobbiesville, he considered where his ideal customer already spent time and landed on launching a Discord channel, along with regular YouTube livestreams where the community could connect within the chat.
Hobbiesville has a 49.5% returning-customer rate, a feat Georges partially attributes to the community feel he’s created. “Once you find a store that you enjoy engaging with, you want to support them. You want to engage with them. You want to be a part of it,” he said.
Whether it’s an online-community platform such as Discord or a Facebook group, or offline meetups, Jones recommended choosing a channel that not only allowed for conversations between the business and its customers but also let customers create connections among themselves. “There’s a huge sense of disconnection in the world right now, so there’s value in creating that sense of belonging. Businesses often don’t realize that they can fill that void,” she said.
Georges and McLoughlin both have code-of-conduct guidelines for their community members, as well as moderators (sometimes called “hosts”) to ensure the spaces stay safe and aligned with the brand’s values and prompt community interaction. “If you leave it organic, you will get odd people sharing things, but what our hosts are really good at doing is putting out a question to facilitate interaction,” Geroges said.
McLoughlin and Georges also emphasized the merits of balancing control of their platforms with leaving room for the community to build itself. McLoughlin said she’d seen listeners in her community give each other advice through hard times, visit each other offline, and plan events together. Geroges regularly sees community members send each other gifts during a stream. “The more time they spend with us, the more value our work brings to their lives, the more value they’ll bring back in return,” McLoughlin said.
3. Give more than you take — but ask for help when you need it
Jones said it’s important not to use brand communities as just another sales and marketing channel. “There are a lot of people out there who say they’re building communities, but they’re really just trying to extract as much value as they possibly can from the customer without giving much back to them,” she said.
McLoughlin likes to offer her communities access to hosts, bonus content, and virtual hangouts — on top of always making sure she’s delivering the high-quality content her listeners expect. Georges gives back via giveaways and access to exclusive products.
But if your business does need help, McLoughlin says to just ask. “People want to help, they want to see the small businesses that they love thrive, and they just need an opportunity to do that,” she said. When Multitude asked its community for support at the start of the pandemic when all its advertisers canceled their spend, nearly all the company’s paid members increased their subscription level.
“Especially right now in today’s economic environment, there’s just so much uncertainty,” Jones said. “If you’ve built true relationships with people, you’ll be able to call on them, and they will want to help you.”