Building On-Line Community Starts Off-Line

by Jason Falls |
Jason Falls
Jason Falls

Tomorrow I have the honor of co-presenting the topic, “Building On-Line Community,” with Maker’s Mark president and CEO Bill Samuels Jr., to The Conference Board at its 2009 Corporate Imaging and Branding Conference in New York City. It’s a two-fold honor, the first being that I get to share the stage with Mr. Samuels, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working for the past two years. The other is presenting for The Conference Board, a long-standing meeting point for corporate executives and marketers from the Fortune 500 world.

Much of what we’ll present has to do with how Maker’s Mark has, over the course of the past 30 years or so, built such a loyal following of brand enthusiasts. Samuels will tell the story of how he and Doe-Anderson’s Jim Lindsey convinced Bill Samuels Sr., they could market his then-little bourbon to the world without falling victim to the way everyone else marketed, which annoyed the elder Mr. Samuels. Their measure of success for the marketing of the brand was simply, “Are we creating evangelists?”

Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon WhiskyAs I prepared my thoughts for this presentation it occurred to me that building on-line community for Maker’s Mark should be both extremely easy but equally as difficult. On one had, there already exists a core community of brand enthusiasts ready to act on behalf of the brand. The Maker’s Mark Ambassador program has produced an off-line community of avid brand loyalists. Turn on some on-line tools to support them and watch them go, right? But that existing community so close to the core of the brand will scrutinize everything you do to ensure nothing is fake, out of line with what the brand is all about and genuine to the Maker’s Mark way of doing things.

But isn’t that the way on-line community building should be, at least when doing so on behalf of a brand? Don’t you want a core group of community members keeping watchful eye over you, or better yet, building it with you?

Surveying the world of branded on-line communities, you see a handful of makers (no pun intended) and a lot of fakers. Many brands make the mistake of trying to build tools and driving traffic and attention to their new on-line community without ever considering the obvious — the people you need to drive to participate are those closest to you in the first place. Branded on-line communities aren’t for the general public. They’re for the guy who calls every six weeks to ask another question about your product or the woman who requests poster-sized print outs of your ads to frame for her den. They are for your employees, your repeat customers and the random loony-bin resident who has your logo tattooed on his calf.

My part of the presentation will wrap up with the following statement:

“Social media and Web 2.0 are great, but not pure play. If you don’t already have a community built around your brand, you may as well set your Internet marketing budget on fire, because you’re faking it.”

I’ve been asked 1,000 times, “How do you start building a community around your brand?” The answer is you already have one. It may just be the three guys you’ve developed the software with or the four people in your office who are trying to take on the world and sell this new product you’ve developed, but you have the seeds of growth in those audiences closest to you. No community grew from 100 people. It grew from one. Turn to your office manager, your marketing director, your receptionist or even your spouse and give them the tools to tell others about your brand. One becomes two, becomes four, becomes eight and so on.

And when you start doing that, then and only then should you consider giving them on-line tools to enhance that connection. Not fostering the off-line community is exactly what has or will go wrong with hundreds of on-line communities last and this year.

If you’re a marketing manager geeked about building an on-line community, look around your brand off-line. Are people passionate about your brand? Do they go the extra mile to tell others about it? Can you compel people to share your story with others who will then become excited and tell it to even more? If not, put down the Ning, hang up on that enterprise white label solution you’ve found and make that so first. Otherwise, you will fail.

Of course, that’s my opinion. What’s yours?

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).