What is your name, title, and company?
I’m Carrie Melissa Jones, Founder of Gather Community Consulting and co-author of Building Brand Communities.
Tell us about the company you work for and your role there.
I help organizations build true community. What does that mean? Well, I partner with organizations to uncover where community can serve both their business needs and community member needs. My work takes a variety of forms: I advise organizations and individuals, train teams, and teach workshops — online and face-to-face.
What does community mean to you?
A brand community is a group of people who share an identity, who care for one another, and who gather for multiple shared experiences stewarded by a brand. All three of those conditions must be present for a true community to exist.
How has your community strategy evolved since you started building community professionally?
When I first started building communities, I never had a strategy! I went with my intuition and my gut. I managed a community of nearly 20,000 people without any kind of strategy. Instead, I spent 8 hours a day emailing, calling, messaging, and gathering members online. This painstaking work taught me that the foundations of community are not fancy strategies or purpose statements, but true, deep care about your people.
However, that is a perfect recipe for burnout so bad that you end up unable to get out of bed in the morning. Ask me how I know!
These days, I focus heavily on the foundational elements you need in place before building a community: having a business purpose, conducting pre-launch member research, forming a collaborative and strategic community vision, and bringing it together with the technology and leadership. Still, my work is grounded in that same caring. Now it is just done with a lot of boundaries and plans to delegate!
If you’re looking for how to engage communities in today’s new reality, I launched a course guiding brands on how to engage communities online.
What strategies have you seen be most successful in building, growing, and engaging a brand community?
By far the most powerful thing you can do is invest in relationship-building upfront, even before launching a community. Spend time getting to know your future members (or founding members). Learn about what their lives are like, what their worries are, how they spend their time. Don’t just do this to get deeper insights so you can create more accurate personas (of course it will help with that), but to build a relationship of mutual trust, respect, and understanding. Large communities always grow from small communities, never the other way around.
Can you describe one of your favorite experiences building or interacting with a community? What happened?
The proudest day of my career so far has to be the launch of an online community for a political campaign in 2019. I have never before seen so many talented organizers working together to create one-to-one connections with supporters that then scaled into a larger movement. The community started in private mode with just 13 people. In a week, it expanded to 50. Those early members became the future leaders of subgroups, inviting in friends and friends of friends. The members included everyone from high school seniors to senior citizens who had never joined an online video discussion before.
The organizers knew the first names of every single one of their members and every single one of their members had met at least one staff member online as part of onboarding. The day the community launched to the public, it gained over 15,000 members but retained a strong culture of support and friendship because of the initial one-to-one investment.
I had a great time watching the political events with the community in live video chats. I remember one member figuring out how to use her webcam for the first time, watching the live event with us on Zoom in real-time from the comfort of her La-Z-Boy chair. Her excitement made it seem like the whole Internet opened up that night.
How do you approach not just building, but growing communities?
First, a community is not always better just because it grows larger. Size sincerely does not matter. Impact matters. So when I look at growing a community, I am not looking at growing member numbers, impressions, page views, or any other vanity metrics. I am looking at growing the positive outcomes the community makes on the organization and the wider world. That is the only growth any of us should care about. That comes about not through marketing the community to increase member numbers but through ensuring the right people are in the room (or the proverbial digital room) and they have the resources to make progress toward shared goals.
How has community helped brands you’ve worked with reach their overall marketing goals?
Typically, the communities I help build do not impact marketing directly. Rather, brands invest in community to increase engagement between members and the brand and between members and one another. When that happens, you see a resulting uptick in customer lifetime value, referrals, NPS, retention, and other important marketing-related outcomes.
Here’s one example: a beauty brand I worked with to restructure their ambassador program was previously running a transactional quid pro quo program, where members would get kickbacks from affiliate links. We stepped back and restructured the program around the success of the ambassadors toward their shared goals of becoming fitness entrepreneurs and giving back to other female entrepreneurs in the developing world, and suddenly the ambassadors’ sales skyrocketed, referrals came in organically, partnership opportunities opened up, and the brand generated dozens of positive press stories.
What’s your top advice for other brands fostering communities?
Give before taking. If you don’t know what your organization can offer to the members of a community formed around your brand, then sit down and figure that out. Ask: what is the unique program we can organize that will help our members become more successful?
Communities are powerful for many reasons: they can spark innovation, grow movements, make organizations defensible against the competition. But none of that comes if you do not invest in your members’ success and connection.
What are your top resources for keeping up with the evolving marketing landscape?
Primary research from academic journals, talking directly to people who build powerful communities (I try to meet at least one new person building community per month), and case studies/research from publications like Harvard Business Review and the MIT Sloan Management Review. I have automated email research alerts on all the major communication, business, and marketing journals. Each week, I get a digest of all the new research that can bring me insights into the latest research on communities and marketing. I typically dive into it on the weekends. I’m a nerd like that. 🤓