For the first decade of my online life, I was a Johnny-come-lately in regards to the social media scene. I lived through the Myspace craze with maybe three or four total visits to the site, and I completely avoided Facebook until it became a necessary part of my business life. It’s not that I have anything against social media, it’s just that I don’t get a whole lot out of it. I’m the type of person who doesn’t want to talk unless there’s something meaningful to say or discuss. So no idle chit-chat is tolerated – and so the very nature of most social media activity rubs me the wrong way. Am I the only one that thinks this way?
That being said, there was a form of social networking that I’ve been avidly using since the old days of Bulletin Board Services and dial-up: forums. I’ve long been a reader of and contributor to a number of niche related forums, ranging from the community boards running on Telegard BBS to the technical threads on CadillacForums.com. The reason for this disparity between my distaste of Facebook and my appreciation of forums is no mystery. The forums that I frequent are targeted, and in some way focused towards a specific brand, idea, or task.
That’s a branded community in a nutshell, an online social network that’s centered around a common theme. From the look of things, I’m not the only person who appreciates structured, focused online discussion. Branded communities are definitely on the rise. In fact, Forrester Research included a comeback of branded communities in their list of tech predictions for 2015 – an event they referred to as “social media growing up.”
I would say that “growing up” is a fairly apt term. If you look at the nature of social networks like Facebook, it’s hard not to notice a sort of digital pre-adolescence. Feeds overflow with self-indulgence and arguments. Users share and endorse political statements that they clearly don’t understand, simply because someone they admire posted them first. In other words, it’s like an online high school. I am far away from my high school now and would like to focus more on what is pertinent in my life today.
Those of us old enough to know (but young enough to still remember) can easily see this parallel play out. High school is where individuality begins to take form and cliques emerge as social differences manifest for the first time. These cliques often see aggression against outsiders as a priority because they haven’t yet learned that these differences aren’t a threat.
It’s usually not until these children graduate and move on to “the real world” that they start to see the true benefit of uniting on common grounds: community. There’s a level of safety and simplicity in flocking together with like-minded people, and it has nothing to do with increasing your numbers so you can bully the other groups. As adults, we know this. As adults on social media, we seem to be learning this lesson all over again.
Observe Facebook closely and it’s likely you’ll spot that old teenage mentality bursting from every seam. You’ll see millions of isolated people struggling to push their beliefs and ideas out into the world as a way of identifying themselves and seeking validation; an action to be expected from young people, but not from adults. Welcome to the “teenage angst” simulator.
Now take a look at any branded community and you’ll see a different story. You’ll see people who are united by a singular thread (which could be anything from owning a Saab to fighting Type II Diabetes). This commonality is apparent throughout the forum. There’s something to talk about, something to bond over, and that fact alone promotes a kind of civility and intelligence that’s normally absent from social media at large. Best of all, forums generally have a subtext: they exist to help people accomplish something.
My favorite Cadillac forum helped me swap the transfer box on my Cadillac SRX and saved a ton of money. I turned to a hockey related forum when I needed to find the optimal way to bake my hockey skates to wear them in quicker. The information I received was helpful, friendly, and none of it included random tirades about the president, Donald Trump, or an opinion on something I couldn’t care less about. Try to get that sort of useful information quickly on Facebook and you’ll be in for a long night.
Therein lies the advantage of branded communities that’s contributing to its resurgence. It’s all about purpose, something that’s severely lacking in networks like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Branded communities bring people together to share in something as a group, whereas most social media is immensely self-serving and isolating. Even if you try to participate in a themed group in Facebook, you can be sure that dozens of irrelevant spam posts will come along for the ride, as well as plenty of posts from people who just want to argue. Going back to my previous analogy, it’s like the difference between an art class in high school and painting class at an actual art school; the former is usually packed with students who want an easy grade, screw around, and disrupt the class. The latter is going to attract people who are serious about the subject.
Businesses are noticing this, and it’s expected that large organizations and corporations are going to play a major part in bringing back the branded community. While social media is still wonderful for marketing purposes – especially since networks like Facebook allow for some pretty targeted advertising – they’re not the best place to find a captive, focused audience.
This is exactly why companies like Sephora have created their own social networks. Sephora’s community, Beauty Talk, is built right into the retailer’s website, and it provides a focused, organized, and moderated place for like-minded people to congregate. Not only does it give these customers and potential customers a safe environment to discuss a topic they care about, it gives Sephora exclusive access to a nice little segment of qualified consumers. Without a doubt, branded communities are a win/win for both businesses and individuals.
Does the current social networking webosphere offer an opportunity for a new brand of online communities? I think so…more to come in my next writing.
About the author Eric Hays: Based in Chicago, Eric Hays is a technology entrepreneur currently focused on building branded niche communities in Sports via SportsFYLE, LLC. They have a current test community launched at the time this article was written found at: http://www.HockeyFYLE.com