To Brand or Not to Brand: Connecting Online Communities

Jun 16, 2009

Just about everyone tweets, pokes, tags, or links in, and tech-savvy businesses are taking notice. Free social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have taken over internet browsers worldwide, connecting millions of users with just the click of a mouse, and smart organizations see the marketing opportunities these networks present. Some companies, though, don’t stop at setting up a Facebook page, but instead create branded online networks inviting customers to evaluate products at a deeper level and participate in a community associated specifically with their brand. 

“I think marketers need diverse strategies to build market conversations with their customers, and having a presence in social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and other outlets is usually a key component of that strategy,” says John Blossom, president and senior analyst at Shore Communications, Inc. “However, I do think that branded presence can serve an important purpose when they fit in naturally to the type of relationships that clients expect to have with the company.”
Though with so many free sites around, are these branded networks worth the investment? A recent Nielsen Report says the amount of time people spend on social networks has increased 700%, from 1.7 billion minutes compared to this year's total of 13.9 billion. With huge social networks like Facebook taking up this much of our time, how much is left over for smaller, branded sites?

According to Cynthia Francis, CEO and co-founder of Reality Digital, a white label online community vendor, “the value of creating a brand focused experience allows the brand itself, and also the consumer, a different kind of engagement. There is a richness…that is limited in bigger sites.” While free sites allow companies a wider reach, they offer limited control or feedback, which is why many companies are opting for a combination of approaches.

Companies like Reality Digital are trying to make integrating easier by partnering with Facebook Connect--a Facebook platform that allows companies to join Facebook with a branded site. This integration allows users of Reality Digital’s Opus and Harmony social media platforms to connect a customer’s niche community directly to Facebook’s social network, offering users the ability to interact with their Facebook accounts, friends, and content. Francis believes integrated free and branded social networks are more effective for companies than opting for one or the other. According to Francis, “the main reason to develop the Facebook connect integration is that it really means, from a customer’s standpoint, ‘I can be in any of my environments, or in Facebook, and have access to the same things, the same network of people, and the same content.’”, a website that allows users to watch music videos, television, and movies online has also integrated with Facebook Connect. If a new Joost user is already logged in to Facebook, clicking on the “Login using Facebook” icon at the top right of the Joost page will automatically set up your new profile using imported information from Facebook, and allow the user to start watching videos, publishing content on is or her page, and build a community of friends on Joost. There is no need for multiple log-ins it also allows the folks at Joost to maintain control over the branded part of the site.

According to Francis, the markets with the most buying power right now are the teen and young adult groups, ages 16-25. Companies want to reach that important demographic, and they often see social networks as the way to do that. According to Francis, “brand loyalty happens over time. We don’t see a lot of problem with folks 30-plus coming into the branded environment,” she says. The real value of combining the two types of networks is in reaching that sought after demographic. “If they already have a Facebook page and they’re able to carry that with them, without worrying about signing into a network again, it’s going to increase their willingness to participate,” she says.

Whether or not companies choose to combine branded sites with the public sites, integration tools and new social environments will continue to surface. As Blossom says, “Integration is key. You cannot have a branded strategy without having a public social network strategy for almost any consumer or enterprise product at this point.”