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Community-Building for Non-Glamour Brands

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How can you create an online community around a pedestrian product? Nancy Strauss, coauthor of Online Communities Handbook: Building Your Business and Brand on the Web, looks at the strategies behind successful online product communities, and offers suggestions you can put to work for your brand.

It's easy for Apple. It's easy for Lego. It's easy for BMW to build an online community of people who are in love with their products. But what about your brand? Not every product has the obvious "sex appeal" of a BMW sports car or an iPhone. Maybe you sell diapers, personal banking services, diet pills, or enterprise software. Maybe yours isn't a "love at first sight" brand, but more of a "learn to love me" kind of brand. You want to establish an online community precisely so that you can develop that relationship, differentiate your brand from the competition, and convert customers (and potential customers) into loyal fans.

Online communities seem like an obvious marketing strategy for "lovemarks" such as iPod and BMW. But they can also work for less-glamorous brands and products. In fact, brands with less built-in sex appeal may have even more to gain by building online communities to win the hearts of their customers and potential customers. But how do you build a community about diapers? Let's say you went for a diaper-themed website, with diaper discussion forums, diaper photos, diaper ratings and reviews. Consumers might visit a site like this once in search of basic product information, but they're unlikely to spend hours there or to keep coming back. So this is probably the wrong approach. There's a limit to how much information anyone needs about diapers. And diapers are not a subject that people love to talk about.

Online communities are about forming relationships, and real relationships take time. For a community to work, people need to come back to it again and again. Therefore, you should offer something either entertaining or useful to your target population.

Not Just Diapers, But Motherhood

So what's a diaper brand to do? Procter & Gamble (P&G) created an appealing community for its Pampers brand: Pampers Village. This community, aimed at mothers and mothers-to-be, is about more than just diapers. Mothers can publish and comment on blogs, or participate in forum discussions on topics such as pregnancy, labor, baby development, returning from maternity leave, and getting babies to sleep. (Sleep features prominently as a discussion topic on this site.) By looking beyond the specific product to the context of its use and the preoccupations of target customers, Procter & Gamble tapped into subject matter that inspires strong emotions.

At the same time that it provides a social platform where mothers can make friends over shared interests, Pampers Village serves as a useful information tool for these women, who can get advice from the community about the issues that really concern them—perhaps not diapers, specifically, as much as pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.

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