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Online community strategy may be entering a new phase of experimentation, finds ComBlu in its latest report, “The State of Online Branded Communities.” In its evaluation of 219 communities across 92 brands and 15 industries, ComBlu finds that the proportion of brands that could be classified as having a cohesive strategy dropped from 42% last year to 37% this year, while the proportion in the experimental stage grew from 50% to 55%. This suggests that brands that previously were considered to have a solid foundational strategy are trying out new tools and entering a second phase of experimentation in the maturation cycle.

The report defines the cohesive strategy classification as a brand having “a solid community foundation with multiple activities rolling into a single online experience,” while social experimentation refers to a brand that is “experimenting with one or more communities, as well as social media, but lacks evidence of a cohesive strategy to tie it all together.”

Other classifications include the self-explanatory “community ghost town,” which grew from 5% to 7%, and “community overload” (multiple communities vying for attention), which dropped from 3% to 1%.

Just 1 in 5 Have An Advocate Program

Further details from the report indicate that only 19% of brands have an advocate program, representing no increase in adoption from last year, when that rate stood at 20%. Of 33 best practices identified in the report, use of an advocate or experts program ranked 31st in adoption. This represents a missed opportunity, as brand advocates can act as amplifiers and spread messages with keen influence and passion. Indeed, the brands that scored highest in ComBlu’s ratings of their branded communities had an 80% adoption rate of brand advocates.

For the most part, the 33 best practices identified did not see much movement in adoption rate from last year. Those seeing the biggest increases were user reviews (51% vs. 27%) and toolbars/custom widgets (26% vs. 10%), while content aggregation saw the biggest drop (78% vs. 92%).

The top 5 best practices with the greatest adoption were mission-appropriate engagement (96%), new/feature content (93%), easy navigation (90%), rich media (89%), and faceted search (88%).

Other Findings:

  • The proportion of brands with low activity levels in their communities grew from 16% last year to 23% this year, while those with medium activity levels dropped from 42% to 34%.
  • The telecommunications industry had high levels of activity across all of its evaluated brands. Only CPG and auto also achieved activity levels more than 75%. The pharmaceutical sector saw the lowest activity levels.
  • Overall, 72% of communities were integrated with social media, down from 80% last year. Many brands are simply offering a Facebook or Twitter button as their social media integration, although they are using more channels, such as Pinterest and Instagram.
  • 6 of the 15 industries did not offer any mobile applications, and only 1 – health insurance – had a 50% adoption rate.

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