Community Management (CM) refers to a variety of actions and activities that create dialogues between a brand and its customers, fans and followers. Through social media engagement, events, contests and more, it is all about building a web of connections surrounding a brand, such that it becomes more than just a faceless entity. It is a deft art, which done well can hugely benefit long-term sales, but done badly can seriously damage a brand image. Take, for example, the response by Dolce & Gabbana to controversy regarding their TV commercials in 2018. The Global Times reported that their apology was taken to be insincere, and has had an enduring effect on their business in China.
Market orthodoxy would suggest that if a product is good enough, and there is demonstrable need, pairing it with good old-fashioned advertising should be enough to generate the sales needed to succeed and build a brand . CM, however, creates a sense of community around that product, that can humanize a brand, lending feelings of sincerity and authenticity to its messaging.
Community Management also stands the chance of elevating baseline commercial success to new levels, not only generating new customers, but paving the way for enduring sales relationships . This, in turn, leads to opportunities for deeper market insights and thus improvements to a brand or service. People long to be part of something, to belong somehow to a conversation or a group that is aligned with their interests, and makes them feel special in some way. To put a brand or product at the centre of that feeling simply makes good business sense.
The China Factor – Online
We can neatly divide community management along online-offline lines. The online ecosystem in China is unique, and should be considered carefully when planning CM strategies. The key idea to consider is that Chinese netizens are often more active than their counterparts in other countries. The breadth of subjects engaged with is surprising to many international brands. Take, for example, the fact that in 2019, COPA19 research found that Chinese football fans are more digitally active than any others – more, even, than British and Brazilians.
What does this mean for international brands? First, it speaks of a willingness among Chinese netizens to engage with depth, over time, with the things they find interesting. Netizen fandom may have started with a focus on ‘idols’ such as actors, but it is demonstrative of the tendencies and attitudes of internet users across the country, who now shift their sights to brands. Second, it is a sign that products for which CM might be a pipe-dream in other countries might stand to benefit quite a lot from it in China. That is to say that niches are sought out and embraced by much of the huge online population.
The China Factor – Offline
Consumers, fans and followers across China are always eager to transfer their online affinity for a given community to an offline setting. It’s become common to talk of events, venues and stores ‘chasing the wanghong (网红, internet famous) dollar’. The important thing here is to think carefully about what a given community might want, execute it well, and then make sure that community members queue for it. “Queue for it?!” You might think. It might seem odd, but it’s how things work in China.
The sign of a queue outside an offline brand activation or experience is all the evidence people need that it must be worth something. If people can get a good photo once they’ve finished queueing, then even better.
It may sound shallow, to relegate the substance of offline community engagement to second place, but it makes sense when you think of it from a CM-in-China perspective. It is ingroup-outgroup psychology, through and through. This all adds value to a brand, it humanizes it, and increases the chances of creating strong, dedicated brand advocates.
Why go to all the bother?
The benefits of good community management are manifold. Here are just a few.
1. Community management can help build advocacy. There is a multiplier effect – engaged community members will speak for the communities they are a part of.
2. It helps increase the reach of your content. Community members are much more likely to share content than the average reader or viewer.
3. It humanizes your brand. This takes the relationship between consumer and brand from functional to personal.
4. A developed community can add value to the product. Social proofing is a very powerful force in marketing – people want to buy what other people are buying.
How to get started, and where to look for good examples
The first port of call for most brands is WeChat. Having an official account allows brands to post content in a variety of forms – from blog-like posts to video.
Blog-like posts are invaluable for advertising offline events, and presenting an online face. A good example to look at here is GongLuShangDian (公路商店, roadside store). Primarily a store for subculture apparel and accessories, it posts regular content highlighting elements of Chinese youth culture, that regularly garner more than 100,000 views, and always have a long string of discussion in the comments section. They complement this with offline tie-ins, sometimes sponsoring events, and cobranding with hipster Shanghai beer store 624 Changle.
2. Open avenues for communication.
Sadly, for any official accounts created since 2017, the comments section is disabled. Some form of two-way communication is possible, via the messaging function, but this is sparsely used and doesn’t allow followers to see each other’s comments. Lacking comments sections, brands will often create chat groups instead, which can house up to 500 members in each.
Another alternative is to create video content for the new ‘channels’ feature, where comments are enabled. It must be noted, however, that this is technically only for use by personal accounts. While some brands may choose to circumnavigate this rule, it is a breach of WeChat’s terms of service.
WeChat articles have innate support for polls and questionnaires. It can be fun for community members to see their responses compared to others, and can help you gain insights on community preferences.
Let your community know what’s going on in the world of the brand. People will be interested to read how the business is developing, and track the stories of the people involved.
Beautifully designed flyers, for events, promotions, or projects, catch people’s eyes. WeChat official accounts have support for posting single images.
Nothing motivates people like good competition. Caution is advised here, however, as WeChat rules prohibit official accounts from motivating any action within the WeChat platform, such as ‘share this article to enter’.
Weibo and RED are more flexible when it comes to communication between brands and their communities. In 2012, Nike took the smart approach of dividing its communities into sub-communities, such as ‘Nike Women’, and ‘Nike Football’. They combine their online community management with frequent offline activation events, such as ‘Nike Run Club’ and their ‘On Air Studio’, which gives space for different creators to show their specialties to the public.
KOC marketing and community management go arm-in-arm with each other. Read more about KOC marketing in our guide!
More ways to grow your community
Content aside, there are sources of further community members that you can mine through various techniques. Where can they be found?
1. From existing clients.
You can flyers, promotional materials and information about community activities to product orders. This can be done physically, by email, or via a post-purchase landing page.
2. From prospects.
These are people who have already demonstrated some interest in your brand, or in the kinds of products and services you offer. Targeted social media advertising, that sells not just your product but your community, can get them onboard.
3. From existing community members.
You can offer incentives and appeals for community members to add or introduce their friends to the community. This might come in the form of competitions, vouchers or simply acts of recognition.
4. From events, including offline QR codes or invitations.
There’s no better way to humanize a brand than to actually represent it in physical, human form. Whether sponsoring an existing event, or creating an event independently, it’s possible to get an audience engaged with a brand.
There are a variety of means to start community management in China, and it stands to provide huge benefit, but it requires an understanding of the local context. By creating a sense of belonging among fans and followers, and reinforcing it both online and offline, it is possible to carve out a loyal, active group of brand advocates. For more tips about how to get started, feel free to get in touch.