ComBlu's third annual study of online community performance, member engagement and social media integration of top US brands shows some progress in social engagement, but there is still an alarming lack of adoption of key practices 

The "State of Online Branded Communities" found that the number of brands that implement a cohesive approach to social engagement continued to climb over the past year. In 2011, 41 percent of brands surveyed are using a cohesive approach, versus 33 percent in 2010 and 20 percent in 2009. What's more, brands are utilising multiple pillars of engagement within the same community.

The study examines the community and social marketing programmes of 92 brands across 15 industries. ComBlu, a firm specialising in social business and engagement, joined and evaluated 251 online communities, comprising a mix of Feedback, Advocacy and Support communities. The research assesses a brands' effectiveness in:

  • Providing a meaningful experience for members

  • Integrating brand strategies and aggregating content across multiple communities, engagement pillars and social media

  • Applying best practices to strengthen customer engagement

  • Creating and amplifying content along the decision journey


Although no brand has made it to the Stellar Performance category for adoption of community best practices, Verizon is very close. Other high performers include EA, SAP, Bravo, Intel, Playstation, American Express, Discovery Channel, Xbox, Sears, Whole Foods and Microsoft.


Of the 15 industries in the study, the Gaming and Telecommunications Industries were the two highest scoring this year, followed closely by the Technology and Consumer Electronics Industry. The Retail and Travel and Hospitality Industries tied for the most improved, each jumping nine points in average score.


"The big leads in adopting best practices in social engagement that occurred between 2009 and 2010 did not occur again in 2011," said Kathy Baughman, a principal at ComBlu. "In fact, while there was some improvement – most notably in the established high performing industries – there continues to be some surprising missed opportunities. Interestingly, top performers in this year's study are brands that best utilize their advocates, offer deeper and more meaningful engagement, and make great use of content best practices."


For example, in 2010 the presence of a community manager jumped 19 percent, while in 2011 it lost a few points and dropped from 51 to 48 percent. An active community manager serves as the "face" of the brand and makes interaction more personal overall. User reviews and content also declined rapidly, falling from 54 to 27 percent.  


One of the biggest missed opportunities again this year is in the use of advocates in online branded communities, with a mere 20 percent adoption rate. The advocates represent the "voice of the customer," contribute content and facilitate recruitment.  


Some of the most notable gains in this year's study were the use of personal dashboards, which grew from 38 to 60 percent, and content aggregation, which showed a 95 percent adoption rate among high performing brands, versus 32 percent among last year's top five.


The study also reveals: 

  • Little mobile integration. Although mobile apps are not yet included among the best practices scored, 16 percent of the communities reviewed offered an app. This will be an area to watch in the future.

  • Lack of recommendation engines. Many communities would greatly benefit from the incorporation of a recommendation engine into the member's experience. Leveraging information on the consumer's buying habits, product reviews and the purchasing patterns of similar consumers will help curate the member experience and surface pertinent content at each part of the journey.

  • Low adoption of rewards and recognition programs. Some brands have begun the integration of gamification cross properties with the adoption of a rewards and recognition system, increasing from 39 to 43 percent in 2011.

  • Dabbling in community continues. Social experimentation continues to be the most common type of community marketing category and grew from 45 percent last year to 50 percent in 2011.


"As the social ecosystem continues to expand, brands need to understand how to engage across owned, paid, earned and mass social channels, and must excel at adjusting their strategy in real time," said Baughman. 


"Companies today are focusing on reaching customers along the various points of the decision journey, which makes the performance of owned properties even more crucial to success. The results of this year's survey indicate that optimizing community member experience remains an aspirational goal for many brands."


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