Your Brand is NOT a Community

Back in January, Shiv Singh gave a great keynote presentation, Engaging Readers in the Digital Age, at the inaugural Digital Book World Conference that, in retrospect, set the tone for what was to come in 2010.

“Build consumer brands,” Singh exhorted, “because your current value chain is breaking.”

Since then, we’ve seen the introduction of the iPad, the Agency Model, and ugly public standoffs between Amazon and several publishers over ebook pricing; notable authors like J.A. Konrath and Seth Godin have made a fuss about eschewing “traditional” publishing channels; and uber-agent Andrew Wylie challenged Random House to a stare-down over ebook royalties, launching his own ill-fated ebook imprint, Odyssey Editions.

Underscoring all of these dust-ups is one recurring theme: publishers’ lack of a direct relationship with readers leaves them vulnerable to disruption and disintermediation.

While Singh and others, myself included, have noted the need for publishers to move from a business-to-business model to a business-to-consumer model, some arguments have mistaken “brand” for “community”, using them interchangeably.

Geoff Livingston, author of Now Is Gone – A Primer on New Media for Executives and Entrepreneurs, illuminated the difference by contrasting two well-known consumer brands: Madonna and Lady Gaga.

Madonna is an unmatched branding genius. She is able to transform and reinvent herself decade after decade and stay relevant. Her 2008 album Hard Candy was a #1 bestseller, the seventh of her 27 year career.

Yet Madonna is not a huge social media success. The branding doesn’t translate. Why? I think you need go no further than her community page, which reads: “Please note that posting Madonna unreleased material (including photos, audio and video) to your profile is not allowed. Doing so could result in the immediate termination of your membership with Icon.”

Madonna is in control, Madonna is messaging at you. And her image is complete, her content quality secure. And no one really wants to talk about her in conversational media forms, and given how she has controlled her community, is it any wonder?

“From Branded Content Publishing to Networks (Madonna vs. Lady Gaga)”

Livingston contrasts Madonna’s approach to community vs. the artist most often compared to her, Lady Gaga, noting the latter “has transcended 20th century marketing to become the ultimate brand of the 21st century.” Her 15.3 million digital download sales in 2009 made her the best-selling artist, even beating Michael Jackson, whose death led to backlist sales skyrocketing.

“Gaga is dedicated to her fans,” notes Jackie Huba, co-author of Citizen Marketers: When People are the Message, “and clearly knows the elements of cultivating a community of evangelistic fans.”

The takeaway? Establishing a consumer brand is only half the equation, and arguably the easier half.

“Brand does not equal community,” says Kate Rados, Marketing Director for F+W Media (Digital Book World’s parent company). “Brand shouts: loud, in your face, shouting at you from a street corner. Community listens: takes your opinions seriously, asks your advice, shares knowledge to help solve a problem. There are brands out there that straddle the line very effectively — Vitamin Water on Facebook, for instance, with 1.7 million Fans — and Publishing should take note.”

Some publishers already have. Two years ago, F+W announced a restructuring that changed its focus from channels (books, magazines, events, etc.) to communities (writers, designers, gardeners, etc.), with CEO David Nussbaum explaining that it would “enable us to understand deeply the information and networking needs of our passionate enthusiast communities and enable us to be of the community rather than outside the community.”

Building upon well-known brands like Horticulture and Writer’s Digest, the restructuring was only the first step in establishing a direct and ongoing relationship with their respective audiences.

Horticulture has evolved into a virtual village,” explains Patty Craft, Publisher and Editorial Director of the 100+ year old brand, “where we interact daily via social media outlets, the forum and blogs, and where the goal is mutual success. For example, an avid reader and former advertiser is now a business partner in Dorian Winslow’s 25-year passion to provide the best gardening gloves for women coupled with our desire to offer our readers products they can trust is a perfect example of the mutually beneficial power of the community we’re building.”

“The difference between a brand and community,” notes Brian Klems, Online Community Editor for Writer’s Digest which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, “is that a community offers content its audience actually wants. The dialogue allows for us to stay on the same page with each other and our audience. That’s more valuable than you realize.”

Earlier this year, Nussbaum reported one notable metric underscoring both Craft’s and Klems’ points: F+W’s e-commerce revenues grew by 113% in 2009.

“These are not classic e-commerce stores,” he said. “You can shop, read blogs, join a message board, swap goods. We have fully baked communities, offering a lot more to the shopper than we ever did before.”

“Some of these conversations ended in a sale, but don’t let that fool you. The sale was merely the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence.”

Doc Searls and David Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto

Despite first being published back in 1999, when AOL was King and and Mark Zuckerberg was 15 years old, the lessons of The Cluetrain Manifesto still hold up, none more so than the first of its 95 Theses (and, coincidentally, my favorite chapter in the book): “Markets are conversations.”

Without a real, vibrant community, commerce is a tough sell, no matter how strong you think your “brand” might be.

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4 thoughts on “Your Brand is NOT a Community

  1. An interesting read. However I am a bit confused on the overall message. Is it suggested that the concept of a brand is too immobile and closed off to handle the needs of it’s participants with any care or agility?
    I would like to suggest that the use of community should be a vital element for any would-be successful brand going forward. Branding is about understanding who you are and what value you truly have to offer in the marketplace. The conversations and relationships built out of community are the single most effective means of understanding your potential. It is true, your brand is not a community. However, every brand is at the center of it’s own community. Like it or not, people are talking. The question is, are they listening?

    1. “every brand is at the center of it’s own community…”

      That’s where we fundamentally disagree, and is perhaps the cause of confusion, as I firmly believe brands are no longer the center of their communities. That was the case in the days when one-way broadcasting was the only option, but as the Madonna/Lady Gaga example illustrated, those days are pretty much over. Today, a brand is a combination of what the brand owner WANTS it to be and what its community SAYS it is.

      eg: Apple wasn’t sure how to market the iPod Touch at first, until the gaming community made it its own, at which point it became a versatile gaming platform:

      And the question you pose at the end needs to be flipped. People ARE talking, but the real question is are BRANDS listening and responding to what they’re hearing?

  2. Hi – I appreciate your distinction between brand and community, particularly the idea that brand is mainly one-way broadcast while community involves two-way dialogue and listening. The beauty of our digital world is that authors can connect with readers and potential readers through communities – not in a self-promotion way but in a real spirit of dialogue. We need to think of it like a spider web of interconnections not a hub and spoke with ourselves (the ‘our’ can refer to either authors or publishers) at the center.

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