The Expert Series: Building Community
Freelance journalist and former Lead of Communications & Community at WAH London, Ellen Atlanta is a diligent champion of girl culture and comradery. Here she shares more on the importance of building a community, sparking active engagement and why collaboration is key.
1. Describe what you do.
I am a freelance journalist and a creative producer currently working on a documentary film, who also does consultancy on the side. My work tends to focus mainly on gender, race, sexuality and societal issues. I was previously the lead on communications and community at WAH London, where I managed all the social channels, created content, ran campaigns across all digital platforms and headed the WAH community. This included staying connected with the WAH fans and customers, as well as managing a curated list of influencers and brand ambassadors.
2. Whilst at WAH London, what did a typical day look like for you?
It’s hard to say because every day was very different. Speaking generally, there were three or four main things I did on a regular basis. Quite often I would be working on a brand collaboration, creating content for socials or promotional material with other companies. I would also work on our own social media, ensuring that posts had been organised for that day and further developing the theme already set out. I often helped out at WAH events (or ran my own), so I would need to contact those involved e.g. speakers, sponsors, influencers. I also regularly worked with brands to create suggested influencer decks for events - for example, whilst working with Nasty Gal, I’d put together a deck of recommended influencers to invite.
3. Why is it important to think about creating a loyal community as a brand or influencer?
It’s intuitive really because your community is your audience, so the more loyal and keen that community is, that will follow through into your customer base. Whether you’re a brand selling a product or lifestyle or an independent influencer that’s selling your personality, I think the whole idea of having a loyal community is like having a loyal customer or readership base. Now more than ever, you have to see your customers as a community.
With all the noise out there currently, the brands or influencers that make you feel like you’re part of something special, are creating spaces where people feel like they can express themselves or connect with one another and value representation, are the brands that are doing well.
4. What does a successful community look like?
A good community is one that is engaging and responsive, whether through opening rates of newsletters or liking and commenting on your social posts. For WAH, it was really about being able to have a conversation with our community and breaking down the barrier between them and us. It shouldn’t be a setup where one is the leader and the rest are the followers. It’s more about having everyone in it together. So when people would tweet us at WAH, I would make every effort to reply because I wanted to engage in conversation with these girls and make them feel like they were talking to a friend. If you’re an influencer or a blogger, it’s the same thing. Understandably, those with bigger followings might find it hard to reply to everyone but engagement can’t be one-sided, otherwise you lose the point of it all.
People tend to underestimate social media as a job and as a role but it really is 24/7. I’m not saying you have to commit your whole life to it because obviously that’s not realistic. However, when it’s your business or brand or blog, you should be that invested in it. Social media doesn’t sleep and trying to keep on top of it becomes a lifestyle in a way.
5. Any examples of brands or influencers that you feel have nailed the process of building a loyal community?
It’s easier to discuss more that have done it wrong because I honestly feel like a lot of brands miss the mark, in terms of community. I’m big on representation and when it comes to the community of influencers, brand ambassadors or models brands work with, there’s so much monotony in the girls that they pick. They tend to look very similar and represent one type of girl with one type of hair colour, skin tone and dress size. Otherwise, there might be one black or brown girl or plus-size even that ends up having a tokenistic element (you never really see girls with disabilities).
When working with these girls that are beautiful or talented but all exactly the same, you aren’t effectively representing their audience. If you’re only representing 10 percent of your customer base with the community of models and bloggers you use, you’ve completely got it wrong. With WAH, it was normal for us to automatically post pictures online of the girls who came into the salon - highlighting how cool or different they looked or showing off the nail technician’s work. There was diversity because we were treating our customers as part of our community and including them in that way.
6. What were you looking for when working with influencers?
At WAH, we were really picky about the girls that we worked with and wanted brand ambassadors who stood for something, spoke passionately about their beliefs and used their platform to help girls in a particular way. There’s a lot of influencers who are just there to take a pretty picture and their presence online is very one dimensional. That wasn’t for us as a brand. There’s also a misconception about numbers. The number of followers a person has does not directly relate to the quality of their community, so we weren’t ever really looking at follower counts. I picked girls with less than a 1000 followers or those who had more than 300,000 followers. It was always about fitting with the brand and relevance. If you’re a brand using popular influencers whose audience is completely different to yours, it’s pointless and won’t make much difference in terms of how they benefit you as a brand.
7. How do you start to understand your community and what they want/need from you as an influencer or brand?
The first thing I did at WAH was make our customer profiles with Sharmadean. That’s striping it back to startup level but a lot of people still don’t do it. Now, trying to do consultancy work for other brands - whether working on their social media or marketing - without knowing their customer profiles is so tricky.
If you don’t know who your audience is then how do you know who you’re talking to or how to talk to them? How do you go about tailoring your content to them. It seems so obvious but people still randomly churn content out without actually thinking about who they are addressing it to.
Go back to basics and break down who your consumers are. You can have one or several personas. Break them down into categories, whether by age, job or why and how they are engaging with you. Really try to flesh it out in detail and be as specific as possible. That way, you’re able to cater to your audience better. When I made the brand ambassador list at WAH, I made five columns for each of our customer profiles and I split the influencers between those columns. If we didn’t have enough girls to represent each column, I went back to the drawing board. Even down to our social posts - I had to make sure there was something for every type of girl because every one of them is important. I wouldn’t make any decisions without having those customer profiles to hand. It’s so helpful to use as a reference in checking you’re on the right track.
Don’t worry too much about getting the personas wrong to begin with because you can go back and change aspects as you get to know your community more. Especially if you’re a smaller brand or influencer, make an educated guess based on research of who’s following, liking and commenting on your account and then put together this picture of even just one personna. You should constantly be trying to learn about your community and making tweaks. If your blog or brand is aimed at people like you, that’s so much easier. Just form your customer profiles on what you and your friends like and then you’re aiming at the right person.
8. How do you spark and maintain good engagement that is based on active interaction rather than passive observation?
Experimenting with different types of content is always good. Video content tends to do better than pictures, in term of engagement, so using the tools at your disposal - such as boomerangs - allows you to play around with different techniques. It shows people something a bit different in order to keep their interest. Then just posting regularly, keeping on top of a schedule, understanding when your best time to post is - whether that’s through trial and error or having a business account on your socials. It’s hard but I think we did our best when we were posting regularly, and with WAH’s following, that would be up to eight times a day on every social platform. Generally posting in the mornings when people are going to work, lunchtime and then evenings are good times but you need to understand your audience and when they’re most likely to engage with you.
9. What role does social media play in building loyalty and is any one platform better than the other?
WAH’s community is largely based on social media. That’s where people felt most connected to the brand, being only one salon in London. Last year, we ran a self love campaign (based on a customer profile of course) and we had so many young girls getting involved with it online, engaging with the daily self love challenges that we set them. It was amazing to see how social media could reach our community to achieve something positive. Girls were tagging us in pictures, opening up about how they felt better about themselves and much more confident.
Making people feel like they are part of something can be really special and for WAH, Instagram was the best way of building that community. Twitter and Facebook less so but that’s just because of the age range that use these platforms. Snapchat audiences tend to be a bit younger and Facebook audiences a bit older. Instagram is more creative and Twitter tends to be more political. We use our Instastories in a way that brands weren’t using them at the time. We let the girls in the salon use the Stories and it almost became a reality show in itself because they were showing their day and simply having fun. Every girl in that salon had a different personality and look, so people really connected with that.
A lot of the time, when brands are using Instastories, it comes across as too clinical. People are scared of being seen as unprofessional but if your brand is a fun beauty or fashion brand or you’re talking to 20 year olds, you should be speaking to your audience how they speak to their friends.
10. What element does collaboration have to play in building a community?
For me, it’s huge - from a big brand down to an influencer. If you’re looking at numbers specifically, it’s really important because you’re exposing your brand to a new audience.
If you feel like you’ve hit a wall in building up your community, that’s when collaboration is the answer.
Both sides get so much out of it without having to put in too much work or effort. Whether doing giveaways with smaller brands or branded content with bigger brands, WAH gained so much from each of those collaborations. It was so important in spreading the message of our brand to new people who had not come across us. Oftentimes one collaboration led to another - for example if we did a collaboration with a film company, others would see and then be interested in doing something similar.
If you’re an influencer or blogger, you should really collaborate with as many people as possible - do shoots together, write guest posts, network online, etc… It’s a fun and easy way to grow your community. If you can host events or do something to bring people together, even better. It allows you to sustain your community and keep your brand authentic. You don’t need to have a big budget - even just a picnic in the park will create a lasting buzz - but bringing members of your community together and connecting in real life makes a difference in cultivating loyalty online later on.
DO'S & DON'TS
FOR BUILDING A COMMUNITY
1. Do Collaborate.
See above ;)
2. Do Make Your Customer Profiles.
...and refer all your decisions back to them!
3. Do Engage with Your Audience.
A community is a 2-way street, not just people looking up to you. You need to create a conversation.
4. Don’t Pick Influencers or Collaborators that aren’t Relevant to your Customer Base.
Always link back to customer profiles.
5. Do Experiment with Different Forms of Content.
...Especially video content and DON'T be afraid to try something new because it will mess up your feed. You can just delete it or archive it. It doesn't always have to be perfect, otherwise it can lead to stagnation and people will switch off.