Understanding the Value of Brand Communities [Podcast Episode]

Amanda Milligan
By Amanda Milligan
July 7, 2020

Marketing is more than publishing and sharing content. It’s about actually engaging with people.

 

via GIPHY

Melissa Fach, the US Blog Editor for SEMrush, talks about how she’s built brand communities throughout her career and provides tips for others trying to connect with their audience (and help their audience members connect with each other!).

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In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • The impact online communities can have 
  • Advice on how to create or improve your online community
  • The role of online communities in building trust and brand awareness

Related resources/links:

Transcription:

Amanda: This week on the show, I'm pleased to welcome Melissa Fach, the US Blog editor for SEMrush. Welcome to the show, Melissa.

Melissa: Thank you.

Amanda: I am, we're recording this at, you know, kind of a weird time, in the middle of COVID-19. So, anybody listening in the future, there's going to be some context in the show, and what we're going to talk about today is the concept of building an online community. And like, we were talking about before the show, I think there's a lot of opportunity to discuss how to really foster that kind of community right now, and what that can mean for you as a marketer. So, really excited to dive into this. So, do you want to give people a little bit of background as to your experience working with online communities?

Melissa: Sure. Let's see, how far back do I go? So, I think it was like 2011-ish, I was hired actually as the editor at Search Engine Journal, but that also included building community. So, I did a lot of community building for them. I mean, social media, Facebook back then was so much easier. But it was more about fostering the growth with the authors, you know? Like, a lot of the people right now that are some of the biggest names were just then starting out writing, and it is all about relationship building, right? And then, you know, I had my own agency at the same time, and don't freak out when I tell you this, it's a different place, but I actually volunteered for free to help a local Big Cat Habitat, it's actually called Big Cat Habitat. It is not the Big Cat Rescue Group, but it is the Big Cat Habitat, the other lady stole the name. And I, at the same time as SEJ, I built, I had 55,000 followers on Facebook for their page. 

Amanda: Wow. 

Melissa: Which was huge back then. And after I left SEJ, I went to Moz because you know, they had a huge community team. I was at authority labs; I was competing and my name or my title was Community Jedi. And then, of course, I went to PubCon, which was huge because it wasn't just online community building, it was offline with, you know, speakers, taking care of speakers was a huge part of my job and at the same time fostering growth with new people online. And now, I'm at SEMrush and again, I'm an editor but it's all about relationship building, to get people to write or to answer questions or to be a part of the community. So, I think everyone that works at SEMrush or S-E-M-rush, however you say it, it's your place, we all are focused on community building.

Amanda: So, just from that breadth of experience, it really speaks to how there's so many different types of online communities or ways that it can be manifested, right? Social, blog, conferences, what have you. So, like, when you hear online community, what do you think of on the most basic level, like, what does that entail?

Melissa: A group of people who feel connected, right? So, like, I'll just do as an example, our SEMrush chat that we do every Wednesday. The people that get, we have a core group that come every single week, and you can tell that they are not just answering questions in the chat, they've become friends. I feel like I became friends with some of these people, I never met them, I don't even know what country some of them are in, but I know them now because of this online communication and this bonding over, what I call, like a like mindedness. When you're in marketing, especially in like an SEO content type of niche, right? We're very analytical people and you have to have a certain mindset to do this, and I'm not saying we're odd people, we're not. But it is hard to go out in real life and express the way that we think to other people. So, that's why when you see people on chats and online groups and at conferences, they're finally with people that think like them, and it fits, and you feel home, right? So, you can do that online and as you and I were talking about before, that is so much more obvious with the Coronavirus pandemic. People are leaning on each other online massively and you can see it, from brand to brand, across the web. And so, yeah, that's kind of how I see it; it's a bond of some sort. 

Amanda: Yeah. So, throughout your career when was the moment when you realized or maybe first saw the importance of online communities, or the power that it could have?

Melissa: I think, again, and just so you know, my background is psychology, I went to college for eight years to get a master's in mental health so, I look at things a little bit different, right? People, I kind of know a lot about people in the industry and you don't realize that the one thing you might say online might be the one thing that keeps this person going for the day, right? We have a lot of people with depression, we have a lot of people with anxiety, and I have seen numerous times that people, even just a few slight kind words here and there mean the world to them, and keeps them going, you know? And so, for me, I always handled online customer service like I, when I was at Moz, I ran social in the morning because they were in Seattle. So, while they were asleep, I ran social and I treated everybody I talked to like, I would talk to my mom, right? Just, and I remember one time this guy was screaming at me about something that was wrong, and he was very mad, and I was like, and I've taught this in workshops, don't get offended, they've had bad days, you know? And he actually came back and apologized and found out he had a brain tumor, you know? So, it's all like, how you treat people, I think, and just being able to communicate with him and being able to chat with him and offline, I think that helped him trust the company a bit more, you know? So, for me, it's always been going the extra mile, I've always gone the extra mile in every community I've been a part of.

Amanda: And I like that you talked about that because it's really humanizing. It takes a company or a brand and brings the humanity back into it, I would think.

Melissa: Right and, you know, like, I've had a couple of the keynotes that have spoken at PubCon messaged me panicked, you know? These are big people we all look up to, and they're terrified to get up on that stage or which tie do I wear? Or do you think the shoes will work? It's not about-- it's about a basic support system, someone that they can ask and feel comfortable asking a question. Like, I was just talking to my team, we're doing content ideation and I was like, people keep coming to me and saying, "There's things I'm too embarrassed to ask online because I don't want to look stupid. Can you guys write about this?", you know? And so, I think you create an environment where there are no stupid questions, or you can ask me behind the scenes and I'll never make fun of you. I don't care what industry it is; you can be that group. And I always use Zappos as an example because they have these core values online that are outstanding and I don't know if you've ever dealt with Zappos customer service, but they are the nicest people on the planet. 

Amanda: Yeah. 

Melissa: And they're known for it, and people trust them, and they buy from them for that reason. So, your community and your core values that people can see, can really make your brand.

Amanda: I like that concept of thinking; how can you actually reflect your core values in your online community? I think that a lot of companies, maybe not a lot, but some companies, they have their core values, but it's unclear sometimes how they're being used day to day. And I think that you're right, that's like a wonderful mechanism for that; you can actually show those things when you're communicating with people.

Melissa: And the important thing is, is that if you have these core values, it can't just be your social media team who's awesome at it, right? It's got to be your sales team when people call, you know, or when they email. It's got to reflect in all areas of your brand and in person, you know? Like, you've been a part of the PubCon community now for what? A year? Two years? I can't--

Amanda: At least. Yeah.

Melissa: And so, we try to be, we're always very nice online, and we try and treat everybody like family at the event, you know? I have a backpack full of band aids and Tylenol and Neosporin recovery medication for people in Vegas who might have drank too much. It's about being there for the people and thinking ahead, what will they need? And believe it or not, a lot of people needed band aids. 

Amanda: Was it blisters walking around? 

Melissa: They're in Vegas, and they went out and heels the night before and wanted to look nice, no, don't do that, and then they're limping around the conference center all day. So, it also comes down to whether in person or online, what will people need, and how will I have that ready for them?

Amanda: Right. Yeah, that sounds like that major benefit of just, really, truly connecting with people, and it sounds like just building trust. 

Melissa: Right, it is a trust builder. And you know, once you trust a brand, you're in, you know? Like, and the brand doesn't have to do all that much, once the trust is there. So, that is your ROI, you've got the trust, people invest, they'll become evangelists for you. You know, I have a lawn mower guy outside, I'm sorry.

Amanda: It's okay. We've all been there, trust me.

Melissa: Yeah. What is he doing? Go away. So, yeah. 

Amanda: So, anybody listening, you know, they, at this point, if they haven't, you know, they're thinking, I understand the value of this, or I want to do this or maybe they have a community but they're not investing in it as much as they want to, what are some next steps? Is it just like establishing specific goals for that community to try to focus a little bit like, what do you advise people who are kind of floundering a little bit?

Melissa: I think you have to figure out what your brand voice is going to be, right? First, your brand voice and your core values, what are we going to represent in what we do? And you have to really outline that in detail because your social media manager now might not be your social media manager a year from now, right? Your salespeople, your customer service teams, those are all going to shift. So, you need to have guidelines in place that will, that everybody can follow, new hires, right? So, you got to have, and then I mean, everybody from executives to your janitor, like they got to follow this because they're going to be interacting with people. So, once you've got that figured out, then you move from there. What kind of people do we want to be? How much time do we want to invest in this? This is the other thing, it's not cheap to have a community team. I don't know if you need a team or if you need one person, but how much time? Because the more relationship building you create, the more needy the people become, right? So, you've got to meet those needs. So, that is something to definitely think about. And then what is the return going to be? And how is that going to feed? I mean, the bottom line is we all have to make money. So, how is this going to make money for us is going to be an important one as well. But yeah, you've got to start with, who do you want to be? 

You know, at PubCon it was once you're here, you're family, and that's what we did. I mean, like, we would do anything for anybody, even if it was like, I can't tell you how many times Brett or myself or someone else at an event, someone had lost their job right before they came, we introduced them to like 10 people, right? And took their names and if they, we would email people after. So, it really is, what do you want to be and how are you going to prove that this is who we are so that it sticks, you know? But I think right now if you look at some of the brands and how they're managing their communities online, you can learn a lot from them, you know? Just being there for people, just sharing a happy meme on a really crappy day, you know? I mean, everybody is different, it all just comes down to what you want, what you can do and what you're going to be able to sustain for the long-term. 

Amanda: Right. So, and if you think of any other brands like Zappos is a great one that you think are great examples, let me know and I'll include those in the show notes because that always helps me to see what other people are doing, you're absolutely right.

Melissa: Well, if you need humor, Wendy's is always there. Wendy's and Sharman. 

Amanda: I haven't looked at Sharman's actually. 

Melissa: Oh my God, Sharman's hilarious. I don't know what they're doing in the pandemic, I've been so busy editing, I haven't looked. But yeah, Wendy's is, it's a different kind of community. It's a humor community, it's a place to escape.

Amanda: That's actually the one that comes to mind like that is, have you seen SparkNotes? 

Melissa: No. 

Amanda: Oh my God, their Twitter is hilarious. They just like incorporate memes into all this classic literature, it's hilarious, I recommend that one.

Melissa: Oh, a Merriam Webster, do you follow that on Twitter? 

Amanda: No.

Melissa: The dictionary, oh my gosh, you'll crack up. I mean, let's say a certain politician uses a word wrong, they define it and then show you the proper word, but they also have like really good humor. And people might think that humor, you have to be careful with humor. Like, I used to present social fails, because sometimes humor, you got to be really careful. Just being the funny brand is enough at times to build a massive community and a following, right? Because what do people need? I mean, they've got work stress, family stress, I mean, take the pandemic out of it, they're stressed, they need a release. So, yeah, those are a couple, I'd have to look at a few others and see, but I do enjoy the funny ones.

Amanda: Me too. It's a nice distraction and you appreciate it when you see it.

Melissa: Well, I need a smile every once in a while, you know? I love when I see bad SEO advice, and I tell the author that it's wrong and they ask me if a man can check it.

Amanda: Oh my god. 

Melissa: That's when I need the humor in my social media.

Amanda: Yeah. I'm like cringing listening to that.

Melissa: It's okay. But it is, you know, so yeah. I don't know if I answered your question.

Amanda: You did. I might backtrack a little bit though, because you've had so many different types of community experience and you talk about setting those types of goals and being able to measure them. Can you talk about how you've done that? Maybe specifically for one of them? So, what the objective was, and then how you, at the end, were able to say or during, how can you gauge whether it's being, like on a successful track at least?

Melissa: Well, it's-- I don't know, trying to think of examples. I think with SEJ might be an example, and that was an old one, right? We had built this massive community of people who were like supporting one another, on top of the brand, right? So, they weren't just writing for us, they were also sharing other people to support them, which was a benefit to the site. But it was also a very tight knit community of people who were reading every day and talking every day. I'll take an example of a PubCon Austin, which happened in February, right. The small event, it's a regional event, it's a one day, but at the end of the day, you know, we always have a networking event, people wouldn't leave. They were so happy to just be with one another, right? And to just hang out and to talk with us that the conference center made us leave, so, we had an hour long event after the conference and everybody was so unified between the social media chatting and that we always push introductions in the morning and we had like a tight lunch, and that at the end of the day, we couldn't get anybody to leave for two and a half, three hours, right? So, PubCon's goal is to unify attendees, so they make friends for life, right? They're friends and resources. And in that event, we were very successful in doing it, we were tired at the end of the day. But it was successful. And as far as SEMrush is concerned, I honestly am not overly involved in the community part of it, but I can tell you that the community support in talking about our tools and introducing the tools to other people is a good sign for us that, you know, we built a strong community that trust us and support us.

Amanda: Because word of mouth, even when facilitated, like it is in communities is so incredibly powerful. If somebody tells you something is great, they're so much more likely to be invested in it. 

Melissa: Right, because people are going to trust the person over a sales sheet any day, you know? We do it all the time, we look for reviews, we've even learned how to pick through fake reviews on Amazon or e commerce stores. I mean, they're painfully obvious now, right? Because we know what to look for. So, yeah, that community building that results in word of mouth ends up in sales and trust. So, it's an invaluable tool.

Amanda: So, that's probably one of the good ways to measure it, right? If sales can track how many times people have interacted maybe with content in the community or if somebody does actually refer them to the tool or the service. But it also sounds like there are other kind of more intangible ways, like you said, people staying late or becoming friends on Twitter organically because of a chat that you facilitated, where you can kind of see, "Oh, this is going well, at least and then we can see how this makes us money after but at least we're on the right track.".

Melissa: Right. And I don't think, I think that the challenge with both social media and community is that everybody wants to track, track, track, track, and it's a harder thing to track, right? It's not about, it is about the money, but at the same time, it's about brand awareness. So, you need to be tracking that, how many mentions are we getting? Like, we have the brand monitoring tool at SEMrush, you can just, it'll just send you data, right? How many times are you being mentioned, where are you being mentioned? I remember after I started to work for SEMush, I was at PubCon, and almost every SEO session, I was in mentioning the tool. Well, there you go, every speaker introduced to what? Anywhere from 75 to 150 people in a room the tool that they'd never heard of it before then, right?

Amanda: Right, and a very targeted audience as well.

Melissa: Exactly. So, it's all about, and I don't think SEMrush would mind that I mention this, they were-- they have been exhibitors at PubCon, Vegas, and at one point, they said to me, "Well, we didn't get a lot of new sales.". And I'm like, "How many people there use the tool already?".

Amanda: True. 

Melissa: Like, most of them. And I'm like, "Right.". So then, the following year, they changed focus, it wasn't about sales. It was about providing whatever the customers needed, right? So, they switched it to that community thing, tell us what you like, tell us what you'd like us to change, they had people there with notepads, you know what I mean? So, they still spent the same amount of money to be a sponsor and to be in the expo hall, but their return was still there, because they got to talk to customers and find out what they need, what they didn't know how to do in the tool, right? So, it all comes down to like, I mean, client retention is just as important as new clients.

Amanda: Absolutely. I think that's very often overlooked, and it has to be valuable to be able to talk to everybody and hear what those common questions are, because that can just heal all of your other efforts. If there are challenges, you can create content about that and help the new people with it. 

Melissa: Exactly, know how to make-- which how to videos to make, or to which customer service thing you want to add to the list, or I mean, and the content is, is great too. So, and I think SEMrush is in a different kind of position because they have so many different tool kits. People don't know for sure how to use all of them perfectly. So, once they've learned, "Oh, there's this and this that I can do.", they might, you know, get a larger subscription, you know, go from a basic to like a guru. So, it's going to be different for every brand and like you were saying, it's got to be goal oriented and what do we want to accomplish? And I think, we're in this really weird experimental time with this pandemic, we're going to see a huge financial impact for everybody. So, what are the brands doing now, for their community that is going to bring people back in, you know, when money's there? It's going to be a lot to learn from. So, I saw commercial where they will deliver a car to you, and I'm like, "Is that what your community needs right now?". I mean, maybe if they're really rich, and this isn't bothering them at all, but that's a very small group and a lot of money invested in advertising for that. So, yeah. So, we'll just have to see, but I'm excited to see what people experiment with and what works.

Amanda: Have you seen common mistakes made when people are trying to build these online communities? So, maybe you're in communities and you see this happen, or? 

Melissa: Yeah. 

Amanda: You're like, "I have many.".

Melissa: Yeah, where do I start? Well, I won't name anything, I'll take the Ellen DeGeneres example, who is my idol by the way, I love her. Around the time the Olympics, she put a meme out with her on the back of Usain Bolt, the runner, and it was pretty funny. She's like, "I'm just going to hitch a ride with him.". Well, it got turned into, is this racist? You know, and it wasn't her intention at all, but people had a point, right? And I think that is the challenge is, and I used to do a whole section, a teaching on this, how to hire, right? If you're going to have a community, you have to have someone that can literally not make a mistake, that can look at a situation and look at what's wrong with it, or could potentially go wrong with it, right? And I mean, look at it from 100 different angles and think how could this population see this? How could this population see this? How is this going to come across to women, men, the gay community, like, the trans community? How could this be looked at wrong? Right? And avoid anything that could go wrong because you've seen the backlash on social media. And so, for community, that's usually the biggest thing, they get somebody with the wrong temperament, someone that doesn't have patience, they represent the brand, yet they talk really badly on social media, right? That comes back to haunt the brand. So, I think the hiring and choosing who's going to run it, is important, that probably it's the biggest mistake I see. At the same time, lack of support for the community person, because it's emotion, right? It's a lot of work to be a community manager. I don't think people understand, if you are really in it, and you're there for the community, you're using up your emotional reserves to help these people. And so, sometimes you need a backup for support; people burn out.

Amanda: Yeah, no, that makes total sense. What are some of the way, and I know we're already running low on time, but so many questions, one of the things I wanted to ask was, in terms of like fostering the community, so let's assume people want to start one, right? Like, they don't already have a built in audience or maybe they do but they haven't figured out how to utilize that yet into a bigger community, how are you able to kind of jump start those connections or create a space where people can start feeling comfortable sharing and connecting?

Melissa: That's a tough one because it's kind of hard for everybody. So, I'll go back to like the Big Cat example, okay? So, we were trying to educate people on Big Cats, right? The plight, the amount of deaths a year, how few there are in the community, didn't do anything. People did not care, right? So, one day I went out and I worked with, like the cats and the people directly and I took a picture and I posted it online, just a picture of the cat's eyeball, I swear to you, it was just an eye. Like, I got like 60 likes and I was like, okay, so then we tried to space it out; facts mixed with images, right? Didn't work, people didn't give a hoot about the facts, they just wanted the images. So, it ended up that I just took images all day long, I personalized it and said, "This is the cat's name. This is what he likes to do.", right? And I mean, we went to 10,000 real quick and once it hit past 10,000 it was insane how quick it went to 55.

Amanda: Wow.

Melissa: So, it all came down to what does this audience want? And you're going to have to really test it out, right? And that's really the only way, which platform? For us, Twitter did nothing, blogging did nothing, Facebook was everything. Because I tried, I tried blogging, I tried Twitter, nothing, no response. Now, we have Instagram, I don't do this for them anymore, it would have been great. But it came down to finding the audience and providing what they needed, you know, and testing, you just, that's the only way to figure it out is to test. And I will admit that I probably did this for about a month before I even started getting a response. So, you have to know that it's not going to be right away and honestly, I had it easy because it was pictures of tigers and lions and ligers. Now here's the other interesting thing, they take in any animal that needs a home. So, they had birds, they had monkeys, and they had dogs, nobody cared. They didn't like the birds, they didn't like dogs, and they only wanted cats. So, I was like, okay. So, I figured that out and it worked really well.

Amanda: So, testing definitely seems like, you can try to do some research just like you, like anybody would of your audience, right? But you still have to test to see what even the type of content is going to do well, and then just double down on that once you figure it out.

Melissa: Yeah, and the other thing I would do is, if you know some of the questions that your audience already has, just do some research on that and dig deeper into what people are asking online. You know, like the people also asked Bing and Google? If you click on one, it'll start displaying more questions for you, I use the topic research tool, SEMrush all the time for everything. Because-- I even did this to find Christmas gifts. 

Amanda: Really?

Melissa: Right. Like, yeah, because I Googled all this stuff and just got affiliate articles to Amazon and I needed like, no, I need this kind of gift and it showed me all kinds of questions that people were asking, right? So, then that gives you at least some ideas to kick off and try with your community.

Amanda: Absolutely. Yeah. So, there's a question I ask everybody, it's a little off topic, because it's more about getting the buy-in for stuff like this. So, what I ask everybody is, what is the biggest mistake people make when they go to their leadership and they try to explain the value of something? And then in this case, we'll say the value of online communities.

Melissa: I don't know if I can answer that because I think everyone, I've worked for understood the importance of online community. So, I've been lucky. But I do understand dealing with higher ups and then sometimes they don't always agree with you, right? So, I always pose it as, what's the harm of doing an experiment for three months? Give me five hours a week to experiment, let's just see, you know? See what they'll kick back. Sometimes you have to prove to certain people, right? And so, I haven't had it from the community standpoint, but I've had it with other things.

Amanda: Yeah. It's definitely something, and that's kind of why this podcast came about because I've heard it at conferences and stuff and people just like, "I know what I want to do, but I can't get the buy-in for it.".

Melissa: I've had-- I've heard that so much at PubCon I cannot even tell you. My boss won't let me, my boss won't pay for it, my boss, my boss, my boss. So, like I had someone said their boss wouldn't pay for the tools, the SEMrush tools. So, I sat down with them and went through the tools and took a bunch of screenshots for them at PubCon, on my computer and said, "Here, give this to your boss.", you know? And sometimes that's just what it takes, you know?

Amanda: Yeah, I mean, it's a good point that like, whatever you're trying to do, getting somebody else who's involved, like, especially if it's a tool, you know, getting their help, getting an agency's help, getting whoever it is to help explain the value. Sometimes people just struggle with that part, just articulating what that value is like they know it, but.

Melissa: Right, and some people are just numbers people; they have to see the data or the information before they'll invest, right? And so, while I couldn't prove the tool would make the money, I could prove that they could get a lot of like, traffic analytics data out of it that they didn't know they could, right? So, it's that kind of thing, it's like, so yeah, if you have a boss that is not convinced, get some examples from pals and, I would also suppose like, ask on Twitter, "What would you say to your boss?", you know what I mean? Or, a Facebook group like, "Help me.". 

Amanda: Yeah, tap into your own communities and all it comes full circle. 

Melissa: Yeah, "What did you do? Because I'm lost.", you know? But sometimes you're just stuck with a boss who will not progress and then you have to decide if that's the job for you. 

Amanda: Yep. So, knowing the objective of this show is to help content marketers measure their work and communicate that value, who do you recommend to be guests on future episodes? 

Melissa: Boy, I don't know who you've had. Casey Gillette. Have you had Casey yet? 

Amanda: No. 

Melissa: Oh, God, you should have Casey. She's the cutest thing I've ever, I can't, I have such a long list for you, it's insane.

Amanda: I'd love to hear that.

Melissa: I might just have to just email you a long list because it's all depends on what you're looking for, are you looking for graphics? Are you looking for ROI related content? I mean, there's just so many. And Susan Winograd is a genius on pretty much everything content and PPC. Matt Silt is great with like podcasts, ROI and Dave Roar. I mean, like it all depends on what you need. I could just break it down for you by that topic. But yeah, I mean it, I don't know. Jake Boho is great for SEO, Dan Conner is great for local SEO content, that guy's a genius. So, yeah, I've got all kinds of names I can give you.

Amanda: That's wonderful. Yeah, we'll talk after.

Melissa: And then Greg, you know, Greg Gifford, right?

Amanda: Yeah, I don't think I actually have met him though. 

Melissa: Okay, well, as far as video content, he's the king on that one.

Amanda: Yeah, we haven't done a show on video. So, that's an excellent idea. Well, Melissa, thank you so very much for taking the time. It was really fun chatting.

Melissa: I hope I said something decent. I'm just kind of rambling over here like.

Amanda: No, it's so helpful to hear like, first hand experiences and the value that you've seen in building communities.

Melissa: Yeah. And I will say this from the Big Cat thing, when I first went there, they had about 10 people visit a day and now they've got about 4 or 500 people visit a day. Now, that was a new website and community building, I built the website for free, not the current one, but a different one. And so, marketing does work. I'll just leave it with that. 

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