Back in March I was asked to contribute to Contagious Magazine’s special report on Brand Communities, looking at social media from the perspective of international brands. Now the report has been released, they've been kind enough to let me reproduce my article in full below:

Just about wherever you are in the world, you can order a Coke. The most ubiquitous of brands has steadily built a truly global fan base for more than 120 years.

The difference between Coca-Cola’s introduction in 1886 and today is that now those fans are talking about the brand online too.

By now, anyone involved in marketing knows that there is value in engaging with these people. A brand community often includes the most devoted fans: core customers who are the most engaged, most loyal and very likely to infect others with their obsession.

These people often have an encyclopaedic knowledge of a product - even the whole category - and their ideas can contribute to the evolution and innovation of products or simply be a way to test new features, flavours or functionality. The most active community members may even help each other out with advice and support, building trust within the community. When these kinds of communities cross borders, they can act as a 24/7 global helpdesk.

Context and culture
Whatever the purpose and geographic scope, each community will have its own rules (written and unwritten) that evolve over time. Like any form of communication, context and culture play a big part in how members of a community behave and work. This can differ according to culture and available technology in different markets and the level of sophistication and comfort in the online space.

Brands that want to understand, participate in - and perhaps create - communities now face a new set of challenges: organisational, technological and cultural.

Creating multiple brand communities across different geographies makes it harder to achieve economies of scale, and centralised marketing teams will need local input to plan, launch and manage the community.

Meanwhile a global, one size fits all approach may reduce the reliance on individual market involvement, but increase the technical complexity.

The first step in developing your strategy is understanding what communities already exist. This involves listening to the conversation across many cultures and platforms. Tools such as Radian6 can help gather the data, but there’s no replacement for a social media savvy human who’s a native speaker and interested in the relevant subculture. Only then will you get a true sense of the community dynamics.

Questions to consider include whether this network is leading or following the trends globally, or in that market? Does it reach across borders? Is it country-specific?

For every brand, the answers will be different. Lovers of global brands (Coke, McDonald’s, Nike) and fans of very specific things (say Mad Men or Marmite) will chat across borders.

Fans of brands like Ford, which sells different products in different ways in different regions, on the whole, probably won’t. The Fiesta Movement in the US (where bloggers were given a car for six months) is markedly different to This is Now, which got the brand involved in conversations about photography, fashion, design and architecture across Europe.

We might think Facebook (now available in more than 70 languages including Klingon and Pirate), Twitter and blogs are pretty central to social media. This is true, to an extent, and while it’s good that Facebook continues to make it easier to manage multilingual and multinational fan pages, there are still some pretty big problems for them to solve, such as fan updates in different languages all appearing on a global fan page.

There’s also the issue of some brands being inconsistent across markets in channels such as Facebook. You can work around this with different fan pages for each market, but it can get confusing for consumers. And of course, the different pages need to exist within a global strategy. It might help, when tackling a problem like this, to seek strategic advice from a specialist social media agency with experience of working on global projects.

Let’s not forget that although Facebook is growing quickly in most markets, there are some locally dominant networks that can’t be ignored such as Orkut in Brazil, Cyworld in South Korea, Nasza Klasa in Poland and Mixi in Japan. Hyves in the Netherlands has more than double the membership of Facebook in that country (7.6 million compared to 3.3 million), so for reach alone, brands should develop a presence on these platforms.

Geographical context is also crucial - and not just for cultural differences. It’s important to remember that different levels of broadband penetration and mobile usage, as well as the types of handsets used in different regions will mean that communities work in different ways.

In China, for example, the social interaction online is much more focused on BBS and instant messenger, though this is changing as local versions of Facebook such as Renren appear. Getting to grips with a social campaign in China would mean getting to grips with each of these systems, as well as of course the structure and social mores of online interaction in that country.

There’s also the fact that communities are disparate. Facebook might be the place for talking about how much you love Coca-Cola, but is it the place for talking about surfing or knitting? Communities based around these kinds of activities often pre-exist elsewhere, but don’t make any assumptions: some countries may embrace niche sites, others won’t. For example, in South Korea, people tend to seek and share advice on specific topics in forums, but blogging tends to be more like a ‘digital scrapbook’ than personal opinion. Even in Europe and the US, we have niche social networks: Ravelry for crafts like knitting; Fuzzster for talking about pets and Dogster for talking about dogs in particular.

Practicalities
Working with international brand communities isn’t easy. But when people can so easily talk to each other, wherever they are, it’s important that global brands get it right everywhere.

This might be something of a challenge for clients. Who’s in overall control? How are budgets allocated? How can messages be unified across markets?

How marketing departments are structured around this new set of challenges will change over the next few years as brands realise the old global ‘toolkit’ approach needs adjustment in the age of social media.

But overall, the notion of a ‘global’ conversation needs to be treated carefully. For any brand, there might be people talking all over the world, but they are not having the same conversation. The local is important.

So for wherever you are looking at communities, a regionalised strategy might work best, as it also allows you to test and learn. The downside is that your competitors may make a move in another region whilst you’re still learning in the first. In such a fast- moving space, that’s an ever-present risk.

This strategy relies on the involvement of local brand owners, who should be consulted and regularly involved alongside those helping with your global social media strategy. Doing so will make sure the brand personality and tone of voice is presented according to local tastes. It’s also important to remember that there may already be fan groups for your product in one or more markets. Your brand new ‘official’ community might get snubbed by the influencers if they already have a thriving community of their own.

Wherever you’re looking to engage, it’s essential to understand the local landscape when developing your community strategy. Then behave sensitively, credibly and most of all, relevantly. No matter the similarities or differences in each market, these three tenets will apply everywhere.

[Disclosure: Coca-Cola, Ford and Marmite are all We Are Social clients]