Empower the Future of Marketing



A Missing Piece of the Social Media Puzzle

Across the globe, companies struggle to get their social media strategy right. The ones that succeed tend to go beyond the numbers game, where the aim is to collect as many forwards or followers as possible, and recognize the power of close, genuine interactions between individuals and brands.

Here in China, two brands stand out for their ability to create close engagement with consumers.  First is Lancome’s Rose Beauty online community, with close to 900,000 members. The other is BMW, who have created an online community with 150,000 car fans that get together and share their interest in and their admiration of cars.  

Lancome and BMW are good at utilizing their platforms for marketing purposes and see ROI on their social media spend. Now there are brands in China that experiment with how their online infrastructure can be used for other purposes, especially as a source of consumer insight.

These brands bring in professional researchers and community moderators to facilitate conversations that help create better products and services, tailored to the lives of the smart and picky Chinese consumer. Traditionally, companies have relied on focus groups, surveys or direct feedback from their customers. But online infrastructure (or communities) offer an unprecedented opportunity for immediate access to what customer think and get to know them over a longer period of time.

Not only do online communities offer cost effective consumer research, but in communities that are moderated by professional researchers brands can get to a depth of insight that has been difficult to attain before. The nuance and intimate details of consumers’ relationships with a brand can be studied as they unfold, change, and happen.

People tend to speak more honestly about what they do and think than what they normally would in other forms of research because participants feel a part of a community. When others in that community frankly share their experience and advice trust is built. While this trust grows, participants come to feel like they belong to something worthwhile and develop a concern for others in that community. This fosters a willingness to contribute to that community in a real and intimate way. 

For example, in our research community with diabetes patients, members are more willing to admit how they re-use syringes to save money. In our mums community we hear about pregnant women’s efforts to lose weight when they are still pregnant, normally a taboo in Chinese society. Mums tell of the joy of stealing a plush toy from a store decoration, or the sadness over a lost sex life after giving birth, which rare to hear in offline research.

Regardless of the purpose of a community, a successful one happens when its creators take seriously and understand that online environments are now important social places for people. It happens when the hosts know how to create the “social glue” that is essential to people feeling part of a community and being able to contribute. Community experts know how to build warm and inviting places where people want to hang out.

These environments do not happen organically but require a dedicated team and lots of hard work. As creators of some of the most highly engaged private insight communities in China we have identified five golden rules to help create dynamic and intimate social spaces online.


A good host makes everyone feel welcome. They introduce guests to facilitate conversations, but do not talk too much about themselves. This means that from a design perspective people should come first, not the brand. Think about an online community as a venue that your brand sponsors. That means you have to make sure that everything works, but you cannot push sales or dictate conversations. If you do push sales or dictate conversations people will find other spaces online where they can “hang out” and be in control, and will be unlikely to return to your place. 


Moderators of a community play a vital role in a vibrant community. Think about how to assign moderators different personalities and how these are to be performed.  For example, if you have 2-3 moderators it works well to have someone that is perceived as warm and welcoming while another can be a bit more rigid and can step in when someone needs to be counseled. 


After you have built the community, assigned roles and recruited members the hard part starts –making sure people want to come back. Launch competitions, do mini polls, ask questions, send members out on a task. These are the activities that make members feel like they are contributing to the community, a valued part of that community. As a host you need to do what you can to encourage and foster this feeling and behavior. 


Make sure your “house” is in order and show members that someone looks after it and cares about it. Delete spam posts, regularly update your landing page and respond to your members’ inquiries promptly.  


Make it easy to see the latest updates to demonstrate to others that this is a “hot” place to hang out. Show who is the latest member to join, what is trending, the popular conversations and the most read threads. And remember that in China the preference for website design is somewhat different, details and lots of information are preferred rather than “clean” and minimalistic layouts.

It is an exciting time when we consider how online places and the communities they enable are now a key part of people lives. It is up to us to figure out how to best use and support these places, and so be a part of these communities. In China, with over 500 million consumers online and where brands constantly misjudge what their customers want we should really embrace the potential of what these online communities can offer.