Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
May 17, 2010

Creating Online Communities That Feel Like Home

Building an online community isn’t about creating a forum where your brand is “king” among its many loyal subjects. It’s about creating a comfortable online “home” where you engage in meaningful conversations with fans and followers.

Open the doors to your online community, let everyone in and simply walk away, and you’ll return to an almost unrecognizable “Wild West.” Every successful community needs a “sheriff” to keep the “bad guys” in check, while engaging its audience in innovative ways. 

One company that understands how to create thriving and organized online communities is Unilever. The parent company of vastly popular brands such as Dove, Axe and Ben & Jerry’s has established ongoing dialogues with their audiences that are creative, interesting and highly rewarding.

As Stacie Bright, senior communications marketing manager, Unilever, explained during her PRSA Digital Impact Conference session, “Leveraging Social Media for Unilever,” “The consumer owns your brand. Conversations both good and bad are happening everywhere, and markets demand consistent communication to credibly demonstrate commitments to brand issues.”

Online communities may be the perfect venues to build relationships, but before you create that fan page or forum, do your homework. “You must develop protocols for your brand. You will not have time once you launch your community. Make sure you understand the landscape, identify potential issues, have guidelines for response, establish your brand’s “voice,” and develop a strategy and editorial calendar ahead of time,” said Stacie. “Then create guidelines for real-time engagement, and be sure to bring in your customer service team.”

Careful planning has worked well for Unilever. Dove’s Self-Esteem Fund Facebook page, which is dedicated to promoting positive self-esteem and helping women feel good about their unique inner and outer beauty, has nearly 63,000 fans. It’s a warm, welcoming online space that gives back to the community through resources and tools, as well as advice from global brand ambassador and self-esteem expert, Jess Weiner.

Dove’s Self-Esteem Fund Facebook page is just one of Unilever’s popular online communities. Axe and Ben & Jerry’s both have made their marks on Facebook with their own innovative fan pages.

Stacie offered the following tips to keep in mind when launching your own online communities:

  1. Be real and transparent.
  2. Provide a consistent stream of valuable content.
  3. Be social. Engage in two-way conversations.
  4. Give VIP treatment. Create brand ambassadors by treating them like your best friend.
  5. Create seamless navigation, unique community missions and integration with other channels.

Unilever’s brands have found their homes online. Now your brand’s fans are knocking at your door. Isn’t it time to let them in?

Sharon Terry-Fletcher is a freelance copywriter, editor and marketing consultant. A self-proclaimed social media junkie, Sharon utilizes her traditional and online marketing and public relations background both professionally and personally. Connect with Sharon on LinkedIn or e-mail her at

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