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Over the past year, America's top brands have made few improvements in how they use online branded communities to reach their customers, according to a report released today by ComBlu.

Among some 219 online communities managed by 92 US brands, a dwindling proportion is using a strategic approach to social engagement in 2012, and most have recorded static or falling engagement activity levels, the report found.

Among the industries studied, Telecom recorded the highest activity levels across all brands, while the pharmaceutical industry recorded the lowest activity levels.

Below, additional findings from the fourth annual "State of Online Branded Communities" report, issued by ComBlu.

Community Activity Levels

Among the 219 online branded communities studied:

  • Engagement levels have been fairly healthy in 2012, but static: 43% of communities enjoy high levels of activity, up 1 percentage point from 42% in 2011.
  • The proportion of brands with low activity levels grew to 23% in 2012, from 16% in 2011.

Many brands have not used their community managers to stimulate engagement and to consistently showcase what's new or interesting inside the community. In some communities, managers have failed to respond to forums or discussion threads, diminishing the value of the community as a go-to place for ideas, tips, and brand relationships, according to the report.

Using a Strategic Approach

Fewer brands are taking a strategic approach to social engagement in 2012. Among the 219 online branded communities:

  • 37% now have a cohesive strategy for social engagement—with multiple activities rolling into a single online experience—down from 42% in 2011 and 33% in 2010.
  • The social experimentation stage is most prevalent: 55% of brands are experimenting with social communities, lacking a long-term engagement approach, using instead a series of one-off experimental marketing campaigns. That level is up from 50% in 2011.
  • Community ghost towns (unpopulated communities) now make up 7% of online communities, up from 5% 2011.
  • Community overload (multiple communities fighting for attention from the same audience) afflicts 1% of online communities, down from 3% in 2011.

Community Strategies

Some brands are using multiple strategies of engagement within the same community.

ComBlu defines three such strategies, or "pillars" of engagement as the following:

  • Advocacy is essentially word-of-mouth marketing around a product, service, issue or idea to develop deeper relationships with stakeholders or activate them to support a specific mission.
  • Feedback refers to crowd sourcing new ideas for products or services, or gathering input on product quality, customer experience, marketing campaigns, and messaging.
  • Support refers to using customer experts to provide or extend the customer service (includes post-purchase and support forums).

Among the brands studied, most (84%) communities are focused on advocacy (vs. 75% in 2011); only one-third (32%) are focused on customer support, and 15% focus their communities around customer feedback.

Over the past year, many brands adjusted their social media engagement tactics; among such changes:

  • The presence of a community manager rebounded to 52% in 2012, from 48% in 2011.
  • The adoption of user reviews increased to 51%, from 27% 2011.
  • Content aggregation (share features, content rating, and social bookmarking) registered a sharp decline, from 92% in 2011, to 78% in 2012.
  • The use of toolbars/custom widgets climbed from 10% in 2011, to 26% in 2012.


Best-practices such as mission-appropriate engagement (96%) and new/featured content (93%) continued to have the highest adoption, followed by easy navigation (90%), rich-media content (89%), and faceted search (88%):

Top-Performing Brands

Only 15 brands were ranked as high performers, based on their adoption of best practices.  On a scale of 0 to 60, such high performers received a minimum of 50 points.

Among the highest performers, Verizon Communications led with 56 points; followed by SAP with 55 points, Sony PlayStation with 54 points, EA (Electronic Arts) with 53 points, and AT&T, Bravo, and IBM, each with 52 points.

Top-Performing Industries

Among the 16 industries in the study, telecom was the highest-scoring with 52 points, followed by gaming and tech (each with 44 points), entertainment (41 points), and the beverage industry (40 points):

About the data: The audit of 219 online branded communities among 92 US companies was conducted by ComBlu during the summer of 2012. None of the companies was aware its site was being analyzed, and ComBlu did not contact the companies prior to the analysis of the data it collected.

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