Insights at UBC Sauder

Tech giants like Apple may be “missing an opportunity” to engage their online communities

Posted 2019-03-07

A new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business suggests that brands wanting to build the most effective and long-lasting relationships within online communities need to select labels that make users feel connected.

Members of online brand communities are often rewarded for their level of engagement through a reputation signal, or a record of their behaviour. The study, recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, looked at the online communities from brands like Apple and T-Mobile to see how the level of engagement differed depending on how the users were tagged online.

Some companies, like Apple, use a points system, assigning a numerical accrual system to a user. For example, in the Apple Support Community, users are assigned a number showing how many threads, questions or comments he or she has engaged in since joining the community. But this points method may be holding back the tech giant from more successful user engagement.

“What we would say is that they are missing an opportunity to add this texture around this relationship,” says study co-author Darren Dahl, BC Innovation Council professor, Marketing and Behavioural Science division at UBC Sauder. In fact, the study looked at what happened with the more than 5,800 users in the T-Mobile Support Community when the company changed from a points system to labels like “Newbie,” “Citizen” and “Super Citizen.” The results clearly showed a higher level of engagement from the newly-labelled users, both with the brand and with each other.

“The points are a simple way to do it, they’re very clear,” explains Dahl. “But they don’t give you the robust information that labels or badges might because they give you role clarity and they don’t give you connection and that’s what you’re trying to establish out of the gate.”

Online communities are an important tool for marketing managers who wish to enhance relationships and procure customer loyalty, so companies that use positive labels like “Expert” will have greater success generating and maintaining consumers’ engagement, according to the study.

The study also found that the word choice for these labels is also important. Researchers found that using labels like “Expert” motivated online users to engage further with the online community. While researchers warned against using words with a negative connotation, like "Dictator” or “Follower." Labelling systems that used “Gold,” “Silver,” and “Bronze” were also not nearly as effective as words like “Expert.”

“The relationship we have with brand is a two-way street,” says Dahl. “As consumers, we value the way we fit into the brand and that’s what this research is saying, that knowing where you fit into a brand is important.”

Darren Dahl is senior associate dean, faculty, director of the Robert H. Lee Graduate School and BC Innovation Council professor, Marketing and Behavioural Science division at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business. He co-authored “Enhancing consumer engagement in an online brand community via user reputation signals: a multi-method analysis” along with Sara Hanson from the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond and Lan Jiang of Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. The study was published in the November 2018 edition of the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.