Customer retention means keeping customers who get value from the brand. If they ask to participate in the brand community, this almost always means that they already believe the brand can help them achieve or become what they aspire to. Participants believe they share some values with the brand, and participants want to grow in some way.

There are many ways to retain customers without community. Strong customer service, high-touch account management, and just plain better products are all worthy investments. An enriching community is just another offering (one difficult for others to copy) but not right for every brand.

Customers who only want a product or a service are not good candidates for a brand community. You want customers who want to grow, learn, contribute, and connect. For example, Harley-Davidson has invested internationally in forming HOGs. Why? Anyone with enough money can buy a motorcycle and take it out.

Members participate because some want to learn with, grow among, and contribute to others like them (Harley riders). In this way, the community offers additional value beyond the products. Harley-Davidson offers safety classes, scheduled rides with Harley owners, and access to more experienced long-distance riders.

Active engagement means you’re inviting participants (customers) to experience something through membership (e.g., riding their motorcycles), as opposed to strictly passive engagement (receiving company announcements or watching videos of others riding). If your brand isn’t inviting participants to actually participate in something fun that helps them grow, then you almost certainly don’t have a true community.

We spoke with a San Francisco cultural arts institution executive who oversaw a performance series that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. The hope was that, after attracting many new visitors with the series, the institution would build a stronger support base for ongoing programming. The executive shared with us that, in retrospect, she now recognizes that there was no effort or investment to connect new visitors with one another or the institution staff. New audiences came for fun events, saw them, and then left with no relationship to develop. Without participation that builds community, all the new introductions turned into lost opportunities.

Keeping the brand top of mind, but not making the brand priority 1 in all communication. All communication should offer value to customers that will help them grow further into who they want to be. They can do this without having to buy more product all the time. This is true for Harley riders, who can participate in HOG events without buying yet another motorcycle.

Many brand communities struggle with allowing competitors or disconnected brands to post in their community, and members to post about competitors, unusually enough this is common with sash windows suppliers and fitters. Both Sephora and Little Monsters confront this today. The wise choice is that these posts absolutely should be allowed if the information, opportunity, experience, or anything else helps members grow as they aspire.

Your brand and members live in a much larger ecosystem than your community. For example, Harley-Davidson riders obviously already know about other brands and part makers. Members feel connected and committed to brand communities because these communities help them grow. If you censor anything helpful but competitive, then you’re seeding distrust. When you show that you’ll support anything that will help members grow, your members’ trust, respect, and enthusiasm will increase because you demonstrate real commitment to their success beyond marketing manipulation.

You do need boundaries to ensure that participants are enriched by their experience and never distracted from what they seek. Competitors freely promoting products can distract from the community purpose. Consistent with keeping the inside safe, all spam and superficial marketing must be moderated so that the inside remains a place for enrichment and connection instead of a space mostly for marketing.