Brand-building through online communities - what schools can learn from business


Successful companies, including and especially sports and tech companies, harness the power of community to increase brand awareness, understand customers, improve outcomes, and build brand loyalty.

One way they do this in 2022 is through the power of social media. It’s how we all connect and share our experiences - positive and negative. We all recognise the addictive power of that scroll of videos and images. It sucks us in and we spend more hours than we would care to admit absorbing social media.

So bear in mind that the more time or effort that an individual invests into a product or service, the more they’ll end up valuing it. Researchers from Harvard Business School call this the IKEA Effect. With IKEA’s business model, the consumer invests time into assembling the products, so they tend to overvalue the products and brand1. As with social media - we pour our time into it and put a value on the information we find there.

A circular history of social interaction on the web

At the dawn of the world wide web, online communities looked like bulletin boards2. These evolved into online forums where people with shared interests came together. People exchanged information and sent each other direct messages. 

Later, social networks brought all these people together under one ‘roof’ and the specific topic-based forum became less prominent. Now our feeds are saturated with unrelated items that we are not always relevant - so the topic-based forums are making a comeback. This is good news for school communities looking to build loyalty online.

Classlist connects over 380,000 parents in school communities across 27 countries through our dedicated school parent platform. 

Lessons from big business

The way businesses are using social media is evolving. Where it used to be used for networking (i.e. to drive sales) consumers are now more savvy and not as easily sold to. Influencers aren’t nearly as influential as they once were. When a post declares itself ‘Paid ad’ we immediately distrust the content. (The Competition and Marketing Authority rules, enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority, require influencers to declare if they are being paid to promote an item. This started being enforced a couple of years ago and has dramatically changed the way we value influencer posts.)

Instead, brands are using social media to build communities, draw in consumers and sell ‘sideways’. By increasing engagement, they build trust and loyalty - and keep pulling the consumer back to buy more.

The move towards brand building through community was kickstarted by DeWalt drills, which asked customers for feedback and input into the design process. The Mayo Clinic encouraged users to help each other instead of relying on the experts. Wendy’s builds private communities within Fortnite, a gaming platform. Even Nike whitelabels running communities to draw people in - even Adidas loyalists - in ever more subtle ways.

So as we move away from sharing the minutiae of our days and obsessing over the latest influencer-led trend, at Classlist we’re delighted to see a move towards less navel-gazing and more individual-to-individual connection, a desire to interact with like-minded people, and a trust in community wisdom over the ‘experts’. We see that above all, people need to belong to communities.

Susan Burton, Classlist CEO says: “We give schools a ready-built community, in a closed space, online. It’s only open to members of your school. They can ask questions and rely on the true experts within the school to answer them. They can meet each other online in order to set up real-life playdates for their children and social events for themselves. Together, your community is stronger.”

How does this fit with business use of social media?

Marketeers succeed when they truly understand the needs of their customers and can meet them with a solution. But customer research doesn’t come cheap. So the best place to start is where your customers are - online, venting their frustrations, praising success stories. To have a ready built community gives your school marketing team instant access to and intelligence on the school parent community’s needs and the areas they love about your school. It gives them the messaging they need to use to connect with the next generation of potential parents. 

Feedback is a gift3 - the more you hear, the better you can become. The better you service your current customers, the more positive praise they will heap on your school - attracting the next year’s incoming wave of families. Word of mouth marketing only works when your parents are truly happy.

What’s up with WhatsApp?

Many school parents gather on WhatsApp - but can you name another kind of business that pushes its customers to get together there? It’s akin to sending your customers away. You can’t see what is being said about your brand, you can’t answer questions and you can’t respond to feedback.

ISBA (the Independent School Bursars’ Association) sent out major guidance on WhatsApp groups in late April 2022, prepared with input from leading legal advisor to schools, Farrer & Co. Why is this relevant to Bursars? Because parents on social media can directly impact the reputation and therefore the fortunes of their school. 

Aside from this, letting parents onboard each other through the medium of WhatsApp isn’t inclusive - not all parents will be able to share their phone numbers (police force, teachers etc). This undermines the concept of a welcoming school community. Classlist’s team recently met with RS Academics, whose services include school parent surveys. They told us that Classlist regularly comes up in their survey results as a very effective way of helping parents onboard and connect easily. 

Why schools need their own branded social space

A branded social space is becoming a must-have asset for organisations wanting to overcome the many limitations and unpredictable nature of conventional social media and live community forums alike. By uniting the benefits of each, it’s possible to forge more engaging relationships of the type that drive today’s economy4.

In the past, schools have turned to Facebook to host their online community. This doesn’t chime with Millennial or Gen Z (today’s younger parents) use of social media. The trend towards dedicated platforms like Classlist is to meet the specific needs of that community in one place. 

Before social media, most brands depended on invitation-only meetings rather than public platforms. That has all changed now that companies are recognising the benefits of maintaining their own social spaces5.

A dedicated space helps schools onboard parents (they are excellent at onboarding pupils but less investment has been given to welcoming the parents). It also helps those new parents find the answers to the myriad of questions they will have, find friends for their children and themselves and feel like they belong to this new community which will be part of their lives for years to come. 

Our final words go to Lord Black, Deputy Chair, Telegraph Media Group, who concluded in his closing keynote at AMCIS in May 2022, that school marketing is going to become all about online communities and schools need to invest in understanding this area now.

2 - The return of exclusive online communities
3 Feedback is the gift that should help someone to: do things differently; change a habit or two; become more self-aware; or understand what they may need to change in order to be more successful.
4 - Overcoming the challenges of brand networking with exclusive online brand communities.

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