The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how we connect. Before, many of us believed the conventional wisdom that face-to-face experiences are “better” than online connection. Not only is this misleading, but right now, connecting online is urgent and imperative.

The good news? Creating a brand community during a pandemic is possible and transformative—both for community members and the brand. When an organization can successfully bring people together, generosity, sharing, and support take place. Real relationships form, ones that sustain and nourish community members and markedly enrich and improve brands.

Here’s how brands can create community now:

Step 1: Recognize this is the time for community.

There’s no doubt organizations are strained from the pandemic and economic fluctuations. Plenty are thinking, “I don’t have time to focus on my community right now—I’m just trying to stay afloat!”

But relationship-building and being profitable are not at odds. They go hand in hand. Think about it: Your brand can’t exist without people. It’s your customers, users, staff, partners, and volunteers that make your organization what it is. Relationships based purely on transactions are much less sustainable than those cultivated with creativity, trust, and loyalty.

Step 2: Identify your organizational goals.

What do you hope your brand community will do for your organization? These are seven common ways community can benefit an organization:

1. Innovation: creating new value for stakeholders
2. Talent recruitment and retention: attracting and retaining people
3. Customer retention: keeping customers involved
4. Marketing: informing the market of offered value
5. Customer service: helping customers and users with the brand service or products
6. Advancing movements: creating a fundamental shift in a culture or business
7. Community forum: making the brand a destination for a specific community

Start by identifying one goal, without focusing on how much you expect the community to deliver. During the pandemic, it might be especially valuable to consider how your community can help you innovate amid crisis. For instance, a retail brand might find ways to stay nimble by inviting its top ambassadors to discuss new partnerships and give back to their local communities.

Step 3: Understand prospective member needs.

This is an important one. Even organizations with well-established communities must check in with members’ wants and needs right now because so much is in flux.

Depending on your organization, your prospective community members might be your staff, volunteers, or customers and users who actively engage on social media, reach out by email, or proactively interact with your brand. Whomever they may be, a great way to learn more about them is with online surveys. Then, you can invite select respondents to speak further in a phone or video interview.

Understanding who your prospective members are as full human beings (beyond their connection to your organization) is critical. So, asking about demographics (age, location, etc.), career, political priorities, cultural preferences, challenges, and aspirations are excellent places to start. Given the pandemic, consider questions like these:

– What has changed in your life in the last few months? 
– Which activities can you no longer do?
– What new opportunities have emerged? 
– What challenges are you facing right now? What’s keeping you up at night?

Brand communities are only successful when they support their members’ goals. Listen to what your prospective members need right now, and identify where their goals overlap with your organization’s.

Step 4: Create your first community experience.

After talking with people, use your insights to reflect on the question: What’s one specific experience I can create for prospective members to help support them in a meaningful way? It might be an interactive webinar, a community forum, a user-generated resource site, or a virtual event series. You can’t solve all of your prospective members’ problems, of course, but you can pick one to start.

For example, XY Planning Network, an organization of fee-based financial advisors, knew its members were overwhelmed with constant economic shifts during the pandemic, resulting in long hours and a high-stress environment. So, the organization began offering free weekly Zoom meditation sessions to its members for support. Another company, Buffer, a social media software app, knew many of its users were struggling to navigate to the new digital environment brought on by the pandemic, so it began offering a series of educational webinars and free training.

Whatever the experience, it should align with members’ values and those of your organization. The more specific you can be in addressing members’ needs and values, the better. People are being inundated with cookie-cutter invitations to generic-sounding online events. Brands that take the time to send custom, personal invitations to thoughtfully-designed gatherings will stand out from the rest.

Step 5: Plan for the long run.

Brand communities don’t magically establish themselves after a single experience or event—especially online. It takes time for relationships to form. Don’t beat yourself up if your first experience is not a smash hit. Dust yourself off, write down what you learned, and try again. Consistency and patience are needed to get through times of crisis.

In the beginning, bringing people together requires extra patience and stamina, and a willingness to fail. Don’t expect perfection. You’ll make progress by listening to your community’s needs and planning the next step. Then repeat. Most importantly, remember to have fun in the process. Building brand communities should be fun for your members and you.