Building communities at LEGO brick-by-brick

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Never have I encountered so much envy from friends and colleagues about an editorial assignment as I have with this article.

The iconic LEGO brand harkens back to nearly everyone’s youth, right into adulthood. Who doesn’t get nostalgic when remembering their very first LEGO creation?

With such a strong fan base, the brand is a natural fit for social media. LEGO has a widely visited Facebook page consisting of 4,479,514 likes. Photos of LEGO cupcakes and other creations adorn the page uniting builders from around the world. A Twitter page managed by the company’s corporate communications department currently has over 62,000 followers and is used to engage with fans, answer product questions and facilitate conversations. And LEGO’s YouTube Channel has had nearly 50 million video views to date.


I caught up with LEGO’s Head of Online Communities, Peter Espersen (pictured at right), during his recent visit to New York to learn more about the ways the Billund, Denmark-based company strives to connect its worldwide group of loyal followers.

“My area is aimed towards teen and adult fans. Our main goal is to work with fans in creative ways as opposed to simply managing a Facebook page or our Twitter feed. My area has two special events – the ‘LEGO Inside Tour’ offering a behind the scenes look at LEGO factories; and ‘Build a Change’ where people use bricks as a vessel to create change. From the social media side, we have ReBrick and the idea behind that was that LEGO fans are probably the strongest group online; there are five million pictures of Flickr alone. With all this LEGO exposure spreading across the Web, our idea was to create a dynamic window for people to look through and see all the excitement,” Espersen explains.

Fueling the brand

Launched in December 2011, ReBrick’s chief aim wasn’t solely to drive traffic to the site but rather to encourage members to share their experiences and strengthen the brand. The online community – now at over one million members – gives users the opportunity to curate LEGO creations they find on the Web via social bookmarking.


“The reason why we decided to do all this bookmarking instead of creating and uploading original content was because there were already LEGO fans out there who created similar types of platforms. You have to be careful not to ruin the passion of pioneers who have created these kinds of sites for the last 15 years. It’s important people get a good online experience,” Espersen says.

From an organizational perspective, the top left of ReBrick contains recommended bookmarks to make sure members are aware of some of the more innovative creations and that “nothing gets lost in a big pile of stuff,” Espersen says. Searches can also be filtered so users can search for specific LEGO builds by category (e.g. historical moments or architectural builds).

A year before launching ReBrick, Espersen and his team opened it up to 500 people to pilot the site. Test users included LEGO fans as well as Espersen’s contacts at Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to ensure valuable feedback on what was – and wasn’t – working. ReBrick underwent multiple designs before finally launching nearly a year-and-a-half ago.

“When we launched, we slipped it out there and made sure LEGO fans were first to experience the site. Then we alerted the media – PR Wire, Fast Company – which was great. Getting all this external validation was very important to me because it indicated that what I (and my team) was doing made sense. People understood our goals,” Espersen recalled.

Governance

When it comes to launching any global website, Espersen advises communicators to launch it in stages because anything can happen during the challenging process. This is especially true of governance.

“It’s important to have your governance mapped out before hand. The LEGO lawyers looked into our business model and came up with the necessary action to take when people upload something obscene. We made some rules internally, then discussed them with fans,” he explains.


To ensure the right eyes see ReBrick bookmarks before they’re made public, any time a bookmark is created in ReBrick, Espersen receives an auto-alert so the content can be viewed internally first. There’s also a flagging system – if a bookmark is flagged multiple times it automatically becomes disabled. A mandatory age limit (13+) helps to control access to the site as well.

Fans are able to contact Espersen via the feedback button on ReBrick and he passes the information on to the appropriate departments at LEGO, such as customer service or the LEGO development team. The feedback tool is available to 1000 people on LEGO’s curator network.

Of course, Espersen says, the best way to gain feedback from LEGO fans is to simply “go out and talk to them” which he does often. His travels range from Portugal to Alabama. “We organize LEGO user groups where we group fans together and give them access to a closed forum with us. We’ve appointed approximately 100 LEGO ambassadors; each sign an NDA,” he explains.

Last year, 6.5 million people attended fan-organized events worldwide which LEGO happily supports. “They tell us they’re organizing an event so we usually send a keynote speaker or supply the bricks that they need,” Espersen points out.

Fan appreciation starts at the top

Seeing a senior LEGO leader interact with fans at a live event isn’t uncommon. Espersen points out that senior managers meet with fans numerous times a year and have conversations with them.

Just how close are they? Espersen remembers, “A few years ago, fans from the U.S. visited LEGO. They peered in the windows at headquarters to see things in the making. When they did, they found our CEO’s office. How did they know it was his office? Their creation from Brick World 2005 was on his shelf. That’s how close we are with these people.”

Espersen acknowledges that LEGO’s social media endeavors would not be possible without sign-off from top management. “These initiatives take money, budget and a big leap of faith.” A site like ReBrick shows leaders how powerful and exciting social media can be and how you can build your brand.

“We all get excited and acknowledge the things that people do. It’s part of our corporate agenda. Fans are a tremendous resource for us. Some of them are as talented as our designers,” Espersen says.

Celebrating fans’ creations


If something catches the company’s eye on ReBrick, Espersen is quick to tell the fans. To create additional excitement, there are even themed competitions centered around Halloween or Valentine’s Day creations, for example. LEGO is currently holding a film competition giving fans the chance to have their video featured in the upcoming LEGO MOVIE due out in February 2014.

“Some fans created stop-motion movies so we uploaded them onto YouTube and our Facebook page. You’re building a relationship with these people so it’s important to celebrate them as much as possible,” he says.

Of course, there’s the occasional fan worry that LEGO might “steal” one of their ideas, however Espersen says that it’s all about “being coherent and transparent as a company.” Anything built at LEGO receives a creation date which also helps to clear up any potential conflicts. “If a fan says he did a build of a spaceship, the same kind of build might have been in the works at LEGO for 3 years. So a lot of the time, we’re already on the idea.”

The ingredients of successful community management

To really drive value and engage with fans of a global brand like LEGO, Espersen says, “You need to be a champion of the fans internally. You have to get out and meet them: see who they are and feel their passion. These guys are the core of what we do. They attribute themselves to 5% of our sales.”

Espersen stresses that it takes time to successfully engage and connect with your audiences – something he’s been doing for the last three years.


However, he points out, “I’m just a vessel. I’m just the person managing the communities. The real heroes are the thousands of LEGO fans that create tremendous social objects. They are near and dear to us. When I wake up, I log on to ReBrick and see what new stuff is there. It’s like watching a good movie.”

For companies looking to appoint their own community managers, Espersen says community management needs to be embedded in a company’s marketing and communications strategy.

“Who do you trust if you want to buy a camera? Back when I got my first camera it was before the internet and I only had 5 points of contact – my uncle, the guy in the photo store and my friends. Now, with Google, you search for camera and 3 trillion hits come up.

“The problem is that you don’t know what information you really need. That is why curators are incredibly important. Do you trust the guy selling the camera? Not really. Consumers are going to trust people like you. That is why establishing online communities is so important.”

Social media maintenance

According to Espersen, a big part of establishing a social media policy is having an exit strategy so you don’t leave your followers hanging.

“Let’s say you open a Facebook page and then you don’t want to do it anymore. You need to merge the fans you have on there onto other platforms. You can’t leave 10,000 people hanging. So every time you do something, you have to have a plan in place to upscale it, as well as downscale. Because let’s face it, 3 out of 4 social media initiatives do not work.”

What does work is having the right team in place to manage the conversations that are taking place on social media platforms.

“When you have fans who are passionate and smart, you need to have smart people to respond to them. A lot of LEGO fans have high level degrees. I pride myself on being a little technical but 9 times out of 10, these fans know more than I do. So I need to bring in our own clever people to communicate to them,” Espersen explains.

And, he adds, community management is best left to a seasoned communicator, not necessarily the stereotypical Gen Y social media buff.

“If you have a Facebook page and you are a medium-sized company with a million fans and you hire a twenty-something community manager out of school to communicate with one million people, that’s more than your corporate communications department lands. So I think there’s a distortion of proportion. I don’t get it. It’s so important to communicate with each of your fans – they’re the ones who are re-tweeting your messages, recommending your products are passing them on. They have tremendous social reach and controlling your brand and core messaging is not something you leave to an intern or junior-level employee,” Espersen advises.

Instead, he says, it’s about “starting out small, getting someone who knows a little bit, has a passion for what they do and gradually ramp it up.”

As for hiring an agency to manage social media platforms, think again:

“Would you want an agency being the face of your company? I don’t think so. It doesn’t make sense. Agencies can help you with strategy and how to get off to a flying start but it’s up to the company internally to figure out what areas can benefit the business. Don’t do things because you read about them in a book and it’s what needs to be done. Social media needs to make sense for your business. And it’s important to remember that it can never replace your regular corporate communications which are taking place anyway. Social media can be helpful in some areas but it’s not the answer to everything.”


Before Espersen started working at LEGO three years ago, he invented his own LEGO Theory and he’s lived by it ever since:

“You need to give people bits and pieces so they can combine and do things in new ways so they can be creative. It’s not about you showcasing things, banging on your chest saying you’re the greatest. It’s about making your users the greatest. That’s the key. If you can do that, then you will be tremendously successful. I can almost guarantee it.”