The Bottom Line:
Business talk: we recently had an unconventional discussion with Franck Benhamou, an entrepreneur based between Hong Kong and Chiang Mai (Thailand) who invests in building online communities. Franck is an atypical businessman, a former corporate executive who eventually moved to Asia to live a different life with his family and turned into a digital nomad, managing his international marketing activities from the region. His message is unusual but makes a lot of sense: ad hoc digital marketing as many people do has its limits but building real communities with intent has strong potential. Hence, you should invest in communities. Not tomorrow, right now!
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Franck Benhamou on Building Communities: All it takes is the vision to start now.
Franck Benhamou, how would you describe you entrepreneur profile?
Franck Benhamou: I am a nomadic businessman who became an entrepreneur after a long corporate experience. I follow a personal lifestyle approach to doing business. One, I don’t see business as a matter of getting super rich but as a matter of providing for my needs (wherever I set the target). No less, no more. Two, I look to do business in sectors that are on the verge of exponential growth with a reasonable probability, when the time is right to jump on the bandwagon.
Jumping on the bandwagon?
FB: Yes, but I try anticipating the trend. I don’t like taking unconsidered risks either. So timing and probability are key. I focus on areas that are already a little bit on the way and that have a potential to develop and rocket.
I had an experience of that sort when I first launched an internet business in the year 2000 anticipating both the development of retail in Russia and the growth of the internet. The trends were clear and highly probable, so I left my corporate job to combine my FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) expertise with the potential offered by emerging technologies. It took me three years to get some results, but I got on the right train and I eventually exited the company very successfully.
I tend to look for a hockey stick effect. The stick is flat at its base but then changes upwards very fast. The only way to capitalize is to be there when the surge happens.
We thought about doing this interview because your business model isn’t really conventional. Could you tell us more about it?
FB: What sounds unconventional today may be perceived as great insight tomorrow. The key is having a vision for the future and timing it correctly. Unconventional projects yield unconventional results so this is precisely where I invest my time and capital. To be more practical, though, I now run a social media business that focuses on building online communities.
Spending on social media is growing very rapidly. The US social media advertising sector was worth USD 12.8 billion in 2016 and it jumped to USD 18.6 in 2017. It is estimated it will reach USD 45 billion in 2020, which is a great example of the hockey stick explosive growth. You have to play the game in order to potentially capitalize on it…
Digital media then.
Franck Benhamou: Yes and no. I am only focusing on a niche aspect using social media in order to create advertising channels in ways few people consider.
The idea is very simple. For decades marketing has been about TV advertising. Businesses would pay fortunes, and agencies got rich just to do the job as it was always done. This period is coming to an end.
Everybody is unsettled by social media. Everything is changing rapidly. Companies know they have to change, but do not know how. If you take the case of Instagram with its 800 million active members, only 25 million of them are businesses and few of them are really developed. It looks like many companies will eventually pay the price for not being fully engaged yet, to be honest.
What is the opportunity?
FB: The opportunity consists in building a strong social media presence now. For all the talk about social media, few companies have it. It will be much more difficult in 2 years and will cost 3 to 5 times more. The window of opportunity is narrow. It is not only about using social media as a way to showcase products. The opportunity is to work on building sectorial communities, that is building real tools of influence for a sector of activity.
But all marketers talk about building communities, don’t they?
FB: Yes, but this is not what they do. So far brands create accounts, and they use them mostly for advertising purposes. But the results are limited because that’s still about selling and not much about building trust and influence.
Too many people build social media accounts that are not engaging. They are limited by brand constraints, focus and experience. Their impact is minimal. An alternative is for brands to invest in what we call sectorial, non-branded communities. Not tomorrow, but now!
Building sectorial communities is a very distinct concept. The purpose is not to throw ads at the audience, it is to gather people around a theme they can relate to, and to make sure that they see value in engaging with the community on a continuous basis. You have more freedom than a brand in delivering truly interesting content. Think about interest groups. Or lobby groups.
The next step is influencing, right?
FB: Always. People and brands want to be seen as key opinion leaders. Throwing ads and marketing at people may not be cost effective in the long term or the smart way to get there. You need time to develop real trust and influence. Progressively building a community around a focal point means that people see you as a reference on that specific topic. With time, you then get an opportunity to do many things because you have a solid and influential communication platform paid for.
Can you give us some examples of that model?
Franck Benhamou: One example I can provide you with is the Martial Tribes community I built on Facebook. We initially launched it targeting a niche of martial arts enthusiasts. Now our positioning is evolving to people who embrace values inspired by martial arts like humility, integrity, courage, discipline, and respect. In a world which seems to have lost its values and common sense, our content is finding a larger echo with the population at large. Our tagline is ‘Stand Strong’. Now our audience is wider including people who do not practice any discipline but can relate to the ethics.
We have 3 million Facebook followers, and more importantly 300,000 engagement daily. It is a strong communication platform to push our ideas and its maintenance cost is minimal. It also opens up for us new monetization opportunities and collaborations that would be unthinkable at the beginning. No business is easy. You need vision and calculated risk. But it gets easier when you are at the point where the hockey stick turns the corner. This is where the magic operates.
The followers economy, then?
FB: Yes and no. Yes, followers are the core. But not any kind of followers. It is about building influence. You start tracking followers, then move quickly to measure engagement, and ultimately influence.
Most people nowadays run after followers. But what is better: an account with 100,000 followers and 5% engagement of which 0.5% are potential buyers, or an account with 20,000 followers and 20% engagement of which 10% are buyers? You don’t build the two accounts the same way.
When does a community become interesting then?
FB: A community becomes interesting when you have influence. This influence can then be used to push product, ideas, services.
That is why so many people are trying to become influencers. Most won’t grow big because they build their account as if it were a hobby. They do not act with a definite intent and have not identified a clear positioning for themselves. Having said that, I would say that there is still an opportunity to build your account as an influencer on a network like Instagram for the next year or so. After that, chances are that it will be much more difficult and costlier. The time is now.
From a brand point of view, it means that even small competitors have the potential to build an influence beyond their size if they occupy a niche before the category leaders do. All it takes is the vision to start now and do what the larger brands aren’t doing yet.
Where do you start from then?
FB: You start by taking action and deciding that you will occupy the space that others have not filled yet. You put a total commitment behind your vision. A lot of thinking is required in the early stages. This is crucial.
Here experience helps. There is always a cost of learning something new if you are not being helped by experts. This is inevitable. When we started with Martial Tribes, there were very few experts. We learned by doing. We made costly mistakes. But we would not be here if we had waited to know everything. It does not work that way.
Franck Benhamou: What else? Just think about your target audience all the time. This is marketing 101. You need to know what is on their mind and what they want.
Influence implies getting people to move one way or another and react to a call to action. So building your vision implies identifying the expectations of your audience. This is the real basis of your positioning exercise.
Sounds fairly logic …
FB: It does sound simple indeed. The basics of marketing have not changed. But the reality is that this is not the dominant approach to social media nowadays. Look around and see for yourself. People use flashy, clickbait content that may attract eyeballs but may not be suited for their positioning or ultimate goal. Does it really help to sell?
You made an analogy to real estate when we first talked, can you elaborate?
FB: Whether you create a community through your own website or a social media, you have a virtual address that is of interest to an audience. To the extent that the traffic or the engagement is high, you own a ‘location’ that is valuable, can be monetized or can be sold.
In addition, like in real estate, building a community requires some capital and some time. And you always hope you have chosen the right ‘location’.
What is the main challenge you face as a community-building entrepreneur?
Franck Benhamou: The main difficulty is always to assess the return on investment at the launch stage. Building a community is time-consuming and requires funds, therefore the vision has to be very clear. The decision to invest has to be understood by all parties because the results won’t be immediate.
Another issue is to convince businesses to think differently. Companies are used to follow a previously-proven method like TV advertising. There are not used to invest in a medium like a social media channel. But there is so much potential when you start thinking differently, and the costs are still affordable.
Could community reshape the marketing industry?
Franck Benhamou: Marketing agencies will be forced to re-invent themselves. They will have to offer services that they are not used to offer. They will also need to develop an expertise they do not have today. Some will adapt well, some won´t. I also think that there will be a stronger demand from brands to deliver quantifiable rather than qualitative results.
Do you see other trends worth mentioning?
FB: We live in a world with many sectorial revolutions taking place at the same time. This has never happened in history.
As far as I am concerned, I am following closely two trends. One is the blockchain technology. We are at its beginning. It will probably permeate every sector and I am very interested in its impact on loyalty programs and communities.
The other trend is societal and close to home. Baby boomers are retiring, their life expectancy is higher than ever and their level of saving too low across all countries. They represent a massive community that will have difficulty maintaining their purchasing power. Some of them will be ready to re-invent themselves and seek solutions to their financial situation. Few social media channels are catering to them and the potential for community influencers is huge.
You said earlier that you are a nomad entrepreneur. How does Asia work for you?
FB: As a nomad I have lived and can live anywhere. I have evolved from my corporate days and its personal sacrifices. For me, career and retirement are old-day thinking. For the last fifteen years, there has been a real fusion between my money-generating activities and my chosen lifestyle. But that implies that you really need to know how you want to live your life. That is the hard part. After that, you work to make the money as efficiently as possible. And Asia has been good to me. There are many areas with a high quality of life, great flexibility and sound financial opportunities.
You are not the first one telling us this kind of thing…
FB: I am not surprised. The investment climate and the taxation are mostly favorable. Asia is attracting a lot of talent and, on many fronts, is starting to overcome the west. It is in full expansion and offers many opportunities to business-minded individuals.
Why did you step in Asia in the first place?
Franck Benhamou: In truly nomadic fashion, I moved to Asia for purely personal reasons. I had no business plans. I just wanted my children to understand the region before they went to university.
I believed the experience would be very formative and will give them a competitive advantage in the future because, one way or the other, they are bound to be exposed to the region in the next 50 years. They had the chance to understand the differences, cultures and specificities of different countries. They have been challenged to think differently. Being in Europe, it would have been difficult for them to comprehend the diversity and nuances of the continent. It was a very positive move for our family.
China often comes up as a large business target in our interviews, what are your views about that?
FB: China isn’t a market for me. First, my audiences are mainly in the west so I have no reason to operate in China. Second, digital marketing in China is a different world and moving extremely fast, you need very specific competencies that we did not seek to develop. That does not mean that we are not following closely Chinese audiences outside of China. This is a different and interesting angle…
>> Related Reading: Ashley Galina Dudarenok explains digital marketing in China.
Franck, we usually conclude our interviews with success and failure tips, would you share your thoughts on this?
FB: Mistakes are part of the process and I have made a few. I call them the learning curve… I believe the biggest mistake one can make is not to take action. Success means different things to different people. For me, the key is to know why you wake up in the morning. Business and money are just a way to get there.
Franck Benhamou | Serial Entrepreneur & Community-building Expert.
Franck Benhamou is a corporate executive turned nomad and serial entrepreneur. Franck lives in Asia and is the Founder or Co-Founder and promoter of various businesses, all connected to community-building, new technologies, and the consumer goods industry.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of their author(s) only and do not reflect those of The Asia-Pacific Circle or of its editors unless otherwise stated.
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