Whether you love her, hate her or just don’t understand her, Lady Gaga’s role as a world wide icon is certain. The pop singer recently hit a social media milestone as her account (@ladygaga) became the first to reach 20 million Twitter followers (21,589,998 and counting at the time this was written). Her Twitter dominance far surpasses celebrities (@justinbieber at 18.9 million followers), world leaders (U.S. President @BarackObama at 13.3 million) and companies (@YouTube at 10.2 million).

But her large fan base isn’t Lady Gaga’s most impressive social media statistic. Wall Street Journal Smart Money recently estimated that the “Fame Monster’s” Twitter account is worth upwards of $30 million — one-third of the $90 million she pulled in during the last financial year. According to the article, the publicity and the direct engagement she receives from her Twitter account are worth this large chunk of change. It comes down to one key factor: loyalty.

A majority of this massive group of followers feels a sense of community within the “Little Monsters” niche. Having direct access to the artist, reading thoughts coming straight from the source and being actively RT’d and replied to instills a sense of acceptance, belonging and loyalty in the Lady Gaga- centric community. The allegiance this community base has to the singer has resulted in increased sales of Lady Gaga music, merch and concert tickets, but most importantly, a significant decrease in the amount of music illegally downloaded.

So what is the brand take away from this? Simply put, strong communities build and maintain loyalty, whether it’s to an artist, a team or a brand.

However, that’s easier said than done. The “Lady Gaga brand” is hard to compete with, but it can be used as a model:

  • Just like Lady Gaga fans aren’t loyal because of one song, consumer-brand advocates aren’t loyal to one brand offering, but rather to the entirety of the brand as whole.
  • Utilize the social space (be it Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or community sites) to get people engaged in conversation. And just like on the songstress’ Twitter stream, ensure that it’s two-way communication.
  • Show appreciation for fans, reward them for their loyalty and treat them to perks for their support.

While it’s not simple to determine an exact ROI with social marketing (even Lady Gaga’s $30 million was an estimate), a number of brands have demonstrated that their online communities are an absolute asset. Media Logic’s Retail Social Juice Index shows that brands like Lush Cosmetics and Yankee Candle Co. (both consistent top rankers to the Index) use their Facebook pages as a haven for likers to share, interact and offer feedback to the brand and fellow likers on a daily basis. Etsy and Whole Foods have taken their tight-knit crafting and foodie communities to Twitter, where the interactions are ever-present and engagement is always switched “on.”

There’s further evidence that Lady Gaga understands the importance of online communities: she’s recently unveiled Little Monsters, an invite- only, Pinterest- like site for Lady Gaga fans to further browse, share and swap anything Gaga. For brands, the amount you put into your community space will equal the value that both you and your fans will derive. Research and use Lady Gaga’s practices to transform your social feeds into online fan havens. But maybe minus the crazy outfits. Maybe.