Every marketer knows that the holy grail of marketing is the all-important word-of-mouth recommendation. In search of this, brand advertising has, in recent years, leaned heavily on influencer marketing, to both gain reach and approximate the word-of-mouth recommendation as closely as possible. In reality, influencer marketing is no match for direct brand advocacy from the customers themselves.
With only 4% of customers trusting paid influencers (according to a UM Wave study), the importance of authentic people-centric marketing is something that brands simply can’t afford to ignore. So, while there’s a strong case for paying for reach and awareness via sponsored influencer tricks, brands who are not leveraging earned media from their most vocal existing advocates could be missing a trick.
Many brands have been tapping into the power of user-generated content for a while now. However, the savviest are going one step further, and building brand communities.
What is a brand community?
A community is a group of individuals with similar values and interests, who are bonded by their difference from outsiders, their traditions, and their sense of obligation to each other. When a community forms around a brand, it taps into people’s fundamental emotional and social needs, creating strong bonds between the people in it and the brand they love. When they express passion for a brand in a brand community, it resonates strongly and is reflected back through relationships with other community members. In a successful brand community, like-minded individuals are able to bond over not only a shared love of a brand but over the possession of particular skills and interest in similar experiences. Naturally, when this happens, a stream of authentic earned media is developed, with community members sharing content will little encouragement.
By allowing brand communities to self-support and flourish with minimal input, brands have the chance to form profound personal connections with customers for a fraction of the cost of a traditional marketing campaign. With the rise of brand community marketing, the new generation of marketers will need patience, plus a new skill set and a knowledge of specific systems and principles to develop and manage effectively. However, once mastered, community marketing will richly reward brands with dedicated and enthusiastic customers, leading to word-of-mouth growth, increased customer-made content, and outstanding return on investment.
What do members of a brand community look like?
Brand communities are as diverse as the brands that work with them. A community could be composed of regular enthusiastic customers, or brands can recruit a subset of creative customers to collaborate with. What tends to be the most important criteria and one of the biggest differences between community marketing and influencer marketing, is brand love; an authentic love for the brand that exists regardless of any community membership, where such superfans genuinely want to help that brand succeed.
One of the biggest sources of community power for brands is the Creator Economy. This is an economy created around over 50 million passionate and highly skilled individuals around the world who have built businesses and communities around their own personal brands online. They can range from musicians to hairstylists, to business experts, and more. They tend to be present on the main social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok, and adept at utilizing their talents to create well-presented, top-quality content. In a brand community, individuals from the Creator Economy, regular customers, and those who fall somewhere in between have the chance to interact with a brand in a fresh way.
How to use technology to grow a brand community
Building a brand community might sound tricky and time-consuming at first, and while it’s possible to sustain brand communities using existing social media, specially built digital community management platforms will do much of the heavy lifting for you. Through social listening using hashtags and @mentions, such a platform will identify the superfans and creators that would be the best fit for your brand community.
Brands can then easily recruit these potential brand advocates to their brand community using such a platform, and provide them with an exclusive digital space in which to connect with fellow community members.
Inside this digital space, brands can brief superfans on projects and collaborate with them on campaigns. You’ll be able to provide them with the tools they need to get started, and, in exchange, they’ll bring both their creativity and customer knowledge to the table. You can also use the community space to get feedback on new products and reward superfans ethically in a number of ways, which could include providing them with a platform for their work, workshops, courses, or charitable donations. Often, being able to play a meaningful role in your business is reward enough.
UGC generated by superfans can then be carefully curated and licensed through community management platforms, and published directly to brand channels such as websites and social media, or exported for use in other marketing campaigns.
Examples of great brand communities
Lego Ideas is a community website where anyone can submit new builds using existing Lego bricks, new designs are lightly moderated, showcased, and put up to a community vote, and the winning designs have a chance of being turned into a commercially available Lego set and earning 1% of royalties. Since 2014, this open-to-all marketing model continues to successfully the growth of a thriving community of Lego fans, as well as ethically rewarding the most creative and dedicated amongst them.
Dove’s ground-breaking marketing campaign #ShowUs is a fine example of community marketing in the social justice space. Facilitated by community technology, Dove collaborated with regular consumers who had extraordinary stories to share, in the Dove community to generate a photo library that truly reflects the diversity of beauty around the world, with the aim of improving the representation of beauty in advertising.
Although it can be tricky for brands to champion social causes without seeming superficial, Dove’s existing brand authenticity and willingness to celebrate its shared values with brand fans proved to be a recipe for community marketing success. The challenge set to creators resonated incredibly well, resulting in the world’s largest photo library of women and non-binary individuals, and winning the campaign multiple awards in the process.
As we’ve seen, the key to a thriving brand community is to tap into existing creator talent and enthusiasm, by taking the time to develop a new marketing skillset alongside taking advantage of the best in cutting edge community management technology. Get the balance right and you can nurture a sharing culture; one that can thrive and deliver endless earned media with little intervention and no financial transactions.
Cover image source: John Cameron