Is your marketing fizzling out? Are you wondering how to employ a sustainable strategy to grow your business?
In this article, you’ll discover the benefits of community and why it’s a powerful marketing strategy.
What Is Community-Based Marketing?
There have always been communities that spring up around brands—devoted customers who want to know more, do more, and share with each other. But it’s only recently that brands have really started to harness this power with community marketing efforts.
So why now? And what does a community-based marketing strategy look like?
In 2023, we’re living through a time of change in marketing and society generally. (Aren’t we always?)
And among those changes, three major trends are guiding both consumers and brands toward community:
- Traditional marketing doesn’t work as well anymore. Consumers are overwhelmed with ads and information, both online and offline. Brands find it almost impossible to compete for their customers’ attention.
- The internet is evolving. Web3 is here, bringing a new, decentralized approach to sharing information and ideas. It’s not just about crypto tokens and NFTs, but rather a new way to belong and build communities. Find out more over at the Web3 Business podcast.
- People are lonely. It’s no secret that our society faces a crisis of mental illness and loneliness. Fifty-one percent of Americans age 18-24 have received medical treatment for their mental health. People are desperate to find connection and community—not to watch more ads or to buy products without purpose.
The impact is clear. People need communities to belong to and brands need communities to help them cut through the noise.
Community-based marketing happens when brands proactively build and manage communities to fulfill their, and their customers’, needs.
According to research from McKinsey, a community marketing strategy is the method of choice for new startups. They’ve moved on from personalization (which can still be valuable) to focusing on speaking to people as part of a united community.
Does this sound unfamiliar? It shouldn’t! Cast your mind back to the early days of social media, when the role of “social media manager” was invented. For a while, it was all about building community around Facebook pages, managing comment threads, and hosting discussion forums.
But then things changed. Social networks updated their algorithms and added new features for mass broadcasting ads.
Social media became corporate, automated, and algorithmic, where it used to be personal, intentional, and in the present moment. Content became something that we transmitted to people, instead of accepting their input or ideas.
That’s not to say that social media is over. It’s still an essential part of your marketing mix. But we need to get back to that earlier, customer-first, community-focused approach.
Community-Based Marketing and the Emotional Continuum
The emotional continuum is a way of thinking about how your marketing activities connect with people on a spectrum from weak emotional connection to strong emotional connection.
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At one end of the continuum, we have broadcast content. Think of things like billboards and TV ad spots. They can evoke some emotion in viewers but there’s very little connection there.
A little further along the spectrum, we have content plus audience. This is when your audience is more active and engaged with your message; for example, on social media, where people can discuss and comment on your posts. The relational bonds here are still weak but people are making an emotional connection with you.
Then, finally, there’s community. This is in another league from content and audience. In a community, people are actively helping create content with you, instead of just consuming whatever you put in front of them.
Community members develop relationships with each other, instead of just having a one-way parasocial relationship with your brand.
Those interconnections among community members are the real secret behind community-based marketing’s emotional power. They keep people coming back and provide the community with its own momentum so your brand community can have an increasing impact over time.
In the next few sections, we’ll look at how to become an emotional connection expert and create a brand community of your own.
#1: Change Your Marketing Mindset
One of the things that’s hardest about community-based marketing is giving up control.
If you’re used to running online ads or social media campaigns, then you’re used to control. You choose the creative, the budget, the timeframe, and the audience.
But community-based marketing is different. Each community is its own, unique, self-perpetuating organism with its own social contract.
That means it might go in creative directions that you don’t expect. It might be a long-term commitment, longer than any ad campaign that you’ve run before. It might throw light on new aspects of your audience that you never imagined. It might demand new things of your brand, as your purpose and your audience’s purpose intersect.
This is part of the gift of community-based marketing but it’s also a responsibility. You owe something to your community members and they’ll have high expectations of you.
So before you dive in, think about what you can offer. The most important factor here is size. What size community are you ready to manage? Depending on your business, goals, and other commitments, you might prefer to run a small, exclusive community or a large, open group.
Remember, you don’t necessarily need a lot of people, just the right people for your brand.
#2: Solidify Your Community’s Purpose
Not every brand community is a success. In fact, currently, the vast majority of them fail.
Why? Because their brand purpose isn’t aligned with customer purpose.
Consumers are looking for a community that becomes an enjoyable, valuable, regular destination, whether it’s online or offline. But brands want to sell—and all too often, their focus on profit ends up destroying the community.
Here’s an example of a brand that gets it right. Harley-Davidson runs the Harley Owners Group (HOG), a dedicated community for its customers. As well as access to online spaces, newsletters, magazines, and partner discounts, members can also join local groups where they ride together, attend festivals, and earn membership badges.
Notice what isn’t mentioned: anything about sales. The brand and its customers share a single purpose instead—to get the most out of the motorcycle lifestyle.
That’s one big reason why Harley-Davidson is a globally famous brand, without needing expensive TV or SEO campaigns. People join the community (and yes, buy from the brand, too) because they believe in it.
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A community that’s built around emotion and purpose will have far more impact for your brand than yet another ad that talks about features and benefits.
So how do you figure out your purpose? It’s at the intersection between your values as a business and what’s meaningful to your customers.
Start by asking yourself serious questions about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how the rest of the world sees you.
- Why did you originally start the business? What did you want to achieve?
- Why is the business relevant to your customers now? What speaks to them?
- Is there something you can do for the world or something that your business can do better with the help of a community?
- Why do your employees choose to work for you? They’re already effective members of your brand community, so what motivates them?
- Do your employees have something in common that could be shared with customers too? Think about values, identities, and aims.
When you spend some time thinking about these questions, your purpose will become clearer to you. They’ll also help you understand your audience’s perspective and connect with them emotionally.
#3: Recruit Community Members
Now you know what you’re doing… time to get more people involved!
Most communities start out with just 5 to 10 people who are already committed to the brand. Often, they’ll be people who have a personal connection such as friends or family but they could also be early adopters, subscribers, or listeners.
This first group of fans is a source of power in your community. Your task now is to nurture, recruit, and encourage them.
Take the example of Social Media Marketing World.
In its first year, the event depended almost completely on friends and family who were willing to volunteer. By year 2, it was also able to recruit volunteers from people who wanted to come to the event again and remain part of the community but were looking for an easier way to get tickets.
In year 3 of the conference, the volunteers were mostly people who had volunteered before and loved the experience. That was because the company worked hard at creating a strong community around the event in general and volunteering specifically. Today, deeply involved volunteers help to moderated the event community on Facebook.
You can use a similar strategy to recruit people to your community and share the load of running it. Community members make amazing online moderators, event stewards, and more. The only reward they need is recognition, access to the community, and a sense of shared mission.
Nurture the Community
There are two key elements in nurturing your offline and online community:
- Creating a safe, welcoming, and motivating culture.
- Giving members recognition and acknowledgment for their efforts.
The first point is about making people feel welcome when they join. The second point is what makes them stay, participate, and potentially even graduate to helping you run the community.
Never underestimate the value of status within brand communities. As part of belonging to the group, people also want to feel seen, heard, and appreciated.
Here are some easy community-building ways to show recognition and reward your most active members:
- Offer perks such as exclusive content, access, or deals.
- Set up rewards that members can earn through more participation.
- Regularly name-check and thank your top members.
- Use game theory to encourage more activity, such as a leaderboard where people can earn points for posting in an online group.
#4: Prioritize Community-Based Marketing Initiatives
There’s only one thing more powerful than telling your story: Having a customer tell that story for you.
That’s the secret behind word-of-mouth marketing. We trust the people around us—the people in our communities. So if you can motivate your community members to talk about your brand, you’ll reap the benefits of more members, more activity, and ultimately more sales.
How do you do that? By encouraging people to post and share about your brand community! Run events, set up challenges, and offer exclusives that they’ll really want to shout about.
#5: Curate Your Community Culture
We’ve already mentioned that your community should be welcoming to everyone who joins. Here’s how to make that happen, in just three simple steps:
- Have rules. Decide what behavior and standards you expect from your community. Make sure they’re posted somewhere prominent and require members to read them.
- Enforce the rules. Don’t waste any time on bad members of the community. If someone ignores your rules or is harmful to the rest of the group, take action right away.
- Leave space for creativity. Your community might not follow the path you expect. But as long as the rules are being followed, you should be open to those new directions and opportunities! The beauty of community-based marketing is that it lets your audience contribute… so hold space for their contributions.
When you create a purpose-driven, nurturing, and creative community, wonderful things can happen for your brand.
Community-based marketing is the future. Are you ready for it?
Mark Schaefer is a futurist and marketing strategist. He’s author of multiple books, including Marketing Rebellion and Known, and host of the Marketing Companion podcast. His latest book is called Belonging to the Brand: Why Community Is the Last Great Marketing Strategy. Find him on LinkedIn @markwschaefer.
Other Notes From This Episode
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