Engaging and Mobilizing Online Communities

Online communities are nothing new. In fact you can argue that they've been around since the dawn of the internet age, when users first started posting messages in bulletin boards and early forums emerged where you could add comments. Yet many brands still struggle to gain traction or return from their efforts when it comes to engaging and mobilising online communities. This can be largely attributed to a lack of understanding, and in trying to apply the same tactics that they’re using in wider online channels and social networks. Communities are different. Their members think and act differently. There’s an instant connection because of a shared, self-selecting identity; communities provide their members with connections and value focused around specific interests, professions or disciplines; offering support, resources, insights and camaraderie between participants.  To successfully tap into and leverage online communities, brands and marketers must therefore understand how the role that they play in today's social mix is changing, and what it takes to gain acceptance and attention in a space where active participation is key.

Some of you may recall the masses of media coverage and fallout when Instagram star Essena O’Neill declared in October 2015 that she was quitting social media. The announcement caused a huge reaction across both social and news channels world-wide, reaffirming the status that social celebrity has now reached. Within her 17 minute YouTube announcement she cited a number of reasons for her exit: from the relationship of social stars with the brands that they promote, to the pressures of fame and maintaining her body image. But what it also highlighted is a much greater social movement going way beyond celebrity – how existing social networks are failing to satisfy a deeper need for connection and value.

And that’s exactly where communities are evolving: providing richer experiences, more engagement and deeper relationships for their participants.

Communities Versus Networks

Communities can derive from and exist within networks, so it's crucial for the marketer to understand the nature of the space that they’re acting in – whether it’s a network or community – and how they differ.

Expansive vs Focussed
In communities, engagements and relationships are brought together through a central focus; either an interest or goal. Community relationships therefore generally go deep as the participants interact through the sharing of a joint passion. This differs from a social network that is defined by the social connections that it represents. Networks can maintain existing relationships, but more often than not making new connections is a transient and shallow experience, to the extent that users become increasingly obsessed with merely gaining followers, likes and views. But this is now changing as they are starting to seek quality interactions over quantity.

Anonymous vs Intimate
Networks are defined by scale – by how many people you know – the bigger they are the better. Communities are defined by a core focus…be it an interest or a goal...scale is less relevant to activity and engagement. As a consequence of scale, anonymity reigns within networks. Members may not know if the people that they interact with digitally are even who they say they are; they may have no idea who also belongs to their network. How many of your Twitter or LinkedIn connections could you say that you actually ‘know’? Communities on the other hand tend to be more intimate. Members are expected to actively participate - that’s how they derive value - meaning that it’s more difficult to hide in the background without being active.

Artificial vs Organic
Networks are typically artificially created and then governed in a top-down fashion. Policies and regulations are decreed from on high with little or no input from the majority of people who make up the network. Because those at the top are so removed physically and psychologically from those at the bottom, the solutions ultimately proffered are often out of touch and ineffective. Think of the outcries we’ve seen in the past following rule changes imposed by Facebook, Twitter or Reddit. Communities develop more organically and act in a more autonomous, bottom-up fashion. Members are bound together through shared values and when faced with a problem individuals come together to find a solution that will work for all of them. In this respect they tend to self-regulate – because the people coming up with the rules are from within the community, they’re more familiar with the group’s unique needs and the solutions generated are typically more effective.

Passive vs Active
Networks encourage passivity and consumption. Because there are so many members, they assume someone else will take care of problems that arise. But as that’s what everyone else is thinking, nothing gets done. The anonymity of the crowd allows the passive bystander to escape shame. They encourage consumption – they’re all about what you can get, rather than what you must give. You are wholly consumer, rather than creator. In communities you get and you give; you can take from the collective pot, but you’re required to add to it too. In the community, people know who is and who isn’t being taken care of, and who is and isn’t stepping in to help. If you don’t pull your weight and if you’re capable of doing so, you face social repercussions.

An Immersive Approach to Marketing

Because of these differences, traditional approaches to social marketing frankly don’t work. By the very nature of a community you need to be part of it to have a voice; you can’t expect to be heard shouting from the outside. Communities require give and take, and as a result you need to re-think your approach to marketing and act in a completely different way. The effort is much greater, but then so are the rewards. Forrester’s 2016 B2B Marketing Predictions report stated “Most marketing content continues to push mass-market, self-promotional messages that buyers mistrust.” Customers now demand dialogue, not corporate monologue; both with each other as a primary source of information and product recommendation, but also critically with the brands that they are willing to do business with.

By adapting to this new environment, marketers can be present throughout the whole buying process – to be present as customers discover, learn and evaluate the market and then at the critical point where the buying decision is ultimately made. By moving beyond merely observing and interacting with conversations to truly being a participant and contributor, the marketer can get closer to the customer’s 'Zero Moment of Truth'. As customers bounce back-and-forth across multi-channel environments, their connection to and participation in the community is ever-present. Communities are supplementing and sometimes replacing search as the ZMOT as members identify the community as a specific, quick and trusted source of information and recommendation. Communities are becoming the place where buying research starts in a lot of instances, and the place that keeps pushing customers towards conversion.

When considering your approach to communities it's imperative to have an appreciation of their dynamics, and consequently to focus on adding value, rather than looking at them as a communications vehicle:

1. Contribute
The key to engaging and mobilising online communities is to ‘Contribute’, but by this I don’t mean pumping out endless scheduled posts or dropping constant pieces of content. I mean to be present, have a true dialogue, and add value. Contributing is about answering peoples’ questions and queries, helping to solve their problems and giving them insights and advice that will make their lives easier. Crucially, it doesn’t mean selling. Relationships are built on trust and to achieve this you have to demonstrate credibility and value up-front. Today’s customers are looking for more from the brands that they engage with than a mere transaction; they want deeper meaning and an overall ‘experience’. Contributing creates value and builds confidence in your brand that you can deliver what you say you’re going to. It’s also a crucial part of the experience that the customer receives, creating recognition, association and empathy with your brand.

2. Be Human
Communities are made up of people; and those people want to talk to other people. They don’t want to ‘integrate’ or ‘engage’ as we as marketers would put it. They want to be related to as human beings. What does ‘being human’ mean? It means talking at the same level to people, not down to them; it means ditching marketing speak and jargon; it means not selling. It also means having fun and not taking yourself – or your brand – too seriously. The world is full of products and services that work, but people really want products and services that are interesting. From a marketing perspective, when things are interesting people care, and when they care, they are more likely to share. Relating to customers directly as humans creates emotional bonds; and emotions drive decision making.

3. Let Them In
Communities are about give and take. Their members don’t expect to simply be provided with a solution; they want to be part of it and have an input into how it’s developed. Customers nowadays expect to be involved in the creation and development of products, not to just be seen as consumers. In this respect, communities can provide an unparalleled resource for gaining feedback and stimulating innovation. They offer a forum to throw things at the wall and test new ideas; not just to gain feedback, but to debate it and talk around different scenarios. Communities give ready access to audiences who want to tell you what they think, and they expect to be listened to in return; but they are also prepared to be challenged. Brands which evolve through community interaction remain relevant because they're constantly adapting to the changing needs, interests and values of the people who give them meaning.

4. Extend Offline
Communities are built around human engagement and this doesn’t just happen in cyberspace; many online communities have evolved to extend offline as well. As with the nature of communities, this happens organically, where members convene their own meet-ups to develop their relationships and conversations in the real world as a supplement to their online engagements. These offer marketers and brands further opportunities to build connections, gain insights and provide value. The relationship moves to another level when they’ve shared a coffee or beer with fellow community members. This then scales back online through good-will and advocacy as the brand is seen to be a supporter of the wider community itself.

Infrastructure of the Relationship Economy

The role and impact of online communities goes way beyond being a key marketing channel though. Communities are the infrastructure of the new relationship economy. In an environment where relationships are the new currency, online communities – rather than networks – are increasingly the places where those relationships are developed and cultivated. The focus and authenticity offered by communities is providing the richness of experience that people are increasingly craving, filling a void left by the transient development of social networks.

From a brand perspective, communities enable you to get intimately close to your customers and potential customers on an ongoing basis. This is not about short-term Lead Generation but long-term relationships based on honesty, transparency and mutual trust. Communities provide the context within which brands can establish meaning, offering value above-and-beyond a product transaction.

When approached correctly, online communities can, and will increasingly, have a profound impact on your efforts to amplify your brand and foster customer growth. Community activation leads to:

  • More authentic engagement with prospects and customers.
  • Longer-term, deeper relationships based on give-and-take, mutual trust, and understanding.
  • And, ongoing advocacy of your brand within the community but also to peripheral audiences as well.