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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Stop feeding the content beast and start planning a potluck

Instead of setting up a restaurant, you are inviting a specific subset of customers to a potluck.

Stop feeding the content beast and start planning a potluck
[Tierney / Adobe Stock Background image source: Joshua Resnick / Adobe Stock]

Too often, brands frame “building community” around serving up content marketing to a Facebook group or mailing list. This sets marketing teams up as the short-order cooks at a chain restaurant, churning out click-worthy posts. Sure, you can get lots of people through the door who leave relatively satisfied. But it’s doubtful they’ll tell friends about what a great experience they had. Your team will burn out, learning little about the customer in the process.

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The approach my team and I take to community strategy is different. Instead of setting up a restaurant, you are inviting a specific subset of customers to a potluck. A potluck assumes a level of relationship or connection. You don’t just show up at a potluck as you would to a restaurant. There is also an expectation of contribution in a potluck that’s different from ‘come over to my house for dinner.’

Here’s what goes into a potluck approach:

1. The ingredients are already there. Take the belief that the knowledge or expertise that a community needs to succeed already exists within that community. In that way, your role becomes about listening for member needs more than proving expertise. You should design structures and spaces and strategically amplify member voices to connect the dots. You’re setting the table, not planning the menu.

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2. Reciprocity is the secret sauce. You want people to be personally invested. You can be a passionate fan and still not be a part of a community. Unless you have been invited to contribute in a meaningful way, the brand has settled on providing enrichment rather than facilitating transformation. Reciprocity builds trust. Trust rooted in reciprocity creates incredible loyalty.

3. You start measuring success on “flavor” rather than calorie count. A great-tasting recipe starts with the intention to build flavor, not meet a particular calorie count. In the same way, great community design layers in shared experiences and opportunities for recognition. Your goal becomes satisfying the human longing for connection and belonging rather than appealing to the short-term and often superficial quantitative marketing metrics. This ROI reframe will also deeply impact your team’s connection to the community. The person who might otherwise be “the guy at table 10” has a name, and they can build a relationship with that individual.

4. The dishes are often imaginative and unexpected. My team and I recommend brands design their communities to stand alone separate from the core brand. Deviating from these established brand standards can feel scary, but it allows opportunities to play and experiment. This keeps even longstanding communities feeling fresh. User-generated content is also bound to be a mix of contributions that include family recipes inspired by their unique experiences and interests. You’re bound to bring back some community-based ideas to the core brand.

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5. When everyone brings something, there’s always enough. Community strategy is designed for sustainability. The commitment of members creates a constant exchange that’s built on that sense of generous reciprocity. There is a high up-front investment in planning and design, but at a certain point, the community can become almost self-perpetuating.

6. Your brand identity isn’t tied to a celebrity chef. Hiring influencers, whether they’re ‘Instafamous’ or traditional celebrities, for partnered marketing can be a successful strategy. But costs for promoted content are climbing faster than follower counts, engagement rates are rapidly declining and consumers are becoming increasingly annoyed by feeds full of product pitches. Community strategy appeals to the influencer next door eager to share their favorite products with people who know and trust them, and that generous exchange holds the value of word-of-mouth referrals. These “everyday influencers” consistently reflect higher measures of trust and engagement rates. They’re also much more likely to show up at your actual potluck with a dish to pass.

By building a stronger, community-oriented strategy today, you’re releasing your team from the confines of the content kitchen and encouraging them to assume the role of a generous host. You’re creating unforgettable experiences for your customers as well.

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Hugh Weber, CEO of We Must Be Bold, guides leaders through uncertainty to the possibility that emerges when culture and community align.

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