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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.

The rise of community, the ebb of authority, and the takeaways for business

It’s clear that community, not authority, is inspiring consumers.

The rise of community, the ebb of authority, and the takeaways for business
[Halfpoint/AdobeStock]

The pandemic was a cultural game-changer. Our individual experiences with the global health crisis varied greatly. As misinformation and distrust gained traction online, the federal government, its health agencies, and mainstream media took a credibility hit. Instead of rallying behind authority as we did after 9/11, our trust in established sources of information measurably declined, evidenced by the endless memes reflecting confusion over conflicting COVID-19 recommendations.

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Although as of this writing about 66% of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated, getting there wasn’t easy. Celebrities have long inspired vaccine compliance—for example, Elvis Presley helped build buzz for the polio vaccine in the 1950s. But this time, local doctors, business owners, bloggers, and micro-influencers have helped turn the tide. A social sentiment study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on vaccine attitudes and influences concluded: “Messengers are most effective when they are seen as part of the community.” Elevated by new online platforms, like TikTok, and aided by high-quality video, community voices now have platforms and tools to connect like never before.

Though the pandemic was technically a healthcare crisis, the lessons learned don’t just apply to the healthcare sector. These cultural shifts are having implications across all business sectors, and it’s something to which we all need to respond.

GRASSROOTS INFLUENCERS DELIVER AUTHENTICITY 

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It’s clear that community, not authority, is inspiring consumers in healthcare and beyond. Mega influencers will continue to have a role, but word of mouth has gained even more traction in this new environment.

Today, authenticity—the most valuable currency for any brand—is best achieved through relatable voices. Many people find inspiration to truly change their behavior through the lived experiences of others. While those voices are amplified online, they can also be heard live—at a place of worship, playgroup, office or community event. The pandemic exposed a vast opportunity for businesses to leverage nontraditional spokespeople as a way to show up authentically to build brand trust.

CO-CREATION DRIVES GROWTH 

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Forward-thinking companies are taking the concept of community one big step further. Beyond enlisting influential voices to deliver corporate or brand messages, they are involving customers in creating those messages from the start. And more companies are tapping consumers, employees and others as partners to help determine business strategy. Whether it’s footwear brands like Puma and Timberland that give customers a voice in product design, or LEGO, which involves its network of user groups in co-creating new products, outside-in advisors have become the best brand evangelists.

The fresh insights and firsthand perspectives gained from those personally connected to your brand can be a catalyst for innovation and growth. How can you leverage community and co-creation in business? Here are some strategies to consider:

• Respect the New Power Dynamic. Community engagement and co-creation don’t happen overnight. The rise of social media has given more power to the people, and as a result, big corporations need to spend more time nurturing customer relationships. Lay the groundwork for co-creation by first building platforms to encourage customer community and conversations and be responsive to feedback. Great engagement occurs when a solid relationship has been established. When you invest time in understanding who your customers are, they’ll be more willing to lend their insights, ideas and energy to support your brand. According to Rhettt Power (paywall), “The best thing about a deeply satisfied repeat customer is that they eventually evolve beyond brand advocates and into brand ambassadors, sharing their affinity for your company and its offerings with their own circles of influence.”

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• Reject “Do as I Say” Messaging. As consumers look less to authority figures, they’re also tuning out authoritative messaging. Edicts don’t engage. They repel. Mohanbir S. Sawhney, a professor and management consultant, notes that authentic engagement comes when we embrace a new approach, “advertising as a service, as opposed to advertising as interruption. Essentially, you’re offering customers value in exchange for their attention.” Use customer input as a starting point to create messaging that reflects what’s most valuable to your audience.

• Engage Your Employees. Employees are an invaluable resource and should play an essential role in determining future business direction. Cultivate employee participation by creating a culture of curiosity—ask questions, listen, and leverage different viewpoints to spark new ideas. It’s no coincidence that companies that lead the “Best Places to Work” lists are those with robust employee engagement programs. At Google, employees spend up to 20% of their time at work every week on projects that inspire them. Many of our groundbreaking offerings at my company were built from the ground up by passionate, excited employees.

While it’s understandable that we want to move on from the pandemic, there’s no denying its impact. Although it demanded space—distancing and remote work—it also drove demand for connections. As a result, community and co-creation are more critical to consumers than ever, and this demand will inspire new ideas and energy for businesses well after the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

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Kristin Cahill, Global Chief Executive Officer at GCI Health.

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