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How community marketing can turn customers into loyal brand advocates

Companies are learning to harness their messaging and actions to consumers’ unique values

How community marketing can turn customers into loyal brand advocates

Companies that can connect with values-based communities have a distinct marketing advantage. Communities built around shared beliefs, identity, and life experiences are more likely than other customers to become self-motivated brand ambassadors, organically increasing brand awareness, converting new customers, and generating lifetime value. The opportunity this affords to companies is growing, as consumers—particularly millennials and Gen Z—are increasingly likely to get their sense of belonging from such communities.

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Creative experience company Sid Lee and Fast Company recently hosted a virtual panel with business leaders at the forefront of community marketing. The discussion touched on how new and established brands can connect with values-based communities and how community marketing is a powerful tool to help convert consumers into vocal brand advocates. Here are four takeaways from the conversation.

    1. Young people derive their identity mostly from their values-based community.

With the Belong Effect project last year—a multiyear research initiative—Sid Lee began a longitudinal study of the kinds of communities formed by millennials and Gen Z in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and France. The most startling insight for Sid Lee USA CEO Andy Bateman was that young people are more likely to attain their sense of identity from a values-based community than from family-based or geographic communities. Because those values-based communities often connect through online social platforms, brand advocates can reach a large number of like-minded people everywhere.

It’s this idea of community outreach that Bateman likens to a “third way” of marketing. “I spent my life in marketing, and I know mass marketing and one-to-one marketing very well,” he says. “But with the emergence of community-based marketing, we’re only beginning to see how individuals and companies and organizations can create a following.”

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   2. Even noncustomers can become brand advocates.

Jenn Harper, founder and CEO of cosmetics company Cheekbone Beauty, says it’s not only customers that support the brand with word-of-mouth marketing, but also the wider community of people who support the Canadian, Indigenous-owned company’s values of transparency and sustainability.

For instance, she notes that Cheekbone Beauty recently built a lab and hired its own team of scientists to create its line of cosmetics. With that work being done in house, the company is able to share more information publicly and transparently about all phases of its formulation and manufacturing process.

“It’s a community that loves and believes in our brand so much that they are talking about it constantly,” Harper says. “We have this army of warriors, if you will, around North America preaching and talking about our brand. And they’re talking about it just like we do.”

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    3. Brands should think in terms of participation rather than ownership.

If marketers want to reap the benefits of community marketing, they may have to adopt a new vocabulary and a new way of thinking about their relationships with their customers. In short, the brand exists to be an important part of the community—not to dominate it. “For so long it’s been a narrative of ownership: my brand, my values, my market segment, my positioning,” Bateman says. “The language we use in community marketing is about participation [and] engagement.”

Depop, a peer-to-peer fashion marketplace, markets itself in a very intentional way, articulating a mission to build a new fashion ecosystem that’s kinder both to the planet and to people. It’s a message that has resonated with its customers, who share in Depop’s embrace of circular fashion, extending the lifespan of our material goods, and reducing waste. That unlocks what Depop Chief Brand Officer Peter Semple calls the “flywheel” of brand advocates attracting customers, who in turn become brand advocates who attract more customers. “People are proud to share that they’re part of this community,” Semple says.

    4. Higher principles matter.

Community marketing can yield network effects and scale, but a brand has to earn it by being an authentic and credible member or facilitator of the community with which it’s trying to connect. And, as Bateman says, communities are not passive; they’re usually trying to get something done.

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Hipcamp is the world’s largest marketplace for booking camping trips ranging from remote tenting adventures to chic glamping sites. But the values of the community run deeper than a fondness for the outdoors. Through their experiences with Hipcamp, users’ passions have blossomed into something more. “It’s really inspired them…to take better care of the environment and support the communities who care for the land—the farmers and ranchers and nature conservancies on our platform,” says Kristen Vasan, Hipcamp’s head of partnerships.

According to Bateman, it’s the commitment to higher principles that makes companies like Cheekbone Beauty, Depop, and Hipcamp successful in community marketing: “The authenticity behind your purpose is what people carry forward with them.”

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FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.

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