CEO of Sid Lee USA, leading five companies in design, brand development, entertainment storytelling and content, marketing, and CX design.
With all that is happening in the world this year, it’s clear that belonging matters now more than ever. People are searching for a community, especially in virtual experiences. As we all undergo our personal digital transformations, our values, identity and self-worth are increasingly defined by the communities we engage with online and the sense of closeness they provide.
Given this context, the rise of community as an emerging new marketing discipline is unassailable. Sitting between mass marketing and personalization, community marketing leverages the power of network effects and is the driving force behind modern platform-based organizations. As marketers, we are just beginning to understand this discipline and often get it wrong.
Unlike a customer segment or a group of consumers, a community is an association of individuals who come together for a specific purpose. This gives communities a distinctive quality — their purpose multiplies their individual and unified actions — for good and bad if we don’t engage with them well. Too often, this central purpose is ignored, as marketers see them as a buying public. But this belies their power because communities act together and evidence a network effect within the group and those in their sphere of influence.
The other aspect we take for granted is that, while brands can enable, empower and offer a platform, communities are not theirs to “own.” People belong to communities, not brands. When businesses authentically attach to naturally occurring communities and participate as members, they can leverage the resulting network effects.
In contrast, much of community marketing is anathema to marketing departments that express themselves in terms of ownership (“my customers,” “the market position we own,” “our market”). Companies that figure out how their brand can begin or get better at giving agency to harness the power of communities will see the benefits of network effects, namely through customer growth, participation rates, dwell time, the share of requirements and revenues, all while lowering overall marketing costs.
The good news is that entrepreneurs and marketers can evaluate the strength of a community and the potential for value creation through four pillars:
1. Social identity
The first factor in a thriving community is to deliver a clear and distinct social identity to each member. This relates to how strongly an individual can connect emotionally to a group and feel that their identity is attached.
We see this identity in today’s strong communal groups. Burning Man attendees describe themselves as “Burners,” VSCO-users have built the #VSCOgirl persona and League of Legends players embody alter-egos through cosplay. One is no longer just a part of the community; instead, the community becomes a part of who they are.
A concept out of the social sciences, this pillar expresses the level to which a group can be distinguished as a single, cohesive entity rather than a fractured sum of its group members.
This oneness in a group appears in highly engaged activity-based brands, such as Barry’s Bootcamp and Rapha Cycling, where members congregate and act in ways that deliver on their oneness. Both attract devotees to highly-intense sports, where going on that weekly group cycle or to a HIIT class is not merely a workout but rather an inherent part of their lifestyle.
3. Social capital
This pillar represents the collective value of a given social network. It is based on a collection of characteristics, including shared values, understanding and reciprocity norms. This is evidenced by Twitch’s success, which facilitates the social capital of gamers. It allows for constant inclusivity and interaction with members by viewing gameplay videos, essentially creating a connection between one another.
This is the level to which members of a community will cooperate to deliver on a cause. Community mobilization pushes group engagement, but it is also a latent way of measuring and analyzing a flourishing community.
A well-documented example of mobilization is the K-pop music group BTS. What started as a challenge on TikTok to encourage people to crash the Trump Tulsa rally ballooned into a massive political mobilization exercise that many believe was the reason behind his low audience numbers.
These four characteristics are unique to all communities. They deliver much-needed feelings of belonging among its members and distinguish themselves in their energy and activity from large populations of “segments” or individualistic behavior. When all four of these pillars are present in varying forms, communities become exponentially more impactful.
For marketers, understanding what makes a community strong is central to learning how best to engage it. The network effect’s value is that engaged communities do much of the marketing, communication and distribution of ideas themselves. They successfully mobilize to spread awareness, effectively reducing marketing costs and increasing ROI.
Fundamental to success with communities is a mindset shift to understand that communities are naturally occurring, not created by brands but formed around a common interest. They can be given a platform and even offered agency by brands, but they are not theirs to own. Participation, support and enablement are the roles for brands, not control or ownership. For marketers who harness this mindset and approach, growth is exponential. Customer advocacy reigns, communities grow and the customer is empowered to belong.