Brand Strategy Brand Engagement Customer Engagement

Humans are hardwired for connection, so why is building a brand community so difficult?

By Stefan Read, SVP of engagement advisory and strategy practice lead

May 6, 2021 | 7 min read

Much like ‘personalization’, ‘omnichannel’ and ‘experience’ were once hot-button topics, one of the new marketing buzzwords today is ‘community’. Some brands have managed to create a community of loyal brand followers who buy their products and act as ambassadors – or even evangelists – promoting the brand in their personal and digital lives. So how did these brands do it?

Colorful plastic monkey figurines holding hands

Humans are hard-wired for connection; research suggests social connection is actually essential to our survival. It’s not surprising that more than a year into this global pandemic, consumers are craving community now more than ever, but shockingly it’s estimated that nearly all online branded communities will fail within their first year.

The brands that do community well – think Lululemon, Glossier and Peloton – make it look easy. So why do so many others fall into predictable traps? Trying to design the ‘ideal’ brand community in-house and then pushing it onto consumers rarely works. Brands must view community as something they build with their consumers, not for them.

Through our proprietary consumer research program, the Jackman Human Insights Study – which includes both qualitative and quantitative research – we recently unpacked the topic in a way that’s both understandable and actionable for brands.

Our research found that much of what brands think they know about building communities is wrong. However, it also revealed some important insights that can help brands get it right.

Myth #1: exclusive membership drives involvement and engagement

Many brands assume the best way to build community is through members-only events, exclusive content and special perks for community insiders. In reality, consumers have very different priorities. We asked consumers what was most important to them specifically when interacting with others about a topic they cared about – getting product information and ideas (9%) and becoming an exclusive member or insider (5%) were at the bottom of the list.

Fostering a community is all about emotional connections. The priorities that rose to the top in that same question were learning something new (47%), expressing oneself freely (42%) and sharing one’s knowledge or expertise (41%).

One-way communication from brands, exclusive offers and the status associated with being a ‘member’ are not enough to build communities that resonate with consumers. The opportunity for exchanging knowledge and interacting authentically is much more important than exclusivity.

Myth #2: if you build it, they will come

People have limited capacity for communities. Most consumers are part of just three or four social groups, which includes communities that are naturally formed around family, work, friends and religion or culture. This leaves little time or energy for participating in communities focused on areas of interest, and few consumers are willing to dedicate this limited time to brands.

In our study, 43% of consumers cited elements of connection as the core benefit they sought when engaging with others. Common words that arose when discussing connection included ‘unite’, ‘teamwork’, ‘friendship’ and ‘gathering’. While some brands can create this sense of collective belonging on their own (Peloton, for instance, has managed to turn its bike owners into a community that exercises together and uplifts one another), most will be more successful if they meet consumers where they already are.

A good (pre-social media) example of this is Jeep, which uses the Easter Jeep Safari event to introduce new concept vehicles. The event was launched in 1967 by the Moab Utah Chamber of Commerce and has been run by a local Jeep club since the 1980s. The automaker didn’t conceptualize the event and invite consumers to attend; it discovered that its consumers had already organized the event and decided to join them.

Most brands don’t have consumers already organizing around their products – but your core consumers are likely already gathering. Your job is to find them. A flour company could join an online community of bakers or a health and wellness brand could seek out yoga enthusiasts. Offer these core consumers reciprocal benefits and an opportunity for authentic engagement with your brand and with each other.

Myth #3: one strategy can be applied to different kinds of communities

While foundational characteristics like trust and transparency are critical for any community to succeed, it is a mistake to assume there is a consistent set of strategic tactics that are interchangeable across all communities.

Communities are built around common interests, belief systems, actions, professions, circumstances and places. Brands need to know what kind of communities they are building and the core audience with whom they wish to build it in order to identify successful strategies.

If we examine a health and wellness community next to one that is organized around food, we can see important distinctions. Members of both are motivated by the desire to interact with people who have similar interests. But what makes people stay in a health and wellness community tends to be the ongoing personal support they feel they receive and the desire to help others by sharing their own knowledge or advice. Members of a food community, on the other hand, are less concerned with personal support. They stay engaged for the elements of fun and camaraderie.

There are functional questions to answer about your community, like who created it and how members communicate, but brands cannot build a community without understanding their consumers on an emotional level. Like everything related to marketing, success will come from knowing what unites the potential members of a community, what brings them together, what motivates them to come back and what else – beyond the community – matters to them.

The reality of community-building

The reality is that without genuine passion or affinity for a specific brand, it’s unlikely that consumers will seek out brand-based communities regardless of the exclusive offers or membership status offered to them. To approach community in the right way, your brand must:

  • Engage with your consumers where they already are – it’s easier than trying to attract them to the brand

  • Offer reciprocal benefits and enable knowledge-sharing and genuine interactions among consumers

  • Be clear on what is important to the core community and tailor strategies accordingly

  • Strive to be authentic and transparent

Approaching community with these takeaways in mind will help guide a brand’s approach to fostering a community of loyal supporters and brand ambassadors.

Stefan Read is senior vice president of engagement advisory and strategy practice lead at Jackman.

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