“Community” Is a Buzzword, But Also Key to a People-Powered Strategy. Here’s What Brands Get Wrong About Community.

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It’s funny to look back at our younger marketing selves just a few years ago, still working so hard to convince executives and CMOs that social media was a good bet to take.

Now, in 2021, social media is ubiquitous. We’ve won the argument that social more than matters in the business world — it has the power to transform a business. It is a key part of marketing strategies and increasingly becoming the biggest piece as the world moves more online. And much of the corporate world has upskilled in knowing how to create social media programs that are sophisticated and appealing.

However, I still see an area of social that most brands struggle to get right and I believe it’s the next evolution of great social media marketing. I manage this area in the “community” department — and I have that in quotes here because yes, it’s a buzzword.

But it’s a buzzword that packs a lot of meaning.

Let’s break it down quickly, and then I’ll tell you why it matters on social and can be the difference between a transactional brand and one that truly, meaningfully integrates into customers’ lives.

Person using mobile phone
Image by Erik Lucatero from Pixabay

Community,” according to the Oxford Dictionary, refers to a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common, or a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

Brand communities represent the fans and customers that engage with your brand because it aligns with their common attitudes, goals, or characteristics.

Here’s where brands get it wrong in how they reach out to these communities, or fail to have an approach that truly does reach them.

1. They Don’t Create a Feedback Loop

Many brands have a “content” approach, but they “post and run” as I like to call it. They’re not building into the process a content-community feedback loop that actually takes the conversation that results from the published posts and uses it to propel the story forward. Many pieces of content can actually be recycled and expanded into two or even four posts when positioned to kickstart a conversation.

2. They Don’t Align Workstreams

It’s very common for brands to have a customer service department, but this support workstream is often not aligned with the social media marketing workstream. With 79% of people expecting brands to respond to customer service on social within 24 hours, many customers are disappointed in the experience they’re getting, and marketing professionals feel disorganized and segmented the wrong way when it comes to their roles, responsibilities, and capabilities, leaving way for a “That’s not my job!” sentiment.

3. They Leave UGC on the Table

Brands still are underutilizing user-generated content (UGC). It’s a bit remarkable, as 70% of consumers trust UGC more than branded content. If you don’t have a UGC content pillar in your social media strategy, don’t think of it as a major undertaking so much as an extension of your social engagement approach, not dissimilar from how you retweet great audience conversation about you. To get started, define a consistent type of UGC you want to feature, set up a permissioning structure, identify optimal cadence, and you’re off to the races!

Community manager working.
Image by expresswriters from Pixabay

4. They Don’t Meet Customers Where They Are

We’re still too broadcast-focused with brand marketing. Your brand story — which you now need to tell in collaboration with your consumer — only matters if it’s truly reaching the people you want where they’re at in their lives. Having a social listening and sentiment-centered data approach to understanding your existing AND target consumers (and the cohorts within them; your consumers may not all want the same thing) is the difference between putting out content that resonates and content that falls flat. Save budget in the long run by investing in this type of community listening and analysis upfront.

5. They Don’t Act Like Humans

Social media platforms are constantly putting out new native tools that make talking to your community (and even getting direct product feedback or market surveys) as easy as the click-of-a-button, but brands are still pushing to have all-curated feeds that rely on the same image-caption combo. It’s okay to be human and use an unpolished function like an Instagram Story poll from time-to-time — you may actually learn something from your community that can inform your next polished Instagram post with the results!

One thing I wish more brands did is reveal who works at their companies with raw, unedited moments built natively on social — for example, employee Twitter takeovers. Show us you’re humans, not robots.

6. They Don’t Acknowledge Cultural And Social Responsibility

And finally, your current and desired communities don’t exist in a bubble. The last year has been a wild, traumatic, and tumultuous one, and communities showed up asking brands to understand their place in the world. Having a cultural and social responsibility plan is not just a PR and crisis management approach, but something you should bake into your strategies overall so that you can respond to important conversations, but also because you want to put out content that reaches your community where they actually are. Fitting into people’s identities, not just their wallets, is what Peloton, Nike, and ThirdLove do so well.

None of this is to say that brands in 2021 are not reaching communities in a positive way. I believe we’re at the beginning of the golden age of social communities online (despite what you see from time-to-time in Facebook rants and tweet battles). There’s never been a better time to become a social media optimist and lean into the possibilities of connecting people and brands through technology around their shared values.

For brands and organizations that do this well and invest in a true community strategy, there’s a very bright and meaningful future ahead where consumers and brands alike build the way to a shared vision of their futures. That’s the side of the story I like to be on, where I support brands transforming their business through social media and community to create a shared story with their audience.

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