It doesn’t take a marketing guru to realize that brand loyalty just isn’t what it used to be. 2020 forced buyers to make hard decisions about what they could afford, where they could buy it, and if their values matched those of the brand they were buying from. Businesses still playing by the old rules are at risk of losing out in this new era of customer engagement — that’s why it’s time to write a new set of rules entirely.
Like it or not, engaging customers in 2021 and beyond means reaching them virtually. Banner ads and email blasts may work in a pinch, but a long-term engagement strategy needs to be deeper than that. The keyword here is community; I expect my business to act as a node which draws people together in ways that other businesses simply do not. Building a strong customer community means adapting to how your customers are living now, and some of the best ways of doing so include:
1. Create an online forum.
In the age of COVID-19, how can a business get its customers to connect with each other? Offices are closed, storefronts shuttered, and salespeople stuck in one place. My longtime clients have a deep understanding and knowledge of my business — that alone puts them in a community with my other customers, whether they know it or not. The solution here is simple: build an online venue that allows customers to convene in one place, connecting over their shared relationship with a business.
Facebook is not only a low investment option for starting a community group, but it’s also really effective. With 2.8 billion global users that comprise a mix of demographics, it’s likely that most of your audience is already on there and easy to reach. The real question is what the ideal community should look like. Every company will have a different answer, but for me it’s simple: give people the space they need to share while emphasizing common interests. That basic principle alone can create a tight-knit community, online or otherwise.
2. Start a client community newsletter.
The world is undergoing something of a newsletter renaissance, with people looking for longer-form alternatives to the microblogging format made popular by Twitter and Instagram. Businesses have every reason to get in on this trend: not only are newsletters a highly-cost effective way of engaging customers, they also offer so many opportunities for a company’s true personality to shine through.
Services like Ontraport’s plug-and-play newsletter template do all the heavy lifting, meaning that companies can go straight into writing the content themselves without worrying about the technical details. There’s a lot to be said for the value of an informative, consistent newsletter, but each business has a different customer base: some may be looking for frequent updates while others will engage with quirky, left-field writing. No matter the content itself, a well-run newsletter is crucial for tying together a community of disparate customers.
3. Expand your social media presence.
It’s unthinkable not to have a social media presence in 2021, and yet very few businesses are taking full advantage of the platforms they’re on. The reflex to post automatically and indiscriminately on every available platform is hard to resist, but there’s reason to think carefully about where and how posting is being done. Take Instagram for example: plenty of companies post regularly on the app, but how many have used the Stories, Reels, or Guides features? Customers use those features socially all the time; companies that don’t are losing out.
Remember, too, that not all platforms have comparable usership. Every company attracts a different set of demographics, and the same is true for social networks. Businesses shooting for young consumers would get much further on TikTok than on Facebook. Social networks already have thriving communities of all sorts; it’s a business’s job to figure out which ones they fit into.
4. Host virtual events.
In an ideal world, I could be going to conferences, trade shows, storefronts, and even public spaces to find and connect with my customers — unfortunately we are not, at the moment, living in an ideal world. It’s tempting to simply throw up my hands and resign, promising myself that I’ll double my efforts once COVID subsides. The truth is that this strategy would ignore the large swaths of customers right now who are desperate for some genuine engagement, even if it has to be virtual.
A virtual event can be as simple as a Zoom meeting with some trusted clients, but there’s no reason not to take it further. Hootsuite’s guide to virtual event hosting makes the case that virtual events should be interwoven with a business’s social presence, either through live streams or regular announcements. The more that a company can cross-pollinate its consumer bases, the stronger and more engaged the resultant client community will be.
5. Lean into personalization.
Simply put, customers prefer it when the brands they buy from care about them. In order for someone to feel like they’re part of a community, they need to feel invited into that community to begin with. A customer that sees mostly personalized content from my business will recognize that my business values them, leading to higher engagement levels down the line.
Even large companies should think about reaching out to a few of their customers on a genuinely personal level over the phone or with composed emails. These kinds of connections will socialize customers, priming them to be great community members in the future. Use personalization to show interest, and customers will show interest back.
Customers are starved for community, now more than ever. Any business that can create that kind of genuine engagement now will be setting itself up for huge returns in the years to come — if you build a community for your customers, they will come.
Image credit: Pixabay; StockSnap