The Key Role of a Branded Online Community in Relationship Marketing
In previous posts, we’ve discussed the core principles of relationship marketing in partnering, collaborating and actively building value together with your customer – we do not focus on selling. Through partnership and engagement, we prove our value to customers, generate sustained engagement and drive business impact. Emotional and more intangible benefits supersede standard product features and comparisons. We differentiate our brands through the quality of how and when we establish an emotional connection.This week, we’re discussing the last, and perhaps most important, pillar of relationhsip marketing success: community (specifically a branded online community).
In today’s connected and social marketing world, most would agree on the critical role of community in building and sustaining brands, fostering loyalty and driving ongoing engagement with your business.
What is the definition of community?
As we discuss the importance of community, let’s first ground ourselves in a definition of community:
A feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.
As we consider what community really is, we see a natural, intuitive alignment with relationship marketing’s vision of partnership and non-selling approaches. Based on my experience:
– Community offers validation the customer has made an excellent choice to do business with a company or brand, supporting sustained interest.
– Community aligns your brand with authenticity – rather than the manufacturer having the pressure of selling, a customer feeling part of and having a perspective from a broader peer community supports trust in your brand.
– Community enables your customer to feel truly understood; having a connection to others perceived to have similar interests is the hallmark of a relationship marketing vision.
– Community offers your customer a sense of belonging, the feeling of being part of something bigger and special; this speaks to a very natural, basic human need.
– Community supports the emotional connection that makes it more difficult for others to copy you or claim to be better (even if they have product features that are actually better than yours). This emotional connection is also what sparks long-term loyalty and consumer advocacy.
– Community potentially enables the customer’s access to peer advice and mentoring; these practical resources and opportunities will have far more influence than direct brand promotional claims.
– Community will support customers being more favorably predisposed to use your product in new ways or enhance their receptiveness to doing so. (which enhances loyalty to you)
Relationship marketing & community: Best practices
Community as part of relationship marketing excellence sounds like a no-brainer, right? The answer is yes and no. Most buy into needing a sense of community conceptually for relationship marketing initiatives; the key is optimizing community for relationship marketing success.
Here are some considerations that position marketers to maximize the value of community in relationship marketing:
– A brand community should feel distinct from the broader base of customers. There should be a sense of exclusiveness in customer service, experience, offers and in general, bringing value directly to your community in tangible and emotional ways.
– Marketers with communities may leverage the benefits of satisfaction surveys or other means to demonstrate “we are listening” and enhance relationships with our communities; however, it is important to take (by capturing feedback) and give back (sharing the feedback you captured with the community); sharing what you learned demonstrates partnership and two-way engagement, core principles of relationship marketing a community can support.
– Online community building should be a multifaceted approach in the tools that support it. Too often, Facebook alone is thought of as the marketer’s sole community building tool (by using Facebook, we check off community on our list); but Facebook should only be one part of your community toolkit. Optimizing your own branded online community (i.e. SML’s Vesta solution) to give and share feedback potentially offers greater longer-term engagement potential.
– Leverage an owned branded online community for contextual ways to activate advocacy, custom surveys, promotional offers, online reviews, recommendations and hosted/moderated discussions within your online community. In addition to supporting community, the insights you’ll capture potentially support innovation in a more natural and real-time manner (vs. launching the innovation project). If there is a need for your organization to re-invent itself in customer engagement, this might position re-invention to happen more incrementally and organically over time, with higher acceptance/buy-in from internal teams.
– Piloting new products or ideas is very commonplace. Consider conducting pilots with your existing online community of users as part of research, as well as part of the relationship building strategy with this group; results can be shared by community participants with a broader customer group. In doing so, you are deepening existing relationships, advocacy, and giving your community more reasons to be loyal to your brand.
In summary, an online community is a core ingredient of relationship marketing success. A thoughtful approach to optimizing your community over time will enable an organization to realize its full business value. Your online community is a special, captive audience. Continue to develop and use it to its fullest potential.