Digital communities: Dissolving boundaries to create a ‘we experience’

Today, brand management is all about building digital communities and inviting customers to partake in the product development by co-opting their ideas and suggestions and involving them in the brand’s journey.
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In the last two decades, influential shifts in technology have changed brand management. Marketing is no longer just about understanding customer needs and personalising products, nor is it about translating consumer behaviour for products to resonate with their passions or desires.

Today, in a connected world, where customers are bombarded with information from a variety of channels, it's imperative for brands to establish genuine channels of communication. The ones that value the rarity of human-to-human connectivity and build their strategy around human connections are more likely to stand out.

Evolution of engagement for a deeper connect

The next evolutionary change in marketing is transcendence from traditional demographic segmentation and targeting to build digital communities around the brand, with the customer at the center.

Today, many customers are not content with being just passive users of a product or service. They are connected to online networks and are engaging with products they love; they are discovering brands through their peers and other consumers; and directly interacting with brands through technology-led curated content and on-ground activations.

Leveraging these engagements and capturing the sentiment, marketers today can process insights into feedback to make their products more tailormade. Having said that, valuing this connection and feedback goes beyond the product and leads to deeper loyalty and trust.

Companies that have built and supported interactive, feedback-based communities around their business, are usually ahead of the curve when it comes to market change. For example, brand communities like My Starbucks Idea have created a forum where coffee enthusiasts can propose ideas, vote and add feedback. Starbucks uses this to learn what customers want and how their preferences are changing.

This insight has not only helped the international coffee brand stay relevant, but the brand does a good job of cultivating the feeling of being valued by making sure to highlight which customer idea is being put to action.

Similarly, the brand community of LEGO facilitates Co-Creation – letting consumers influence innovation by enabling them to participate in product development. The LEGO enthusiasts having the best ideas not only get to see the idea on the shelf but are also awarded a percentage of the product sales.

How brands are leveraging the power of communities

Apart from pure-play marketing, digital communities also help establish a deep emotional connect with the brand. For example, Harley Davidson’s membership community, aka Harley Owners’ Group is positioned as well as recognised as a global family. It fosters constant storytelling that helps owners feel closer to the brand. A forum where they share inside information, emotional and personal journeys. This content helps spark interest, build desires and aspiration and often leads customers to realise that Harley Davidson is not just a motorcycle, but a lifestyle. And interestingly, this community notion of Harley Davidson being a ‘way of life’ has aligned well with its brand value and legacy.

Engaging users with an in-house community platform can help marketers adjust strategy. Sales teams can use it to position themselves as intuitive and responsive. And the overall company can build lasting relationships to fortify brand value.

However, the pursuit of a unique brand identity begins with establishing the environment or conversation, which has value and empathy at its core. For example, electric OEM brand Ather in India created a community which not only engaged its customers for beta testing its prototypes, designs and OTA updates on the product development front, but also captured the emotional quotient and nurtured its members to eventually become brand evangelists.

From just consumers to brand evangelists

Establishing a deeper relationship amongst themselves and the brand, Ather consumers see other owners through the lens of the community, and that aids their decision to own the product and be a part of the story, as well as build one’s own. Interestingly, this could be seen when bike owners volunteered to travel to cities where products were being launched, to share their experience with prospective owners. This extended a feeling of trust amongst consumers, organically – something that cannot be bought.

Communities are a way to meet your customers where they are, both from a business and emotional standpoint. It has been an important part of how brands have been interacting with their audience during the pandemic, and how they intend to in a post COVID-19 era. In the current scheme of things and the onset of a new normal post-pandemic, these communities can be leveraged to assess how consumer thinking and approach to products and innovation has developed and changed.

Real, insightful conversations amongst members and customers can highlight areas where brands need to focus more, which can help in faster business recoveries.

Whether it’s through rewards, special events, user generated content or brand advocates, communities have the ability to give their members the tools to bring other like-minded customers into the brand’s journey, keep them engaged and spread their own rich experiences – eventually helping transform the essence of the brand and its perception in the minds of users.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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