As entrepreneurs, business owners, managers, or marketers, I’m sure we all have flashbacks to the days of our early mentors or first-bosses telling us to “network” —“Getting your brand name out is essential to success. People need to know us. People need to know YOU.”
Just a decade ago, we would have to attend breakfasts, conferences, and exhibitions to hand out business cards and hope someone would call. And until recently, those “networking events” were very much still a thing. (Jeez, thanks, Covid-19!) Today, however, we’re seeing the bulk of networking now happening online and taking place in virtual spaces. In a post-pandemic world, it’ll be even more important to understand how online community building is the new networking. But, first things first:
Networking does NOT mean pitching
People often think networking is about communicating their brand and its benefits. But networking has much more value than that — when carefully planned and executed, that is. Thoughtful, social-era networking can build your brand’s perception naturally and without feeling like that one friend from school who got into MLM schemes.
The theory of community building
You may say networking is just another “tick-the-box” marketing tactic. But there’s a science to it, and it all starts with Keller’s Brand Equity Model. It’s more commonly known as the “Customer-Based Brand Equity (CBBE) Model,” created by Kevin Lane Keller, a marketing professor.
The concept is straightforward: To build a robust brand, you must outline how consumers think and feel about your product and/or service. These experiences that you create can shape positive thoughts and perceptions of your brand to others, and that is the golden ticket to not only getting a sale — but building brand loyalty and advocacy — and that’s what you want. You want stable, repeat customers, primed for growth.
According to Keller’s Pyramid, the four steps show four questions consumers are bound to ask about your brand — whether they are vocally asking or are asking themselves subconsciously. The goal is to get your customers to the top of the pyramid labeled “Resonance.” This is where your customers are willing to build a relationship with you. Awww.
By entering this relationship with you, they’re helping you build a community. That’s the new networking.
How COVID-19 boosted community love
During the pandemic, many consumers are finding comfort in social networks, forums, and blogs that speak to real issues happening around them. Even though we are social distancing, consumers feel like talking to others online helps them get through tough situations and helps them support others as well. Whether it’s joining the #SupportLocal campaign or merely answering someone’s question with a comment, it’s inspiring to see people helping each other. Communities add more value to our daily lives than corporations or products. The lockdown has given consumers a new perspective, which highlights the importance of blending community with branding and being a go-to guide for your customers. People are asking for help and offering it, and brands need to be part of this conversation before their competitors get on the bandwagon.
Benefits of a community for businesses
Some brands have done a fantastic job at community building pre-COVID and even during the pandemic. Let’s look at how community building can help your business by exploring some of the best brand examples so far.
Generate word-of-mouth brand awareness
Remember when word-of-mouth was the golden nugget to increasing sales? Decades later, WoM marketing is still one of the most trusted sources. Sure, it may have moved online, but the concept is the same: we accept recommendations, advice, and testimonials from those we know and trust. But it’s not just friends and family, either. Product reviews from strangers and influencers can also have a huge impact on customers.
Your community could elevate word-of-mouth by allowing customers to rave about their recently purchased product, share a hack, or ask a question to learn more about that product. Whichever way you look at it, customers are talking about your brand. It’s up to you to share that experience with them, give them advice, and keep the conversation going. And if you still think that the glory days of word-of-mouth marketing are over, look at what the ALS ice bucket challenge did for its cause.
Ignite excitement in customers
Admittedly, community building is a bit of a long game and a continued investment. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that by creating a community, you’ll automatically get sales and not have to do much legwork once it’s up and running. You need to nurture your community. Oh, and customers aren’t stupid — they do a ton of research before purchasing a product, and if they’re interested in yours — chances are they will ask a question in your established community. That’s right. Your community could be the beginning of your sales funnel, not just the end.
A best-case scenario? When another customer answers correctly for you — that’s brand advocacy right there! The next best thing is for your team to answer product knowledge questions in detail, with possible QRTs (quick reference tools) for them to read. Share your knowledge and make others feel as excited as you are about your product.
When Lego’s sales were falling, and they almost filed for bankruptcy, they came up with Lego Ideas — a platform where fans were allowed to submit new concepts for Lego sets. Other fans voted on the Lego concepts they liked best, and Lego manufactured the top-voters into sets for sale. According to Harvard Business Review, this community has over a million users, with over 26,000 product ideas submitted. Lego produced 28 of those sets. This kind of community involvement is a win-win: your customers get recognition for their ideas (increasing their loyalty to you), and you get a bunch of ideas in return! Just be wary of the power of internet polling… that’s all.
Engage customers’ conversations
People are out there talking about their lifestyles, needs, purchase-decisions, and goals every day. These conversations all live within impactful communities, which brands should be part of. Brands should not only respond to members but support them and create engaging conversations with them. Gone are the days of pushing content to your audience and waiting for them to consume it and stay silent. Marketers always wanted to have a one-on-one conversation with their customers — here it is.
Starbucks has done a great job of providing coffee enthusiasts with a community where they can share ideas. The My Starbucks Idea platform is a forum where members can view other fans’ thoughts, add their opinions, or vote for what they like. Why does it work? Starbucks listens, learns, and actually actions many ideas from the forum. They don’t just say, “Okay, thanks!” and then ignore it. They show the world they value their customers through engagement and action.
Encourage brand loyalty
When your customers are happy and engaged, they’re more likely to stick with you. Contrary to how your internet service provider may treat you, returning customers are just as valuable as new ones. A great tactic to make customers feel valued is when communities play a significant role in encouraging brand loyalty. Remember to stay in contact with your customers before, after, and during a purchase. Sending birthday cards or a surprise gift can be simple yet effective ways to say, “thank you for choosing us.” On their end, give them that community of like-minded customers that they can share their stories (and their concerns) with.
Community building in a nutshell
Whether a customer meets you online, at a networking event, or through a friend, the key is you have made contact. In the 21st century, it’s just more likely they will see your social media profiles or website before they get a business card. Instead of meeting up in a convention center, build your own virtual gathering place through online community building strategies.
Customers may purchase from your brand once, twice, or multiple times. The point is they believe in you. They believe in what you sell, how you value them, and how you continue to improve. The best way to show them continuous improvement and make them a long-term partner is by creating specialized, high-quality brand communities. People want to support systems and have a voice. It feels good to belong to something and to share your ideas and passions with like-minded people. — so give your customers that feeling, and they’ll feel the same way about you.