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Markets vs. Communities: Building Trust with Online Consumers

As social media has becomes more of a mainstream marketing channel, a lot of brands (and even some agencies) struggle with finding some sort of best-practices for social media marketing. Aside from the odd corporate blogging manifesto, brands are often left to figure social media out for themselves. By considering the difference between markets and communities, however, brands can begin to develop an understanding of how to approach their customers in a social media setting.

Markets vs. Communities

When it comes to using social media to engage existing and potential customers, something that you need to remember is that those customers represent your target market and a separate, standalone community. If you want to engage them on both levels, then, you need to understand that communities are about interaction.

Whereas you target a market, you participate in a community. Consequently, there are different rules of conduct.

In a community, business is not the first order of business. Relationships come before sales. Engaging communities is a great way to boost sales, but you actually have to become a respected and trusted member before you can tap into that potential.

Community Engagement

There are two general ways you can participate in existing communities and start building trust with their members: direct engagement and indirect engagement.

Direct community engagement is more of a longtail strategy because it entails building up your brand's membership within a separate community. Often, you will need a kind of brand ambassador who identifies the online communities that your target market belongs to, and then reaches out to them by sharing their insight about products and services that are related to the community's underlying interests.

Indirect community engagement can yield results more quickly, but requires that you rely on other independent third-parties to broker your brand's relationship with a community. It entails building relationships with the influencers or community leaders — people who already have a reputation within the community for being trustworthty. By offering these influencers a heads-up or "sneak peaks" into your products or promotions, you can often get your message out quickly.

Many of these influencers, moreover, have already learned how to monetize their reputation through affiliate marketing. This means that they have a model in place through which they make commissions off of the sales they refer.

That being said, it is imperative that you never ask them to abuse their reputation or mislead them into doing so. These influencers have spent years building their reputation within the community, and are unlikely to jeopardize it for a quick buck. And if they grow to distrust you, they will pass that sentiment on to the community.

Of course, an effective community strategy requires both a direct and indirect approach. While indirect participation might yield results more quickly, it will also make your presence within a community reliant on an arbiter. It's important, then, that once you engage influencers, you also work to build your brand's own reputation within that community.

Social Media ROI: Return on Influence

One of the reasons that social media is such a powerful marketing channel is that it helps to build trust between community members. Consumers, for instance, trust in a word-of-mouth referral or in product reviews. But consumers trust those reviews because they are independent third-parties.

Just because your brand is not an independent third-party, however, doesn’t mean you can’t build trust and gain influence with consumers. After all, trust is at the heart of all business transactions:you buy something trusting that you’ll receive what you paid for, and I sell it to you trusting that I'll be paid.

The way you can gain added influence with consumers, then, is by building relationships with them. And you can do that by treating your market as a community of consumers with some shared interest rather than just a target demographic. In fact, some of the largest, most respected brands online have reaped the benefits of participating in or building a community of their consumers (source):

  • Community users remain customers 50% longer than non-community users (AT&T, 2002).
  • Community users spend 54% more than non-community users (EBay, 2006).
  • Community users visit nine times more often than non-community users (McKinsey, 2000).

There are a variety of social media tools bringing consumers together in entirely new ways and making it possible for brands to build relationships with them. After all, when people come together to interact on a regulat basis, they become a community, and when anyone interacts with that community (brand or otherwise), they become a member of it too, enjoying the same benefits of those relationship as everyone else.

What brands in Canada do you feel have been successful at participating in or building a community?

Photo credit: Trust us, we're expert by phauly

One Comment

  1. Sean Moffitt
    Sean Moffitt March 28, 2009

    Perhaps I caught it wrong but the tenor of argument seemed to be use 3rd party social media exclusively to build community.
    I could make a very good argument that some of the best BRAND communities are in fact owned by the brand with shared interest with its members, Ebay being one of your research pieces of data and great example of this.
    Although I subscribe to the argument that networks like facebook, twitter, flickr make great outreach and broadcast tools – they are not great brand engagement tools – setting up your own community platform as a destination is thus an absolute perogative.
    To answer your question – Webkinz, Cambrian House, Club Penguin, freshbooks are all good Canadian communities.

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