Marketing tactics come and go, brought to heights and swept down with trends and advances in technology. Still, there’s one strategy that’s weathered it all, one as old as humanity itself, community.
Well, it’s inherently human. Before the world grew so large, it fractured under its own weight, community used to be everything. Today, it still plays a pivotal role in our personal and professional lives. In fact, since the internet made connecting easier than ever, many brands tapped into the power of communities to drive their growth and influence. And it works! It works because people are bombarded with endless ads and content relentlessly and seek to make sense of it. It works because people are overflowing with choices and seek out sources they can trust. It works because it’s human nature to crave a sense of belonging.
Setting all the sentiment and human nature aside, leveraging communities for business, especially if you are new to the space, can be overwhelming and confusing.
Where do you start? Should you start? How do you go about it? Is it worth it?
Michelle Goodall, the Chief Marketing Officer at Guild, a platform for professional communities and networking, has the answers. As an avid advocate of community-led marketing with over twenty years of online community building experience, she offers a rare insight into what professional communities were, are, and will be in the future.
In the interview with Fernando Amaral for the Ungated Marketing Podcast, she delves into the best community strategies and channels to help your business grow through one of the most organic tactics in the marketing playbook today.
Communities: The Basics
Before we start, it’s important to define the basics of not only what a community is but what motivates people to join one.
What is a Community?
Answering what a community is shouldn’t be up for debate. Yet, misunderstanding the concept is not rare, especially when it comes to business. Many tend to mix up community with a network.
Michelle points out that “a network is ‘What's in it for me?’ Okay, and a community is ‘What can we do? What collectively are we trying to fix, solve, achieve?’ So there is a difference between a community and a network. A network is a place where you connect, where you move your career on or whatever else, but a community has a shared sense of purpose.’
So, for a group of people to be a community, there needs to be a sense of “us” in the narrative.
Another common mistake is misconstruing following for a community: “There's a difference between community-based marketing and a community-led organization. If you're cranking out sugary sweets and very full-fat ice creams, etc., then you're probably going to have fans. You are probably going to connect with people in places and spaces like social that people have conflated with community, but it's quite doubtful that you are going to create a community of people who very much are in amongst a group of others.”
So, if you aim to establish a community, you should avoid the trap of simply creating a network or a following of people who know you or listen to you but don’t think of themselves as a group.
Why do People Join Communities?
Answering the “what” always leads to “why.”
Michelle advocates that community is largely about a sense of belonging, having a shared sense of purpose, but the motivators behind that are very different from one individual to the next.
“Now that shared sense of purpose might be making a lot of money quickly, as an example, and the people who want to make a lot of money very quickly have extrinsic motivators. So they want fame and wealth and all of those things. [Then there’re] people who might join, let's say, for example, a community of practice around professional, public relations, communications, etc., those people who want to move that profession on and bring people into the industry and mentor others. They probably have a mix of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivators basically mean ‘I feel quite altruistic. I want to help people. It makes me feel good when I know that I'm doing good for other people or when I'm moving this profession on by helping it to become more professional.’ But actually, the extrinsic bit is status. The extrinsic bit is the reward.”
So, the answer to the “why” is complex. According to Michelle, it’s your job as a marketer “to create communities that really do adapt to different audiences and their different needs.”
What to Focus on when Assessing Community Success?
The third pea in the pod of understanding community basics is looking at the way you measure community impact.
When it comes to tracking success, our marketing minds automatically flock to engagement. And who could blame us, really?
However, Michelle argues that when it comes to community, we need to measure different things because “in the majority of communities, you will not get high levels of engagement. You'll get the super engagers and also the people that we shouldn't call lurkers, we should call readers or members that belong to the community, and they get just as much value as those people who are spouting off left, right, and center.”
There are other ways to measure the effect and impact of the community, and “that's the value that individuals kind of get from that sense of belonging.”
Community: Who is it For?
The reality is that there’re really no limitations to who can benefit from a community, and “most organizations can in some way build community into what they do” and become a community-led organization.
In fact, there’s a number of new companies “that have put the community at the heart of their business and actually have developed a model around it.” Michelle offers an example of Olio, an app that aims to reduce food waste through food sharing. A simple community-based business concept that raised $43 million in Series B in 2021.
Still, even if the community isn’t at the center of your business model, it can have a huge impact on your business. According to Michelle, having a lively community “works particularly well for B2B organizations and also organizations where there is a purpose, whether it's something to achieve, to solve a problem, to fix, or something to improve.” This definition extends to most organizations, including professional services, technology providers, agencies, media, publishers, etc.
Therefore, when you think about a professional community you could be part of (or leader of), focus on the pain points you aim to solve, grounds you want to break, or goals you want to achieve.
The Role of Community within the Funnel
A community can be very powerful, but if it doesn’t tie back to some kind of business goal, you can downplay or miss out on much of the positive impact on your company. While the specifics can differ among organizations, “there is a way of thinking about community-based marketing in the sales and the marketing funnel,” as a community can work “really well at the sort of interest and consideration and the desire areas of the marketing funnel.”
One of the most obvious roles a community can play in your funnel is nurturing relationships with your prospective as well as existing customers.
Michelle elaborates: “It offers you an opportunity to create a place in a space where you can showcase your expertise. You can build your credibility. You can nurture relationships with your existing clients or even your prospects as well. And essentially what you're doing is you're growing that sort of pipeline at the middle of the funnel and also improving flow to conversion.”
If you host potential leads (that might not be ready to buy your product or service for months) within a community and give them value, you are ensuring that when it’s time to make that decision they are likely to consider you rather than your competitors since “you're not just spamming them with sort of outbound stuff and activity… What you're doing is building relationships with them.”
Loyalty and Advocacy
The second key role of a community within the funnel is loyalty and advocacy. Communities give you the opportunity “to super-serve some of your customers to gain insights around what their pains are, what you might have to do to adapt your product or your service. For example, driving product or service development, improving customer satisfaction, customer engagement, reducing churn, those kinds of things.”
A community gives you a unique, organic space to interact with your customers on a more human level and provides the kind of support that inspires loyalty and advocacy outside that community.
Communities are not crucial but can be incremental to a successful content strategy.
Michelle explains: “...you do have to have some stimulus within your community to get people talking. It's like running an event without actually saying ‘and this is what we're going to talk about.’ So content marketing feeds into community marketing, but you can't have one really without the other.”
Essentially, a community offers a space and a channel for you to distribute your content. More important, Michelle points out, it allows you to get much more value from it as the content you share goes on to spark a debate: “With a community, you can gain insights around what your prospects, clients, audiences, stakeholders actually want from you, what content and events and information they need from you and you can then create and deliver that, but also you can do that collectively and collaboratively.”
Michelle explains how at Guild, they use the community to do exactly that: “They [community members] help us to create that content that it's pushed out through other channels and is also discussed within the community itself. And it continues the conversation and the interest amongst the community. So, it [community] doesn't replace content marketing. It has to work with content marketing.”
Community: A Long-term Game
All in all, a community can provide a lot of value throughout the funnel. However, Michelle warns against looking at communities tactically, especially in B2B: “It takes at least six months before you start to see some form of return on the investment of time, resources, and budget as well. So I would say [community marketing] always has to be strategic, and it has to layer back to organizational objectives. And not just marketing objectives. It's also things like customer success. It can help with your employer brand, for example.”
Unarguably, there’re a lot of places within the funnel as well as reasons for which a community can work well for your business.
Community Spaces: Facebook vs. Diversity
When you mention a community, it’s likely one of the first thoughts that pop into your head is “Facebook.” The more and more Facebook pushes for advertising, the more businesses flock to the platform’s group feature for organic results and engagement. At times it might seem like it’s the only community space out there — or at least the first channel anyone considers.
Michelle explains that this disparity is the simple result of resource differences: “Facebook hasn't killed other communities and platforms. There are many other forums, bulletin boards, web-based communities, blog networks, email listservs, all of those kinds of things that have been very, very active. It's just that they don't shout as loudly, and they don't have the deep pockets of Facebook.”
She sees Facebook “as a blip on the world of communities” that brought them “to the masses.”
However, fame and accessibility come at a price. “One of the things that we struggle with in ad-funded platforms like Facebook or even LinkedIn is that essentially you’re using third-party properties, third-party platforms and you've also got to think about what their objectives are and their objectives of ad revenue and building up a behavioral kind of profile.”
In fact, most newcomers to the world of community marketing choose platforms “that offer you the opportunity to create your minimal viable community, and often that's going for those free platforms.” Michelle warns: “If you go for free, you have to think, well, how am I paying for this? And how you're paying for it is security data, and also your members are essentially giving up behavioral data. Every click, every comment, every engagement within those plans.”
So, while Facebook is certainly a community channel that shouldn’t be ignored or underestimated, there’re downsides to the ease and accessibility it offers.
What’s the Right Space for your Community?
If there are so many different platforms to host or become a part of a community, then how do you choose the right one for your business?
According to Michelle, it really boils down to knowing:
- What is it you are trying to do?
- Who are you trying to talk to?
In her view, “there's no either-or, it just comes down to objectives, it comes down to audiences. And then, it's understanding actually where those audiences currently are and whether or not you need to carve out a presence or whether you can work with that established kind of places and spaces.”
Forums represent one of the oldest forms of online communities. In Michelle’s opinion, they “have had sort of a bit of a comeback.” So, forums, despite the old age, are not disappearing but rather adjusting and evolving with the “new breed of technology.”
The most coveted features of old forums that are still popular today are their organizational aspects: “The majority of the sort of third-party online communities and platforms like Guild use forums kind of thinking in terms of threads, categorizing information, trying to give people something other than this just long stream of content.”
Messaging apps are becoming more and more popular channels for a brand to engage with its target audience. However, when thinking of the messaging channels in terms of community, Michelle recognizes the restrictions they represent: “One of the challenges around messaging communities is some of the restrictions of those platforms. [...] There are people who are creating communities, but if you are using WhatsApp, it's only going to be 250 members. And [then there’s] the ‘WhatsApp for Business’ route, which actually arguably is not about communities, it's about a one way, ability to be able to speak to somebody.”
If you are looking to incorporate the community into your marketing strategy, Michelle believes you should focus on spaces that fit that purpose and “look at community platforms that have messaging functions and messaging features, but is not just purely messaging.”
Blog networks like Tumblr or Medium used to be one of the most popular types of communities. While their golden age is likely over, there is still value to be found and had: “As long as you know there is visibility within search, and as long as there's an active community of those people who are essentially connected and building ideas, you should build it into your strategy.”
Here, Michelle’s underlining advice when deciding on a platform is the same: “If your audiences aren't there, if you can't see any activity in your particular space, then yeah, you take them off the list.”
Virtual reality as a community space was a hype back in the early 2000s when Second Life swept the world at large. Now, with announcements of Metaverse, the topic is once again in the spotlight.
Here, there’s both — opportunity and warning.
Michelle explains: “The kind of lessons, I think we can learn from Second Life is just because you can do it, it doesn't necessarily mean that you should, for anything much more than, you know, having a laugh around creativity.” But still she considers it to be “the precursor of everything that’s happening now.”
When you consider Meta as a channel for your community, Michelle advises: “As a serious marketer in this space, you've got to think, what is it that I am trying to achieve? And for those people that have sports communities or sports rights, those kinds of things, I certainly would be thinking about what I'm going to be doing in the Metaverse and starting to think about how my brand can be experienced, how my brand can be diversified and also what value I'll give to my audiences within this brilliant new space.”
As already mentioned above, hosting a community on social media has its pros and cons. While the accessibility and reach of your community can be wider, the price you pay is personal and behavioral data. Data which will be used to inform advertising campaigns, yours and those of your competitors.
Managing a group on social can be beneficial to some extent, however “if you are having to constantly pay, if you're constantly having to beat the algorithm, then it's going to be a period of time where your reach kind of reduces. And so, therefore, if you have objectives around conversion, retention, and loyalty, this is where private communities can work really, really hard for you.”
However, direct community hosting is not the only way to consider social media. Their most attractive power stems from their ability to raise awareness: “Twitter and LinkedIn and TikTok and Instagram, et cetera, that's where the big audiences are.” So, despite the misgivings, your community marketing strategy can put social to good use. Michelle believes that “people are still going to spend an awful lot in terms of advertising on these social networks, but in terms of developing organic communities and speaking to those organic communities without paid amplification, I think we'll see a slight change.”
The Danger of Dancing to the Tune of Algorithms
Speaking of social, it’s time to address the invisible but very, very big elephant in the room: algorithms.
It’s no secret that social media algorithms are trained to identify the type of content we are most likely to engage with and then push us similar content to keep us engaged as long as possible. A system that hasn’t been particularly good for society, fuelling drastic polarity of opinions across the world.
Michelle comments: “There's no serendipity in social anymore. You know, you just don't get stuff that you should be given. As a nearly 50-year-old woman, the kind of stuff that I am given is not just fed by my behaviors, but also by advertising and profiling of me and my age as well. And the more interesting stuff that I'm seeing is the stuff that I see over my kids' shoulders [...] And equally what's really interesting is my 18-year-old says the same thing. She looks over my shoulders and says, ‘I don't get that!’”
Algorithms that only focus on what you like or agree with fuel “kind of mediocrity and blandness.” Michelle emphasizes that “as marketers, what we can learn from that is that the right blend of customer experience is yes, give people what they want and what they ask for and what they need through their behaviors, but also occasionally surprise and delight them and treat them like human beings and challenge them in ways that they haven't been challenged before.”
She explains that at Guild, they’re trying to go back to the early days of social by having no algorithm in their communities at all so they can “allow people to choose.” In other words, they “don't apply an algorithm and so, therefore, the kind of content that you're going to see is stuff that's introduced by other people within your community, within your platform. And it's not behaviorally based. What you see is based on what's going on within the community itself.”
Is There a Secret Formula to Community Engagement?
Yes, I know earlier we made a point that community is not about engagement. Still, while it’s perhaps not the most important aspect to measure, you will want your community members to interact and contribute to some extent.
Michelle clarifies that when it comes down to engagement, you need to draw a line between communities that use algorithms and those that don’t.
“In an algorithm-kind-of-led community, in social platforms, there is nothing that you can do other than play those algorithms. So you have to constantly kind of play the battle, which is ‘What is LinkedIn favoring right now? ie. Things like live events, video, long-form content that doesn't link out to the platform. What is Instagram favoring right now? Reels. Therefore I have to create content that is reel space. What is TikTok favoring right now?...” Keeping up with all this is tough but some portion of your audience will always have communities in these types of spaces and, in this sense, the engagement strategy will “will always be determined by the social platform because what they all do is that they will give your content to the first few of those audiences in order to determine whether or not they have engaged with them.”
What about algorithm-free communities?
Well, they play to a completely different set of rules. There “it doesn't matter! It doesn't matter what time of the day you post. It doesn't matter what format your content is in, whether it's video, whether it's a model, whether it's long-form, whether it's short-form. The reality is if the idea and the concept are interesting, then people will read, then people will talk about it. People will engage with it. People will share it, if you let them, outside of your community.”
It’s a relief and a challenge at once. The relief is in the creative freedom. The challenge is that whatever you put out there actually has to be interesting because there’s no algorithm to hide behind: “the audience will tell you with their engagement behaviors [...and] you get that sort of sense of results and motivation from the community itself.”
There’s no argument that communities can be a powerful way to grow your business, nurture relationships, and build authority. And so, despite the hard work and long-term commitment a good community presence requires, the strategy is getting more and more traction, especially in B2B.
If you would like to hear more about the ins and outs of community marketing, including the past, current, and future impacts of the pandemic on the online and offline spaces, listen to the full episode below or tune in on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.