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The Lure of Online Communities

  |  September 1, 2011   |  Comments

Brand marketers can profit from the emotional and sociological impact that communities have on their potential customers. Part one in a three-part series.

It's finally safe to say that a good many online consumers understand there can be real value in advertising. Hit someone with a message that's targeted, relevant, and respectfully appropriate and you can convert a casual browser into a customer without breaking a sweat. In order to transform that customer into a loyal, long-term user of your product, however, you'll likely have to do a little more than simply demonstrate the value of your product. You'll have to show that your brand has value to the online community within which that shopper exists.

For consumers, an online community can be vital. It gives them a public platform through which to express their opinions, and a way to relay their insight and ideas to like-minded people. In this way, they can feel empowered, positively influence their peers, and enact change within the marketplace. Good news for brand marketers: the value of such a community goes both ways. Consumers get a lot but so do those brands that understand their potential. We not only benefit from the opportunities that online communities provide where expanding our reach and exposing our products is concerned, but profit from the emotional and sociological impact that communities have on our potential customers.

You need only look at the popularity of social marketing to see that this theory has legs. Brands that make an effort to establish a presence within a social networking community reap such rewards as brand and product loyalty. A study released by ROI Research earlier this summer found that 36 percent of survey participants were more loyal to the brands they follow on Facebook. Forty-six percent of respondents said the same about Twitter. In general, about half said they would be more likely to talk about, recommend, or purchase a product from a company they follow through one of these social sites.

Other forms of social media, such as blogging, evoke a similar response. According to this year's Nielsen and BlogHer Social Media Matters Study, consumers trust the information and advice they get from blogs they know 97 percent of the time, and 80 percent have made a purchase based on a recommendation from a blog they trust. In fact, blogs, forums, portals, and other niche communities have been found to provoke a particularly strong consumer reaction in women consumers. One report on the subject found that when asked about how they perceive sites like iVillage, BabyCenter, and CafeMom about 50 percent of women trust the brand and product information they provide, along with the website itself. Over 50 percent considered online communities to play a role in informing them about new products, while 47 percent said they helped them make purchasing decisions.

We know that online communities can familiarize consumers with brands and launch a long-term, loyal relationship, but experts are quick to point out that such communities can be incredibly difficult to create. Certain factors like social conditions, collective behaviors, and a "culture of support and interdependence" are required for success, and these are as elusive as they come.

So it comes down to this: as a brand marketer you have two choices at your disposal. The first is to create an online community of your own. This can require a hefty financial investment and a good many sustainable resources, a dedicated staff being among them. Some brands make it work. Others can't, for a plethora of reasons that often extend far beyond their realm of control.

The second option is to infiltrate a community that already exists. If you can do this, you're in a good position to connect with consumers in a meaningful way. But that interaction has to be mutually beneficial; we have to give something to get something in return. Interaction through online communities also has to be significant, in the sense that consumers have to be clear on why the interaction is taking place, and why it's taking place here. They can't be left to wonder whether somebody in product marketing dropped the ball and sealed the deal on a partnership that doesn't make a lick of sense to anyone involved.

There are many communities out there at your disposal that have been crafted and coddled into becoming strong and sustainable. Those able to offer digital marketing opportunities that are meaningful and significant - those most important attributes - are few and far between. In the weeks to follow, we'll take a look at the ways in which two such online communities are taking advantage of all they have to offer to benefit consumers and advertisers alike. Their tactics might just surprise you.



Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.

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