One savvy online community masters the art of helping brands align with issues that matter to community users.
In digital media, perfect partnerships aren't just important - they're paramount. This rule applies to online communities potentially more than any other type of media buy. Infiltrating an existing community with a branded message and the desire to sell a product isn't easy. Misjudge your audience or get your pitch wrong and it's much like busting into a baby shower shilling a coat full of cheap jewelry. You won't be well received.
As we explored in the column, "The Lure of Online Communities," communities have much to offer digital marketers - they can connect brands with consumers in meaningful and significant ways. If you're partnering with an existing online community instead of building one from scratch, you already understand that communities come with loyal users who are ready and willing to learn about relevant products and services. The next step is to present your own product in way that illustrates not only its place within their lives, but its relevance to the community as a whole.
One approach: brands are aligning with things that matter to the community's users. Remember the collective behaviors and culture of support that are so important to a successful community? Those can be tapped for the greater good of both consumer and brand. One online community that seems to have mastered this art is iVillage. For several years, the content-based women's community has been offering Community Challenges to brands looking to connect with its audience.
The latest in a long line of such marketing programs launched last week. Called the "Mealtime Makeover Community Challenge," it features Bravo's Top Chef finalist Antonia Lofaso providing daily tips and recipes for healthier family cooking. Women who participate in the challenge receive personalized daily e-mails with cooking assignments and recipes, along with the support of other participants.
The program is being sponsored by Splenda, which also sponsored the iVillage "Rev Up Your Weight Loss" Challenge that ran earlier this year. In addition to display advertising in the daily e-mails, its products are being incorporated into the program's editorial content through Lofaso's beverage and snack recipes.
"Splenda is trying to help women and families live healthier lives," says Catherine Balsam-Schwaber, SVP, marketing for iVillage. She adds that some challenges have room for multiple sponsors but many are devised in conjunction with a brand from the start. "We're constantly looking for opportunities to give our users the community content they're asking for…and we usually find that what our sponsors want is right in line with what consumers want as well."
Other Community Challenges include this spring's "Get Moving Now!" which was operated in partnership with the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and the recently launched Back-to-School Community Challenge," sponsored by Zappos as a way to promote its kids' clothing and shoes.
The formula for a successful program includes a topic the community cares about, a sponsor that can deliver "real value," and a popular lead coach (such as Lofaso). Sometimes those coaches are actually site members handpicked to share their stories through videos and blogs on the iVillage iVoices channel. With this system, brands can align themselves with influential consumers and, in essence, boost their credibility.
Brands marketing within online communities covet a sense of community and the common desire to improve one's life. That's because brands, too, are presenting their products in the context of how they can better consumers' lives. Positioning yourself as a catalyst for achieving the things that matter to a community's audience can transform happy users into users who are happy to embrace your brand.
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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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