The following article was originally published in Forbes here.
Marketers have been put through the wringer this year — a pandemic, protests, rising unemployment, boycotts, supply chain issues, the list goes on. Unpredictability will more than likely be a repeated theme of 2021. The good news is marketers have realized how nimble they can be when it’s necessary and have adapted in ways never thought possible.
While being agile will be critical in 2021, it’s important not to confuse it with being in a constant state of improvisation. This flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants is forgivable in 2020. It has led to some incredible innovation, and many brands have embraced being ad-hoc with humor and genuineness. Reese’s recently launched “breakfast cakes” and introduced it with the slogan “The hell with it. It’s 2020.” But 2021 is a moment when marketers need to be more intentional and focus on the anchor points to help future-proof their brand.
One area that helps ensure brand resilience is building meaningful consumer relationships. In a recent CMO study, marketers stated their “key objectives during this time were building brand value that connects with customers (34%) and retaining current customers (33.5%). This beat out improving ROI (3.5%) or even customer acquisition (14%).”
While cultivating consumer relationships is a priority, many are doing it in a way that leaves them vulnerable. The who, what, where, when, how and why of consumer relationships matters. If you’re relying on a social networking site to house your consumer relationships, you are vulnerable. If you’re qualifying a consumer relationship as merely part of your email database, you are vulnerable. If your consumers’ incentive to be loyal is driven by transactional behavior, you are vulnerable.
The consumer relationships that hold steady through unstable environments have key three factors. The relationship is owned wholly by the brand, it is driven by frictionless and personalized brand experiences and it is good at fostering emotional connections.
Brand-owned relationships offer stability from a middleman and limited data access.
While marketers have always had a love-hate relationship with sites like Facebook, 2020 was the year when marketers finally started to reconsider their over-reliance on it. Furthermore, with companies getting rid of cookies in the next few years, the firehose of third-party data is starting to dry up. It’s time for brands to know who their consumers are and have access to engaging with them.
A brand-owned online community offers marketers the channel to both house their consumer relationships and cultivate data in a mutually beneficial way. Having access to an engaged panel of consumers allows your brand to be agile, but in an intentional way rather than by forced circumstance. And it could ultimately save time and resources. Maybe you discover that consumers favor at-home grainy videos vs. professionally crafted content.
Forming brand-owned relationships starts with offering a compelling “home” for consumers. One of the most stable areas of digital real estate for a brand is its website, and it is a natural foundation to build from. The next evolution in brand websites should be about making them vibrant places of connection and interaction, fueled by an authentic relationship with the brand directly.
Engaging, frictionless and personalized brand experiences are now the expectation.
In 2020, consumers were empathetic to brands trying to adjust. By 2021, we shouldn’t be surprised when consumers become frustrated at businesses that haven’t adapted. According to that CMO survey, 84% of consumers are placing an increased value on digital experiences. With the disruption at retail, e-commerce is a digital experience that has likely seen a permanent shift. This means many brands will be competing head-to-head with robust marketplaces like Amazon, Target and Walmart.
This is a challenging feat and highlights the importance of developing relationships beyond transactional behavior. Brand-owned communities offer a world of digital experiences to consumers. From content to discussions to personalized offers and messages, a brand-owned community elevates all other digital experiences and provides an advantage unique just to you.
Communities offer brands access to zero-party data — data that is proactively given and explores things like values, preferences and lifestyle. Capturing zero-party data is the first step to creating experiences that resonate. Often times personalization efforts can cross the line into being viewed as a little creepy. However, when a consumer shares something about themselves proactively, and the brand, in turn, offers an experience aligned with that information, it’s not creepy — it’s helpful and responsive.
Emotional connection and purpose-led marketing will be an essential driver of loyalty.
More than ever, people crave a sense of belonging and to identify with like-minded people. Consumers will expect brands to foster this kind of connection and conversation. We are already seeing many brands positioning “community” as part of the value proposition from the start. But it’s important that marketers remember that they need to tap into higher-order values to build that emotional connection. A community helps bring your website experience and brand values alive and allows for personal expression and community connection.
A community evolves over time, so you don’t have to have all the answers on day one. However, it is critical to pose questions to your team like “How does our brand connect people today?” and “How can we bring people together in a way that doesn’t feel forced, but aligns with our brand story and unique value proposition?”
Solid consumer relationships offer utility, integration, optimization and good ol’ bang for your buck. Consumer relationships and engagement can be challenging for marketers because it is highly visible, and any consumer-facing effort requires strategic resources to make it successful. However, when done right, meaningful consumer relationships will deliver you a consumer base with a higher lifetime value, less sensitivity to price adjustments and an always-on referral channel.
An online brand community, integrated into the marketing strategy, is a powerful way to future-proof your business: connecting insights and data to the bigger picture, generating social interaction and encouraging consumers to be a part of something they believe in.