The following article was originally published on Loyalty360 here.

In a year where every plan we made was imploding, digital channels were exploding, quickly becoming lifeblood for us all. A recent study from GroupM found all types of digital activity, including entertainment, shopping, communication, and gaming, have witnessed significant increases versus 2019, especially in terms of daily usage. In this new world of social distancing, we are seeing an explosion of imagination as society uses technology to lessen the sting of our physical separation.

While marketers are not immune to dealing with messag- ing pivots, this moment requires more than repositioning. This moment requires a paradigm shift in how brands approach building consumer relationships. While being agile will be criti- cal in 2021, it’s important to not confuse it with being in a con- stant state of improvisation. This flying-by-the-seat-of-your- pants is forgivable in 2020. 2021 and beyond is a time for intentional focus. Digital channels should no longer be considered communication channels, but rather connection channels. Connection empowers all of us with a sense of belonging. Enter the era of Community Powered Marketing.

All marketers should be taking inventory of what their brand’s connection channels are and how best to utilize them. We’ve all exhausted the phrase “helping is selling,” as companies try their best not to come off as insensitive or opportunistic during this year. So while marketers have used this time to promote corporate do-gooding, offer resources, or generate inspiring video ads, delivering community powered marketing strategies should sit equally in a marketer’s toolbox. Only 15% of consumers said they did not want to hear from brands at this time, while 43% find it reassuring to hear from brands they know and trust. Increasing net promoter scores and peer-to-peer engagement is vital to preventing brand equity loss. 2021 and beyond is the time for brands to invest in building robust virtual community connections.

Community Powered Marketing will be necessary for your brand in two key ways: to help ensure your consumers feel valued and to ensure you sustain a relationship with consumers throughout this unknown time. Here are three ways to build your Community Powered Marketing infrastructure:

Mobilize Your Consumer Community

Mobilizing your consumer community is an authentic way to connect with your ardent supporters, and it keeps them informed and engaged in discussions that foster that real need for connection. While the first instinct for many marketers is to run to their social media channels to fulfill this need, relying upon third-party platforms comes with a host of challenges with regards to gatekeeping, data ownership, and brand safety. If you’re serious about building real relationships and real connections, invest in an owned channel that is dedicated to your brand’s promise and your value to consumers. By owning your community environment, you’ll offer a much more beneficial experience during this crisis, and you’ll set the foundation of lasting affinity and trust.

Build Bridges for Collaboration

A large part of building an effective Community Powered Marketing strategy is facilitating an environment where listening to customers is baked into the experience, rather than gathered through passive data collection. Now is the time for brands to show, not tell, that they understand the needs and desires of consumers, and allow for active collaboration. Seventy-two percent of Americans say they feel it is more important than ever that the companies they buy from reflect their values. This presents an excellent opportunity to proactively solicit thoughts and opinions from your community through surveys or polls. Consumers appreciate feeling like their opinion is heard and that they are helping. Especially during difficult times, a sense of doing something for the greater good motivates many to take positive actions, and this can leave a lasting imprint on consumers’ minds when a brand sparks it.

Deliver Connected Digital Experiences

Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” Marketers for the past decade have heard the phrase “content is king” more times than we probably care to. If that’s the case, connected digital experiences will definitely take the crown in 2021. Traditional content sometimes is limited to merely individual consumption and (hopefully) sharing. Connected digital experiences are participatory where a brand and consumer can interact in an immersive experience. Now is the time for companies to be bold, get creative, and take risks. We’ve seen companies create virtual events, tours, classes, and much more. We’ve also been hearing about virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for years. With the home the most popular place to be these days, this technology is on its way out of the early adopters’ lane and into the mainstream. Marketers will need to integrate their brand into the VR/AR world and provide tangible experiences that foster emotional connections and lead to higher conversion and brand loyalty.

Ultimately, Community Powered Marketing strategies should be anchored in how brands offer a sense of belonging. This is especially true during this tough time, but it will likely have a lasting effect. Not all brands survive difficult times, and the ones that do often emerge vastly transformed. The brands that address the true needs of the moment and take bold action can rise stronger than ever.