The following article was originally published in Loyalty360 here:

In a recent 2020 study from Gartner, 68% of CMOs expect their investments in marketing technology to increase in the next 12 months. This is significant considering that marketing technology already captures a notable 26.2% of marketing budgets. So while we’re still riding the rollercoaster that is 2020, it’s clear that despite tough times, our enthusiasm for technology has not softened. The problem? In another study, 50% of marketers said their biggest frustration around purchasing technology is the volume of solutions in the market. And it’s only going to get worse. The question marketers are tackling is how to optimize the most engaging experience for consumers while also streamlining channels and partners for resource-strapped marketing teams.

With Facebook boycotts, disappearing third-party cookies, and the growing list of “walled gardens,” many marketers are reassessing what their marketing tech stack should look like and how it serves the brand’s objectives today and in the future. Most marketing stacks consist of technology partners that fall into categories such as CRM, AdTech, Insights & Analysis, Experience Optimization, and SEO. The stack can help in three ways: 1) attracting customers, 2) engaging customers, and 3) analysis/optimization. But all too often, marketers become enamored with the attraction and analysis part and put engagement on the back burner. Engagement can be challenging for marketers because it is highly visible to consumers, rather than hidden behind the scenes in a dashboard. Any consumer-facing effort requires strategic resources to make it successful. However, when done right, engagement serves as the instrumental link to streamline efforts between initial acquisition, retention, and long-term brand loyalty.

This is where building a coalition of passionate consumers via online communities plays a decisive role, and the era of social distancing has been an important reminder of its value. Marketers are embracing the fact that people crave a sense of belonging and to identify with like-minded people. We’re reaching a new age where “community” is starting to become the common denominator and for many brands, it will be an integral part of the value position from the start. From data-powered personalization and insights to activation and advocacy, a community channel can serve as a vital engagement outlet to streamline all efforts across the marketing stack. While you’re trying to sift through the mountain of options available, here are four ways community engagement enhances your entire marketing stack.

A Community is a Zero- and First-Party Data Goldmine

The days where marketers have access to a firehose of third-party information are coming to an end. Consumers also now appreciate the value of their data. Instead of it being a passive background activity, consumers will start to use their data as a form of active engagement, a type of “loyalty currency,” only given to the brands they trust the most. That’s why there must be a clear and equivalent value between the data provided and the experience received. Freely shared zero-party data paints a holistic picture of consumers beyond the standard age/gender/household income/purchase history that most marketers are accustomed to. From an action standpoint, zero-party data empowers brands to offer interactive, digital experiences with audiences that create emotional bonds. An online brand community integrated into the marketing strategy is a powerful way to connect data to the bigger picture and encourage consumers to be a part of something they believe in.

A Community Sparks Action from Database Deserts

CRM is an essential tool in the marketing toolbox, and it serves as an owned channel where the brand controls the consumer relationship. However, while many brands have massive databases, too often any activation comes in the form of a one-way push via emails. Research from eMarketer says only 30 percent of US email subscribers make purchases from the lists they subscribe to. When marketers create an online brand community, they are creating a social CRM, turning their communication with consumers into a two-way relationship, and offering personalized engagement, emotional attachment, and community connection.

A Community Facilitates Audience Optimization for Better Ad Spend

Most marketers use third-party technologies to monitor the efficiency of these campaigns, and marketers are always looking for ways to optimize their spending. Cultivating an online community helps marketers refine their audience targeting for more effective media spend. After all, what better lookalike audience is there than your most ardent community advocates?

A Community Produces Content That Enhances SEO

Building a community of people who love your brand allows you to activate consumers to produce fresh, unique content quickly and easily. Forty-eight percent of consumers say UGC is a great way to find new products, and 25 percent of search results for the world’s 20 largest brands are links to user-created content. Not only does UGC hold a higher probability of showing up in search engines, but it also ensures the first thing consumers see is content they will trust.

For marketers looking to invest in Martech to optimize CX while increasing efficiency for their teams, community-building and engagement technology should be on the list. However, it’s important to remember that technology providers are simply there to help achieve an overarching vision or objective. Certain digital technologies (especially the new and shiny ones) are not a strategy. Community engagement technology will always be unique in that it is not meant to be behind a dashboard. It is consumer-facing and will be a reflection of your brand promise. In a time when marketers are looking to simplify their marketing stack, mobilizing a passionate consumer community presents an opportunity to “future-proof” your brand with an effective bridge between acquiring customers and retaining them in the long-run.