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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
In 1960 you might have seen a clever, Mad Men-style advertisement in the newspaper and believed it. Some doctors said smoking was healthy, some dentists said Coca-Cola was great for children. Fact-checking was difficult and salesmanship was strong.
Years later, you found out they had lied to you. Smoking caused cancer. Sugar gave you cavities. The age of advertising was dead. Ads would still be used, but trust was damaged. The abuse was now visible.
Enter the internet, a new way to reach potential customers: digital marketing. You could simply put a physical 2D ad into a digital display format. Then came Google, Facebook and the social media ad platforms. They were interesting at first, maybe even helpful as algorithms hunted for your utmost desires. Privacy started to become an issue for consumers and again, trust was lost. Tracking went rampant.
Next, influencer marketing hit the scene and, almost overnight, grew to nearly $14 billion in revenue in 2021. Instead of telling people directly about why your business is interesting or why someone should buy your product, have a trusted person tell their followers. The followers will trust them more than the business hyping its own wares. And then many influencers started to share products they didn’t actually use, or care about. Authenticity in a normally authentic medium was troubled. Again, trust was lost, but the lesson learned was the value of a person’s community.
Today, “the community” is now becoming the medium of choice for businesses large and small. Often this mode existed before, but outside of a company’s grasp: a forum, a subreddit, a Facebook group. But now companies are lighting up at the opportunity to provide real value to their communities, a place to gather online and offline, even monetary incentives (fiat or crypto) to deepen their involvement. It finally feels like there’s a true conversation happening between consumer’s wants and needs and the brand’s desires. But this is where it could go wrong.
Community growth is one thing, but community marketing needs to be handled delicately. Shilling your products and services to no avail will turn off your community members, and probably make them leave. Just like spam emails before, community spam will be reacted to in a similar way. Often, businesses want to cultivate a community to help them grow, but if you don’t already have a product people love or a common interest, you will fall flat.
My warning, or should I say advice, is threefold:
1. Treat your community with care. They are humans. You are human. Speak to them as such. Encourage their passions. Find ways to support them. Don’t blast them things that will not help them. Build relationships. And if you don’t know what your community wants? Ask.
2. Foster conversations. Whether that’s one on one or via surveys, ask your community what they want to see in your product, platform or industry. Encourage feedback loops. Have clear community leaders and avenues like Slack Channels or direct messages where community members can support your common mission. Build together. Build in public. One example of this is the Community Club by Commsor, which explicitly states it will never market its platform to people in the community unless they opt in. That keeps the Slack community open for community professionals to meet and learn from each other rather than overt marketing.
3. Encourage play. Don’t forget to have fun and experiment in new or weird ways. Boring is so 2020. I often see corporate values of “Integrity, Accountability, Boldness,” but I don’t see “Enjoy Your Work” or “Have Fun On The Journey” nearly as often. Maybe business leaders feel that these slogans can be misinterpreted as “Don’t Work Hard,” but I disagree and think that company cultures that are collaborative, encourage brainstorming, team retreats, and offsite gatherings, and more human connectedness are organizations that will retain and nurture their talented employees over the years building their profiles, careers, and personal development. This point also directly affects the growing epidemic of mental health in business and pushes employers to support their teams in positive, creative, flexible and uplifting ways.
Our communities are the most valuable thing we have. They are our neighborhoods, our cities, our companies, our teams, our hobbies and our places to belong. Cherish them as you would your own. Hold mutual respect, authenticity, and trust above all else. If we do that as marketers, community professionals, executives, and startup founders, we’ll be headed down the right path.