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Building A Brand Community Amid Digital ‘Isolation’

The digital age has brought a sense of urgency to community building. People often assume that staring into a device or holding a game controller is isolative behavior, but that’s not necessarily the case. Today, devices actually allow us to connect and interact with global communities, sharing common interests and passions.

As we all know, people already congregate online to discuss brands. The natural progression is to bring brands and consumers together face to face to share ideas in a real-life social context. Live events are a great way to connect in person and continue the conversation offline about shared interests. For example, VidCon—an annual gathering for thousands of online video viewers, creators, and industry representatives—does a great job of drawing on existing communities and giving them a space to celebrate their passions together.

Now, in e-sports we’re seeing the virtual and digital communities coming together. When it first got its start, gamers never really had a physical rallying point—that is, until tournaments gave them a reason to start congregating in person. Once this passionate digital community was combined with the power of live events, the party really got started. E-sports has since attracted millions in sponsorship dollars from heavy hitters including Intel, Coca Cola, and Mercedes Benz. 

Beyond Dollars: Why Communities Matter
Live, in-person events add an extra dimension that is unavailable online. Brands are able to ask people in the moment what they think and feel, and the interactions that ensue drive a kind of brand affinity not achievable from merely visiting a website or liking a tweet. Consumers have more freedom to shape the conversation through active participation and accessibility to other consumers, as well as the brand itself.

Brands must shift from asking “Should we build a community?” to “How do we nurture, empower, and grow the community we already have?” Because in most cases, consumers prefer to be a part of a community and share their experiences with friends and colleagues.

If you put the message in the hands of your community, it may even have a greater impact than traditional forms of marketing and communications. Events such as Comic-Con and Vidcon have fostered extremely sticky communities, precisely because the attendees have been given license to help shape the story and to a large extent, the experience.

Building Blocks
What should brands be thinking about to build a strong community? It begins with brand authenticity. Customers will rally around brands whose products they love, but they also want to support brands they believe in. They want brands to be part of their communities and also share their values. This means a brand’s messaging must be authentic. With authenticity comes great access to consumers, and with great access comes great accountability to those same consumers. As marketers, we shouldn’t promote anything our companies don’t believe in or make promises our companies can’t deliver.  

Brands must also get to the root of what inspired a particular audience to form a community. Vidcon, for example, took an existing online community and provided its fans with a venue to express their love and fandom, while providing opportunities to interact with their favorite YouTube celebrities.

Organizers were able to create this intersection of fans and celebrities in a way that was genuinely authentic and, more importantly, served both audiences. Originally, Comic-Con was a way for fans to hang out with other comics fans, get sneak peeks into upcoming stories, meet their favorite illustrators, and perhaps get an autograph. Now Comic-Con is also a launch platform for major motion pictures and publishing titles, and draws fans who may not even read comic books but who love the stories, characters, and movies. Engagement is not necessarily about what’s best for the brand, but what value you can provide to the community.

One Emotional Thread At A Time
As with any successful marketing practice, building a community starts with an emotional thread. Brands can forge connections by providing experiences that inspire or educate audiences, and by sharing valuable content or inviting people to share their experiences.

You can’t turn an audience into a community overnight. But by tapping into what they’re feeling, thinking, and dreaming, you can at least provide them with the tools and the space they need to make connections around their shared experiences. Even if they’ve never met before in real life. If those connections are seeded properly, they can reverberate for a very long time.

That’s how brands can truly unlock the power of community.

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