PS: It’s not tokens …
Mutuality and agency are the key to successful brand communities
For brands looking to move their customer relationships beyond consumption towards engagement, agency and ownership, technology is just a means to an end. Web3 is no different. While tokens and smart contracts can be very effective means for attributing value and aligning incentives between brands and their customers, they are no magical recipe for building a brand community.
It all starts with recognising and valuing the principle of mutuality: a brand community needs to serve the brand and its members equally well. A common purpose and a set of shared values are a prerequisite for any community to flourish. Brand communities are no different. And that mutuality in values, beliefs and benefits is not just between the brand and its community members, it’s also between the members themselves. Building community is about breaking down the boundaries and creating a sense of belonging, between the brand and its customers, and amongst those customers as well; creating a common space for trusted relationships and meaningful connections.
“If your community consumes your content, listens to what you have to say, and follows your online activity, what you actually have is an audience. But if your fans are connecting with you, interfacing with each other, sharing, discussing, and exchanging, you’ve tapped into the real thing.” How to build a sticky online community around your brand: Part I | by RareCircles | Medium
To power growth, nurture retention and drive advocacy, brands are increasingly investing in personalised relationship and loyalty programs to recognise and engage their most loyal customers. Rewarding customer loyalty with increased access to all a brand can offer has proven to be an effective recipe for creating brand affinity, loyalty and advocacy. Yet, most loyalty “clubs” aren’t really clubs. At best, they enable a direct 1:1 connection with loyal (and profitable) customers and provide them access to complementary benefits and services. And yes, loyalty programs may turn some customers into advocates and ambassadors as a result of increased brand affinity and positive brand experiences.
However, what most CRM and loyalty programs lack is a sense of mutuality and commitment. Being invested in a brand from a loyalty perspective hardly goes beyond what is being sold or consumed. And while there is increased connection and direct engagement between brand and customers, there is little or no sense of belonging to something bigger and connecting to like-minded individuals. When people crave belonging, they are looking for deeper level connection to both the brand as well as to other brand lovers. They are looking to commit to a common purpose, sign up for shared values, participate in meaningful shared experiences, and invest their time and effort to contribute to the collective good. In short, they want to become a part of the brand itself.
The best brands are the ones that create belonging, adding a third dimension to brand activation and customer engagement, with meaningful connections, community empowerment, collective ownership and value redistribution being the core ingredients. The best brand communities are those that put their members first, serving their interests before anything or anyone else. As with loyalty programs, brand communities need to make members feel valued and provide them with access to all a brand can offer in terms of complimentary services and end-to-end product experience. As such, community membership can become an ‘all-access pass’ to member-only benefits and privileges, both IRL and URL.
However, unlike CRM and loyalty programs, community building requires adding a dimension of mutuality to the mix. Members do not just want to feel valued, they are looking to add value as well. Being part of the inner circle goes beyond accessing exclusive perks to being trusted with specific brand building and brand experience responsibilities. There is a quid-pro-quo in community, from member-help-member and knowledge sharing, to active participation in community activities, up to member-led value co-creation and innovation. As such, brand communities become places to forge meaningful connections and enjoy shared experiences with like-minded individuals and brand lovers, all with a strong sense of shared purpose and mutual benefits. And more importantly, they become a place to show ‘agency’: the power to not only own, but shape a brand, to share your ideas and make them have an impact in something bigger than yourself.
Getting members to show agency doesn’t mean all members are equal or that every single member needs to become an active contributor in the community. At a minimum, criteria for membership should be clearly defined. To create the necessary cohesion, brand communities should look for the optimal balance between inclusion and exclusion and ensure there is full clarity on what the brand and its community stand for. Yet, in setting the community’s purpose, norms and values, there needs to be room for flexibility and adaptation, as brand communities are a 2-way influence street. The concept of brand is, by design, a manifestation of the community which adopts it into their lifestyle. It means seeing the dissolution between brand and community, where brand is community, and community is brand.
The best communities tend to be ‘woven from the inside out’, with a healthy core of dense relationships and highly active contributors. Communities are structured around multiple layers of participation and contribution, with inevitably at the centre a core team of stewards to steer the community roadmap and facilitate meaningful connections and shared experiences. This core team would typically be on the inside, with very tight connections to the brand’s marketing and business leadership. Beyond the core, it’s really about leveraging the value of the collective and the diversity of talent to get members to show skin-in-the-game and contribute to the community. There’s more than one group of people who have the power to make a brand community successful.
Why Consumers Want Brand Communities, Not More Ads — [Talking Influence]
Beyond these active co-creators the ‘outer layer’ of more passive members has a role to play as well. Even if their role is lighter and less persistent, it’s important to think about minimum requirements or expectations any brand community member would need to live up to in order to ensure good cohesion and vibrancy. Different levels of participation and commitment require different member engagement and reward mechanisms. Moving brand activation from a go-to-market to a go-to-community strategy means rethinking the AARRR customer journey into a similar staged member journey: from discovery and onboarding, to gradual activation, participation and co-creation. The difference being that successful brand communities aren’t about winning every customer or pleasing everyone, but getting the true fans to become brand agents and principals.
Great communities will create a self-feeding flywheel by amplifying a brand’s AARRR customer activation funnel and enabling customer-led innovation. Increased product ownership will lead to increased community access, which in turn lead to increased brand ownership. With the right (tokenised) incentives, brand customers become brand members, members become brand agents, and agents become brand owners …