If 2020 has proven one thing, it’s that if you’re the leader of the free world, you probably aren’t wise to call the Coronavirus a ‘hoax’. But if it’s proved one other thing, it is the value of honest, direct communication with your customers, prospects and stakeholders; we all need to feel connected and are actively seeking out ways to build relationships and have access to quality content online.
Companies have, since the start of the pandemic and the lockdowns which followed it, made increasing use of digital channels to reach out and retain their customers and stakeholders. But there are so many different channels and in earned media, people’s inboxes, podcasting apps or social media timelines, you are competing with a lot of other noise from a lot of other companies, brands and individuals.
At the same time, other methods of reaching your target customers and prospects are seeing seismic changes, which may have lasting impacts on the marketing and communications industry, long after the immediate risk of COVID-19 has dissipated.
National and regional media newsrooms are downsizing at a frightening rate for anyone who cares about a healthy independent media environment. Many niche interest consumer and trade titles have either ceased producing a print title or ceased altogether. Outdoor advertising, out of home activations and pop-up activations are gone as a way to reach your prospects and customers.
So, what can communications professionals do to cut through the digital clutter, and navigate the uncertainty of the future of the channels they’ve previously relied on to reach their target audience?
By building loyal, active communities online you can directly connect with your prospects, customers or stakeholders, within a dedicated space for sharing best practice, perspectives and personal connection. Since March I’ve been involved in building two online communities which have thrived, grown and added real value to fellow PR and marketing professionals during the pandemic.
The first was the CIPR Greater London’s Online community. The CIPR’s Greater London Group Committee started this group in March as a response to lock-down, as a way to provide the same informal, regular networking that we offered in our monthly Drink N Link and other regular events, but in a digital format.
The Group, which has grown beyond members of the Greater London Group to have over 150 members now is full of some of the leading professionals, thinkers and do-ers in the CIPR. And me.
The second was the Furloughed Or Released Talent (FORT) Group which was set-up by the good folks from Guild, a B2B messaging and community-building app. You can read more about this group here, but I’ve been actively involved in helping to promote, grow and manage this community to nearly 300 members at time of writing.
This community was set-up to help people who’d been furloughed or let go by their employer, and has been an invaluable resource for marketing and communications professionals and has even helped a few get new roles.
We’re still waiting on the first FORT wedding, but there’s time…
There’s lots of lessons that I can take away from this experience and apply professionally. Building a strong, engaged community creates an opportunity for brands to have direct access to their key audiences, without competing with other brands for attention. It’s a direct, open channel for a genuine two-way dialogue.
It can also be an invaluable feedback loop for receiving direct feedback from your customer and prospect audience on how your product or service can be improved. Gone are the days where you need to heavily invest in third party research, with a community you have direct access to your audience with high quality feedback and ideas.
Community builds trust and loyalty, strengthens brand advocacy within your customer base, and can be another route to help you grow your brand. It can be one of the most powerful marketing tools of all, driving referrals and ambassadorship. Community breaks down barriers and makes people feel part of your brand.
I’ve also learned, however, that creating active, engaged communities, takes dedication and time, something many in-house teams do not have, especially in the current climate. In-house marketing and communications professionals are being asked to do more and more, and the risk is that “grow the community” becomes one of a number of tasks that fall to the bottom of the to do list.
That’s why we’ve launched a “Community as a Service” proposition at Hard Numbers. We’ve taken the tried and tested approach to community building that we’ve applied for ourselves and our clients, and commercialised this into a dedicated, stand-alone service. It enables busy, in-house teams to rely on expert external support, via Hard Numbers, to help them build engaged customer communities around their product, service or the issues that they help their customers to address.
A trend I’m seeing in the Venture Capital (VC) and investor community is that they are increasingly looking at the audience that brands command online, as a proxy for how big their addressable market is, and how effective the start-up and scale-up may be at marketing to them. I know of a number of VCs who are looking at the size of a potential investment’s Discord audience as one measure they look at, and the measure of success for a number of start-ups we’ve spoken to is to help them grow their online community.
What we do at Hard Numbers isn’t fluffy or a “nice to do”. It’s hard, commercially-minded, and designed to drive a business outcome for our clients at every step. We believe that Community as a Service is a proposition that more agencies will launch in the future, as communicators look to have direct interaction with their most valuable customers, and as a demonstration of how engaged their customers are with them.
We think that more in-house teams will be looking to create these kinds of engaged customer communities in future, and looking for a turn-key solution to do this, without the cost of hiring a dedicated community manager in-house.
We’re doing this because we believe that a key measure of success for the companies of tomorrow is that they’ve built an engaged customer community today.
Darryl Sparey is Co-founder and MD of Hard Numbers, a performance-driven marketing and communications consultancy.