Community marketing is not a particularly new concept. However, it has failed to gain serious traction among B2B marketers to date. We think that it has serious potential, and that it should definitely be on your ‘to do’ list for 2020 and beyond. But what exactly is it, and how could you approach this?

What is community marketing?

Community marketing, in its simplest form, is building a community of your customers and prospects, through the use of conversations. These conversations may be between you and your existing customers, that is, those who have already bought your products or services. They may also be between you and your prospects, and between customers and prospects. 

It is, therefore, not directly about selling. Instead, it allows you to find out how people actually use your products, and also what they want—enabling you to improve what you offer, and ensure that it really addresses customer needs. Purists might say that this means that community marketing is more like market research than marketing, but that is not the whole story. This community-building also allows your prospective customers to connect with existing customers to find out more about how products work in practice. It, therefore, turns your satisfied customers into advocates for you.

Case study: Egenera

Egenera is a provider of management solutions that bring together applications and workloads across platforms. It uses community marketing as a way to bring together its customers, and show them the potential of the solutions. In the early days of cloud, this helped to make the technology more ‘real’ for customers. John Humphreys, VP Marketing, said “Our focus is on building communities, or ecosystems. Through those ecosystems, we give  customers the opportunity to trial our software and see if it works for them”.

Read more about Egenera’s use of community marketing

Community marketing is very much not about becoming active in local communities as a way to curry favour and sell more products. That is pure cynicism at work, and community marketing is not about cynicism or taking advantage: it is about genuinely connecting with your customers for mutual benefit. You cannot do this without committing to the principle of building, not exploiting.

Community marketing, thought leadership and social media

Once you understand the nature of community marketing, it should immediately be clear that the concept is absolutely made for social media—in fact, it would be hard to imagine doing it without access to social media. Social media enables you to reach out to your customers quickly and easily, and find them where they are most comfortable. Using multiple channels, you can start and join in with a wide variety of conversations, across a whole range of subjects. Even more importantly, you can see what your customers are saying about you without having to ask.

Community marketing is not, however, solely reactive. Thought leaders can get involved with communities and help to improve the quality of the conversations. They can inspire customers to see different ways in which the product can be used to solve their problems. To do so, they need to remember that thought leadership is all about engagement, not ‘broadcasting’, as a way to build relationships through conversations.

Case study:

Box is a cloud-based platform and file-sharing function. It has amplified its own thought leadership by building a community and encouraging its users to speak for themselves. In fact, it is fair to say that you actually hear more about Box’s capabilities from its customers than from the company itself!

To learn more about Box’s approach to community marketing, read our interview with its former Head of Enterprise Product and Industry Marketing, Robin Daniels, here.

Benefits of community marketing

There are a number of benefits to community marketing, both financial and non-financial. These include:

  • Community marketing is significantly cheaper than many of the alternatives. Social media allows businesses to make contact with their customers without having to spend much money—and you also hear exactly what your customers want and need. There is no need to commission any expensive market research, or spend on advertising. 
  • Community marketing can build strong loyalty. It always helps if your customers feel valued, and that you are listening to them—and this is the whole point of community marketing. You can therefore build loyalty among customers even as you learn more about their needs. It is a real win–win.
  • You are much closer to your customers. You will therefore find out what they want very quickly, and can innovate to deliver it. Whether that is a new channel, or a new product, you will be ahead of the game. This can be particularly helpful in enabling you to see similarities between different types of customers, and identify core needs.

Case study: Dansk IT

Dansk IT is a professional networking association for IT professionals. It has a wide range of members, from people working in technology vending companies through to those providing IT services in businesses. On the face of it, those two groups would seem to have very different needs. However, Per Andersen, the Managing Director, noted,

“To a large extent they all share the same challenges in terms of economic pressure on budgets and the same trends toward the needs to integrate better with the business side and trying to understand the implications of users/LOBs taking more control over IT.”

For more about the benefits of using communities to understand customers, you can read the full interview with Per here. 

  • Your customers are genuinely among your best advocates. Most of us would prefer to buy or use something that has been recommended by a friend. Building a community around your company or brand means that your customers are more likely to recommend you.
  • Community marketing helps to improve strategic alignment. By being closer to your customers, you can ensure that corporate goals are more closely aligned with customer requirements—and therefore improve profitability.

To learn more about the benefits of community marketing, read our article on that subject here. You can read more about how to improve strategic alignment here.

Getting started with community marketing

There are plenty of different ways to move towards community marketing, and very definitely no ‘one size fits all’. Different companies in different sectors will have different approaches, because this is a very customer-centric approach.

Options for community marketing include:

  • Using dedicated (company-owned) forums and websites. This has the advantage that you own the medium, and therefore control the conversation. However, your customers will recognise this, and will know that they may not be seeing ‘the whole picture’. 
  • Using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook. This has a number of advantages: you get to listen quietly to what your customers are saying, as well as starting conversations, and your customers are where they want to be. However, the disadvantage is that you don’t control the conversation, and any mistakes may be punished heavily.

Most businesses are likely to choose several channels, to ensure that they can make contact with more customers. Whatever medium or media you choose, however, there are some things that you need to consider.

First, you need to monitor and keep track of what’s going on in your community. See how people react to your posts and comments, and respond to them. Conversations are a two-way process. You also need to actively search for mentions of your business, and react fast to any complaints. Make use of the appropriate tools to ensure that you can monitor and respond quickly. These actions need to be taken each day—or at the very least, each week—and you need to be monitoring for mentions on an ongoing basis.

You also need to be publishing useful content. This is where thought leadership meets community marketing. Your content needs to address customer needs, so may need to react to posts and comments, rather than being on a fixed plan. You can use your monitoring to refine both your broad content and your specific messages.

Communities, eco-systems and the future of marketing

The strongest argument of all for starting to use community marketing may well be that this is the future. Companies operate within an ecosystem of peers, partners, suppliers and customers. Marketing is no longer a ‘business to customer’ affair, but more an issue of how the business operates within the ecosystem.

Case study: The Marketing Cloud

The Marketing Cloud is a a strategic consultancy working with IT vendor brands and their partner ecosystems. Jane Waight, its founder and Managing Director, had this to say about the importance of thought leadership within a brand ecosystem:

“Partners welcome vendor-led support on sales and marketing enablement that complements their business plan and marketing objectives. They welcome help across the spectrum of content, promotions, sales incentives, opportunities to co-brand with the vendor, supported execution, and lead generation for partner fulfilment…. thought leadership is now a requisite.”

You can read more of Jane’s advice for marketers here.

Businesses that understand their ecosystem—and particularly the dynamics of competition within it—are far more likely to survive in the longer term. This means considering customers, competitors and category, as well as your own company. You have to be positioned in the right place in relation to all of these.

Building a community can help you to understand your ecosystem: your partners, your competitors, and your customers. John Donne’s statement that no man is an island remains as true today, in marketing, as it did when he first made the point.

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

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