It turns out, one size doesn’t fit all. Especially on traditional social channels that just don’t feel that social anymore.

The tide has turned on social media. While big social networks are prioritising connecting people with brands and filling feeds with ads and #spon, people are seeking connection with other people in communities online.

Chances are, you’re aware of the rise of the sub-community, where like-minded people bond over specific interests and issues in often hyper-personal spaces.

And as the surge in interest-based communities and sub-cultures continues to rise in the new community-driven social sphere, now’s the time to relook at how you’re considering them for your brand.

There is no shortage of options for brands to embrace communities, whether by sponsoring an existing one or starting their own.

Every day, people form or join sub-communities aligned to their interests and passions within existing channels like TikTok, Facebook and Reddit.

Other users are gravitating away from traditional social channels to sites predominantly catering to specific and niche interests. Sites like voice, video, and text chat app Discord, where gamers hang out in communities with friends. Interactive video live-streaming service Twitch, where people chat, interact and make their own entertainment together. And Nextdoor, a hyper-local social media network for neighbourhoods and local communities.

Power to the people

It used to be enough for brands to be on the big networks, have a social media presence, and work out the algorithms. Not now.

The rise of Web3 is bringing more decentralised networks like Mastodon (like Twitter with communities), where users publish over a billion posts monthly across communities with no algorithms or ads altering people’s feeds.

And a brand’s path to people via an algorithm on traditional social channels will get that much harder when MIT launches Gobo, a new tool that gives people more control over their feed by giving them control over algorithms.

The power is no longer with the algorithm – it’s with the people. Communities are putting the social back into networks, with or without brands.  

To reach and keep online community-minded masses engaged with your brand, you need to do two things:

  • give people a captivating reason to join your community, and
  • make it worth their time to engage with each other and your brand.

Because if you don’t, they will simply join other communities that do. So if you’ve not yet cracked your community strategy or realise your communities may need some TLC, read on.

How can brands build communities?

Whether tapping into existing communities created by consumers or building your own, you need to create a sense of belonging. Shared ambition, beliefs and contexts should be baked in.

Communities are about identity. Participants develop codes and conventions, using names, words, and terms only those on the inside ‘get’. But it needs to be authentic, not forced.

Here are some ways to make sure your brand-led community ticks those boxes.

1. Be crystal clear on your brand’s ‘why’

You need absolute clarity about what your brand is – and isn’t – before you invite others in. People want to stand with brands that stand for something. You don’t have to be loved by everyone. Only your people.

2. Think people, not platforms

Communities aren’t platform-specific – they’re people-specific. And those people can gather anywhere, so you need to think about how to reach yours in multiple spaces and places. 

Just as you might have multiple target audiences, you have multiple communities. You need to treat each one differently. Identify your top three and what they value.

Target by interests, not gender and age group. Communities are the new demographics. Be specific and target layered identities. Instead of looking for mums, look for tired, working mums with young children.

3. Create, curate, and cultivate

Next, you need to show your customers how you’re aligned with them, and how you’re building an active and engaged community.

Understand your audience and be honest about what you can bring to the community.

You need niche content for your dedicated audience – but it has to be valuable.

Hone in on your brand’s unique value. Saying too much for the sake of pumping out content dilutes your brand’s angle to the point it’s indistinguishable from others. And when you sound like everyone else, you don’t give customers a reason to stay.

Pushing out content for content’s sake just creates digital diarrhea that makes a mess of your community strategy.

Community goes beyond selling

Your community is invested in your brand beyond what’s being sold. It’s a long-term play, not a quick grab. A relationship, not a one-night stand.

Selling can and should happen, but like everything in the community space, it has to be mutually beneficial and feel organic to the situation and space.

You achieve that by building value, trust, and social proof, and creating high quality content that helps people to get the outcomes they want – whether they buy something or not.

Nurturing relationships gains community-led brands loyalty from emotionally invested advocates. Almost one-in-two customers say they are motivated to be loyal by becoming part of a community of like-minded people.

Audiences are prepared to pay for value. They won’t pay for rubbish content and experiences, or selling dressed up as community. They’ll smell a fake. Find ways to add value in ways no one else is.

People will pay for value too. It’s why paid community memberships are on the rise.

It’s a balancing act

Creating and fostering a community is a two-way street that requires striking a fine balance.

Brands need to find the sweet spot where you’re contributing without dominating, and not leaving the heavy lifting to your community members.

Make your mantra ‘ask don’t tell’. Like any successful relationship, the key isn’t to tell people what to think – it’s to ask them what they think, how they feel, what they need and how you can help.

Invite users to share their ideas. People love to be consulted – and they contribute in return.

Mutual contributions that lead to mutually beneficial outcomes is the difference between building an engaged community, not just an audience.

Consumers are forming and seeking out like-minded communities online like never before – including your customers. For brands that haven’t dipped a toe in the community waters, now is the time to begin. Whether that’s by building a community around your brand, or by immersing yourself in an existing one, the key is to start. Your customers are out there. Join them.

Mary Proulx is co-founder of Bread Agency.