With the vast majority of marketing communications transitioning online as a result of COVID-19, it has become even harder to cut through the noise. As competition increases through digital channels, the cost of customer acquisition is rising, too—particularly in B2B markets.
On a daily basis, we are bombarded with companies vying for our attention, sending emails, sharing webinars, guides, whitepapers, podcasts, and blog posts, as well as their ads appearing all over our social media feeds. All of these tactics play an important part in the marketing mix, but they lack one vital element—listening.
One of a PR professionals’ main strengths is being able to tell a story. But every once in a while, sitting back and listening to what people have to say can help to hone these skills further. The conversations that occur within intimate and trusted online communities can be used to garner feedback, recognize problems and pain points, and identify strong personal accounts, which can then be used to craft highly-focused narratives. These factors make community based marketing (CBM) incredibly valuable for PR, marketing and sales teams alike.
In a world where we are already distanced from one another, there is a need to feel connected, not just in a personal sense, but a professional one, too. Whereas we used to be able to meet with colleagues, clients, peers, partners, and prospects in person, that has now been lost, at least for the time being.
As a result, online communities have seen a resurgence. While online communities are nothing new, an increasing number of professionals are seeking out spaces where they can come together to discuss a shared interest while offering mutual support or other benefits, much as they would when building rapports when meeting physically.
Community based marketing is effective because it provides an opportunity to create closer, and therefore more valuable, relationships with prospects and customers.
Developing a community based marketing strategy
When looking at a traditional marketing funnel, the interest/consideration/desire stages are all well suited to community based marketing. PR professionals generally focus on the awareness end of the funnel. But as the people who look after the credibility and reputation of a company, it’s important that they are involved in developing and managing the strategy, too.
Before launching a community, first, its purpose must be defined. Why should prospective members join? Also, how will the quality and integrity of the group be maintained? People don’t stick around long if a community is not relevant, interesting, or engaged. To ensure focused and valuable discussions, it must be very clear about what the community is for, and why it exists.
How do you measure the success of a community? Again, it’s important to define KPIs early on. Growth and engagement are common metrics, but when looking at how this fits in with broader business goals, it can also be useful to measure improved conversion rates, better product/service development, increased marketing effectiveness, reduced churn rates, and lowering the cost of providing support elsewhere. Obviously some of these metrics will involve a cross-departmental strategy but cracking this nut will also put PR in a more pivotal role within a business as a whole.
Growing a community is often a primary objective. But smaller communities can thrive, so there is less of a need to chase big numbers, particularly in B2B where value is better than volume. Communities for B2B marketing are likely to be 10s, 100s, possibly 1,000s, and group sizes between 15-1,500 are likely to be optimal. Too many groups are overwhelmingly large or noisy, making them feel impersonal, making it difficult to forge close relationships and build trust.
Even more important than choosing the technology platform on which the community is hosted, is finding the right people to run it. A community manager should be appointed as the ‘go to’ person for any member of the group. Because of their strengths in fostering relationships, people with a comms or PR background often make excellent community managers. It’s crucial that a community manager has the expertise to be able to respond to questions quickly and accurately, and should lead by example in how they engage with the community, while being supportive, welcoming and encouraging, particularly to new joiners.
With a little nurturing and guidance, communities begin to develop organically, eventually becoming ‘owned’ by the members. To achieve this, community managers need to encourage discussions without dictating to the group or dominating the conversation. Over time, members will begin to share their own ideas, information, questions and advice, keeping the community active and engaged. That being said, guidelines are important for communities to set expectations around permitted behaviours, and it’s critical that someone is monitoring the threads and groups that exist to ensure that they are being adhered to.
Ultimately, community based marketing cannot be treated as a project or campaign. It needs to be part of the company culture, and championed by those at the top for it to really work. Because these communities are not sales-focused, PR professionals can help with the sell-in, encouraging like-minded individuals and influencers to join groups, building trust and authority for the brand over time.
There is definitely an advantage in being early to the party though. A B2B audience is unlikely to join multiple groups that, to all intents and purposes, claim the same territory. It’s likely that once an individual gets settled into a group, luring them away will become an increasingly difficult task to manoeuvre.
Community based marketing will never be a quick fix, and it needs to be properly supported in order to be a success. For those who get it right, they will be rewarded by building strong bonds with their prospects, customers, and advocates.