Much has happened since the White House declared Covid-19 a national emergency three years ago.
Millions of people downloaded TikTok. Bars and restaurants closed, then either reopened or went out of business. Office workers went home. Many are still there.
The pandemic also altered people’s sense of community.
This shift in culture presents marketers with an opportunity, since brands can benefit from tight-knit groups of like-minded individuals in ways they can’t from personal messages aimed at specific shoppers or national ad campaigns meant for everybody.
As the Biden administration prepares to end the national emergency for Covid-19 in May, interviews with industry experts explain how the notion of community has changed and what marketers can do about people’s renewed desire to belong.
In October 2021—around the midway point between the U.S. outbreak and today—nearly half of Americans said the pandemic had fractured their local community, according to the Pew Research Center. Only 13% thought the health crisis had brought members of their neighborhood closer together.
Additional figures from Pew indicate 1 in 5 U.S. adults didn’t expect their community to ever return to the way it was before the era of face masks and social distancing. A similar amount said their own lives would never go back to normal.
Community matters to people because it’s difficult to form an identity or sense of purpose in isolation—a state many found themselves in during months of lockdown. Other people, as imperfect as they may be, are also the antidote to loneliness.
Members of the public who weren’t conscious of this fact before the pandemic probably are now. Frank talk about mental health is certainly increasing, as more people search the term on Google.
“The absence of communities in our day-to-day life made us realize the importance of them,” said Nirm Shanbhag, U.S. chief strategy officer of creative agency Sid Lee.
Community comes in different forms and can fulfill different needs. Think of the distinct roles someone plays depending on whether they’re with family members, work buddies or teammates in the local floor hockey league.
Thanks to the internet, community is no longer limited to location. Never before in history have people been more comfortable connecting online with others who share similar interests, whether they live in an apartment two floors up or another hemisphere.
The pandemic, of course, accelerated this trend.
“I’m not defined by geography or time zone or what’s easily within reach, because what’s within reach now is everything,” said Shanbhag.
Just look at Reddit, home to more than 100,000 active communities known as subreddits. Whether you’re into astronomy or bass guitar or RuPaul’s Drag Race, there’s likely a group of people discussing it right now.
“It’s never been this easy for marketers to find their place inside of a community,” said Reddit’s global brand ambassador, Will Cady, who added that digital groups require less resources for brands to join than communities based in physical locations.
According to Reddit’s own figures, 60% of its users are open to seeing ads or content from brands on the platform, making it a largely safe space for companies to mingle with consumers.
“Sometimes there’s a perception people on Reddit don’t like brands, but our research, and brand success on the platform, proves the contrary,” said Kaitlin McGirl, global head of creative strategy at Reddit’s in-house creative agency, KarmaLab.
Estimates from online visibility management platform Semrush show total global web traffic to Reddit.com climbed to 51.9 billion visits in 2022, up more than 260% compared to 2019.
Social media creators and influencers are also a credible gateway to reach online communities. Their endorsements can carry more weight with their followers than other forms of traditional marketing.
“Gen Z, in particular, are fully aware influencers are being paid to promote brands, but they trust the influencer’s judgment to only promote brands they believe in,” said Paul Dyer, CEO of digital agency Lippe Taylor, which focuses on what it calls “earned marketing,” and the author of “Friction Fatigue: What the Failure of Advertising Means for Future-Focused Brands.”
At the same time, in spring 2023 it’s safe to assume a fair amount of folks are yearning to attend events and gatherings that involve no mention of hashtags or QR codes. They simply want to hang out.
“You can have all the Zoom calls and messaging apps you want, but at the end of the day what people really want is in-person interactions,” said Emmanuel Probst, global head of brand thought leadership at market research firm Ipsos and the author of “Assemblage: The Art and Science of Brand Transformation.”
Why? Because, Probst argued, we’re wired that way.
Consider a happy hour with colleagues. People arrive at the venue at different times. Each person receives a welcome hug—or nod. Two co-workers start debating over a menu item. The server, carrying two baskets of hot French fries, says something funny. A song starts playing that reminds someone of something stupid the boss said during yesterday’s meeting. And so on.
Online message boards can be wonderful and full of creativity, but they don’t deliver the full sensory experience of being in a room with other humans. A report from Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, for instance, states 83% of Gen Z consumers have a newfound appreciation for in-person interactions as a result of the pandemic.
“Technology facilitates communication and interactions, but not a sense of belonging,” said Probst.
Indeed, Sid Lee’s research indicates the main way consumers engage with community is in person.
For marketers, though, this doesn’t have to mean more tequila brands hosting tequila nights featuring a presentation on the history of distilling tequila between shots of tequila.
Companies can show up in unexpected places. Perhaps a cracker brand can connect with a book club. Maybe a neighborhood coffee shop can set aside a couple of tables for the local running group after their morning jog.
“Research and data can tell us where there’s an opportunity,” said Shanbhag.
Probst also pointed out that despite the pandemic teaching consumers they can get almost everything imaginable delivered to their door—from apples and socks to kettlebells and ottomans—many people are still shopping at brick-and-mortar businesses.
During the fourth quarter of 2022, ecommerce represented 14.7% of total U.S. retail sales, according to the Department of Commerce. That’s down from an all-time high of 16.4% during the second quarter of 2020, when the government asked everyone to shelter in place.
To Probst, this is more evidence people are hungry for discovery, guidance and the possibility of connecting with others offline. No one, after all, goes to a store for its superior price, convenience or vast range of options.
As Probst put it: “Experience is experiencing a renaissance.”
To build or to join
Whether a brand’s community-based marketing efforts are occurring online or offline, one question every marketer should consider is if they should build a brand-led community or join one consumers have already established on their own.
On one hand, brands that run their own groups can dictate what happens and capture the data. But building one from scratch requires effort and money. And there’s no guarantee anyone will be interested in joining, either.
On the other hand, getting involved in a consumer-led community can cost very little for the advantages it delivers. But brands have to be willing to relinquish control.
Some companies have enough clout to create their own community. Nike, for example. Others, such as direct-to-consumer beauty brand Glossier, which emerged from the popular blog Into the Gloss, have nurtured a sense of kinship among their customers from the beginning.
But this doesn’t apply to everyone.
“Very few brands have earned the right to create a brand-led community,” said Dyer, who noted companies interested in taking this route need to put in the hard work of building brand affinity by exceeding consumers’ expectations over and over again.
Sid Lee has spent the past few years studying the power of community-based marketing and publishes an annual Belong Index highlighting which brands are doing it best. Duolingo, Airbnb and the Bored Ape Yacht Club appear on the 2022 list. Past winners include Peloton, in 2021, and the K-pop band BTS, in 2020.
According to the agency’s investigations, it’s better for companies to participate in existing consumer-led groups than attempt to start and manage their own. Shanbhag described the answer as “glaring,” stating 9 in 10 community members are likely to purchase from a brand that contributes to their group in a meaningful way.
This occurs, in part, because consumer-led groups often form under more organic circumstances, which provides members with a greater sense of unity and self-determination. These communities decide which brands are allowed to participate—and how.
Reddit provides a more nuanced response to the question.
Think of the standard marketing funnel with general awareness at the top, purchase consideration in the middle and customer retention at the bottom.
On Reddit, Microsoft’s video gaming brand Xbox can use discrete communities to reach consumers occupying different parts of the marketing funnel. The subreddit r/gaming, for instance, is great for keeping Xbox in the minds of consumers interested in the category. Moving down the funnel, r/Xbox is geared toward gamers who either own an Xbox console or are likely thinking about buying one. As the name implies, r/XboxInsiders is for loyal fans looking to read the latest news and share their thoughts on what the brand could do better.
While r/gaming and r/Xbox are consumer-led communities, r/XboxInsiders is run by Xbox itself.
“Just like there’s a different strategy for every phase of the funnel, there’s a different organic approach for each type of community,” said Cady, Reddit’s global brand ambassador.
Be patient and add value
Gaining acceptance into a group can take time. Some community members are wary of outsiders, especially if the newcomer is a major corporation.
It’s therefore wise to be patient. Learn the tribe’s rituals. Get familiar with the dialect. Listen. Invest the resources needed to make friends and earn trust, knowing nothing is going to happen fast.
“If you’re attempting to establish something in the short-term, it will do the opposite of what was intended,” said Ross Steinman, a psychology professor at Widener University who studies consumer behavior.
If brands don’t have the energy or expertise required to pursue community-based marketing over the long-haul, Steinman added, it’s probably best to avoid it.
“Consumer-led communities are powerful, so you have to be careful with them,” said Steinman. “If you disturb them too much, they might not respond the way you hope.”
Shanbhag offered a similar warning to brands looking to adopt a community-centered marketing strategy: “It can’t be treated as an afterthought.”
The key to winning over other members of the group is to be a good partner. If the community is focused on supporting a certain cause, help them do that. If the community consists of hardcore fans of a specific movie franchise, share exclusive clips or host a Q&A session with the lead actors.
“Don’t market in a community until you’ve added real value,” said Dyer, Lippe Taylor’s chief executive. “That means fixing, or at least addressing, a problem without selling a product. Consumers are much more tuned into what brands are doing today versus what they’re saying.”
This story is part of Adweek’s New Consumer digital package, which focuses on diversity in all the ways it manifests for consumers—including gender, race, age and ability—and how marketers need to reach people where they are and meet their unique needs.