Building a high level of customer participation into your brand’s DNA will reap long-term rewards. There is no better time to think about how you want to set your company up for successful brand-customer relationships than when you are in the business creation mode.
But before diving into how to develop brand participation, let’s first do a quick economics lesson:
- Marketing your brand requires awareness. Most of the time, that begins with a budget spent on various connection channels. Customer acquisition requires a concerted effort, which is an ongoing expense on the balance sheet.
- This is where math takes over. It makes zero sense to continue to pay for awareness if you can create a model that allows your fans to recruit their friends.
- When marketing requires you to spend time and money every time you want to communicate, you will have a very expensive beast to feed.
Six years ago, we began a series of annual studies to determine how and why people adopt brands. We focused on the millennial generation for several reasons: They are early adopters, are digitally savvy and have decades of future buying power.
Each year, we ask them what their three favorite brands are. We then inquire where and how they connect with those brands. Over time, our dataset has grown to include more than 20,000 responses.
What we’ve found is that it is 2.5 times more likely for a millennial to adopt a brand based on what friends and family say over ads on TV, Facebook and YouTube combined.
We call it the “share effect” and conclude that people do not consume advertising, but rather choose to participate in brands.
The more we talked to fans, the more we started seeing super fans – those who take participation to the next level and form communities around their favorite brands. We then launched several new studies to determine how these dedicated fans join brand communities. To get a closer look, we took a deep dive into communities and how they form.
Ultimately, what our study discovered was that as an entrepreneur, you may have to join your customers before they join you.
Our research found that giving attention is more effective than getting attention. Many times, customers will adopt a lifestyle that best suits them, and your brand could be a part of it if it’s the right fit.
There’s a test you can implement to see how you’re doing with one simple question: Will they wear your brand’s T-shirt?
We looked at hundreds of case studies and determined that there are three common steps to building a brand community:
Ignite the fire
Brands that hook consumers through compelling storytelling have an enduring narrative. Take for example: Tito’s Vodka. This powerhouse was a startup, born on a ranch outside of Austin, Texas. While working on his first batches, Tito had his dog by his side. Over time, more dogs began gathering on his property, and he cared for all of them.
Once the brand took off, Tito used a portion of his profits to support dog charities. When you visit his website today, you’ll see a tab titled, “Vodka for Dog People,” where Tito shares this story. This story is compelling and creates a connection with consumers.
Fuel the flame
Once your company and your brand begin fostering connections through storytelling, you have the opportunity to build rapport with personified ideas like a common language. Customers want to be a part of something they believe in and they will adopt your nicknames, slang and shortcuts.
Help them help you by providing “in-the-know” references that they can share or feel privileged to use. Think of In-N-Out Burger and the restaurant’s secret menu. How secret is it, really? It’s available on the website, but consumers love the lingo and they feel they are a part of something by ordering a “double double animal style.”
Pass the torch
Giving your customers an opportunity to share the love can take many forms: from ambassadors to actually casting them in your content. The point is, they become the communication that drives your business. Consider TheSkimm, a newsletter that targets millennial professionals and brings in revenue through advertising.
Readers are encouraged to become Skimmbassadors, and in order to qualify, they need to get 10 friends to sign up for the newsletter. When TheSkimm’s advertisers want to reach the newsletter’s audience, companies and products are editorially written in to the newsletter’s content. And the only way to win these prizes? Be a Skimbassador.
Finally, your goal as a brand and as a business is to own (don’t rent!) your fans. When you have cultivated loyalists, you have an ongoing source for feedback and a self-sustaining audience platform.
Your business plan can be more ambitious than just getting people to buy your brand; you want them to join your brand.
Originally published Jan. 30, 2019.