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Marketers Are Buzzing About Community — But What Even Is It?

April 15, 2021
Mae Rice

We asked Browned 2 Perfection's Junae Brown and former Toptal community lead Ethan Brooks what community means to them — and why marketers can't get enough of it.

Table of Contents

Community is hot right now. Maybe it’s because Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian tweets about it so much. Maybe it’s because we just lived through a year of social distancing, and everyone craves connection. 

Maybe it’s because it’s an enduring competitive advantage. 

These days, “there's just very few things that can't be copied extremely quickly,” Ethan Brooks, an analyst at The Hustle and former community lead at Toptal, told MarketerHire.

Popular digital product features essentially go viral. Snapchat invented stories; now, even LinkedIn has them. Spotify and Twitter are both launching Clubhouse clones — while Clubhouse is still invite-only.

Community, though, is hard to copy. 

“You may be able to mimic someone's idea,” Brooks said, “[but] you can't mimic the… way that two people work together.” Let alone how 500 people work together.

That generates loyalty. Think about it: The most loyal customers aren’t loyal to brands at all. They’re loyal to fandoms — or communities — that rise up around musicians and sports teams.

“I come from the music industry… where every major artist has their tribe of super fans,” Junae Brown, founder of marketing agency Browned 2 Perfection, told MarketerHire. “No matter what the artist is doing or not doing, [the fandom] keeps their engine running.”

Brands need something similar: enthusiastic fans tracking their every move, generating word-of-mouth buzz, who would never think of defecting to a competitor.

“Think of the biggest sports fan that you know,” Brooks suggested. This person might buy whichever dish soap is on sale. “But would they ever switch teams because their archrivals’ jerseys were on sale?”

"Would [a sports fan] ever switch teams because their archrivals' jerseys were on sale?"

No. 

They don’t think about sports like a shopper — they think about them like a community member.

From a marketing standpoint, all of this is powerful — and profitable. Word of mouth lowers customer acquisition costs (CAC); loyalty boosts the average lifetime value (LTV) of a customer.

“It's something I've been screaming from the rooftops for years,” Brown said.

But what does community mean, exactly? And how can marketers build successful ones?

What is a community? 

A community can be a lot of things. It can be virtual — like the #MarketingTwitter hashtag — or in-person — like a monthly bowling night for anime lovers. It can have 30 members, or 10,000. 

It can be affiliated with a brand or not — though we’re focusing on branded communities in this story. 

Communities typically have most, if not all, of these four traits, though. 

Four common elements of a community:

  1. It’s a social hub. In other words, it’s a place — digital or IRL — where a group gathers.
  2. It’s a place where new relationships can form. It’s not limited to an existing social group; it can grow. 
  3. Its members all have something in common. That something could be a profession, a hobby, or a type of pet— but there’s some common denominator. (In branded communities, the members are usually part of a demographic the company wants loyalty from, whether that’s customers, suppliers or employees.)
  4. It’s ongoing. A one-off event, like a party, isn’t usually considered a community.

The meeting new people part is key. “If you want to build a community, you're focused on creating relationships between the members of your audience,” Brooks said. 

“If you want to build a community, you're focused on creating relationships between the members of your audience.” 

“The big difference between a community and an audience is that an audience is a one-to-many communication relationship,” he elaborated, “whereas a community is many-to-many.”

Branded communities — our focus here — usually start with content, like a newsletter or a Twitter feed. An audience forms; then the most passionate audience members start to interact. 

Take Savage X Fenty. Whenever Rihanna’s lingerie brand announces a new product on social media, “a core of Fenty people” show up in the comments and replies, Brown explained.

“They’re having conversations with each other,” she said. “They’re telling jokes. They’re adding memes.”

Each tweet or post is a social hub, around which followers can form new relationships. The followers all have something in common: an interest in Savage X Fenty (and Rihanna too, probably). The social media accounts offer ongoing feeds. 

Savage X Fenty’s social presence has all four of the elements of community listed above. Community can be that simple. 

Who belongs in a branded community? 

Exclusion isn’t essential to community, Brown said. It can spring up organically.

She grew up in Harlem, for example, and she often saw groups of older men playing chess in the park every day. “I don’t think these elderly men ever said, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to have a chess club, and we’re going to meet here every day at 3:00 p.m.”

They probably didn’t say it was invite-only, either. 

Brown worries marketers over-determine their communities, assuming they need to “curate a very specific experience.”

However, a community does require some common thread — which means it can’t include everyone

Typically, community membership is limited to one of these three groups: 

  • Enthusiasts: These are the members of a chess club in the park, or a Twitter community around a brand account. They care enough to show up.
  • Qualified applicants: These might be the members of neighborhood Facebook groups, which often require members to fill out a questionnaire that gets approved by an admin —  or Toptal’s talent community, which requires freelancers to pass through an initial vetting process.
  • Paying customers: These are the members of monetized communities, like the Hustle’s Trends community — a digital network bundled with an event series and a newsletter on emerging business trends.

Especially when brands want paying customers to join a community, exclusivity can help, Brooks said. 

“You can really build quite a successful community around extremely niche things.”

For that to work, though, you need “a very clearly defined code of who belongs and who doesn’t,” he said. 

What do marketers love about community? 

Community boosts retention, Brown and Brooks agree. It’s not just customer retention, either —  community can boost at least three types of retention

  • Customer retention
  • Prospect retention
  • Talent retention

These different types of retention can patch a company’s funnel, and boost its employer brand — all interesting to marketers.

Customer retention

Improved by: free and paid communities for customers.

Boosting customer retention has a lot of different marketing implications. It can lower CAC and boost LTV, as we already mentioned. It also reduces churn — marketers’ nemesis — and improves ROI on upper-funnel marketing efforts.

“It is designed to make sure that the money you spend on marketing doesn't go to waste after people [convert],” Brooks said.

“It is designed to make sure that the money you spend on marketing doesn’t go to waste.”

This is especially valuable for companies that sell individual products, as opposed to subscription-based software and services, Brown noted. 

Prospect retention

Improved by: free communities for customers.

Not every prospective customer is ready to buy, whether it’s due to budget constraints or phase of life — and typically, those prospects leak out of your funnel. 

When companies offer a robust free community, though, those people are more likely to stick around and engage until they’re ready for your product, Brown said. “I’ve done it a million times.”

Talent retention

Improved by: free communities for suppliers in a marketplace (or employees!).

Not every community is customer facing. At Toptal, a talent marketplace that connects companies with freelance developers, designers and more, Brooks focused on building an events-oriented community for the talent side of the platform: the freelancers.

Many major companies make their money through similar marketplaces. Uber has drivers; TikTok has creators; Airbnb has hosts (and a community for them).

And every company has employees, the original supply-side team. Community helps retain them, too — hence, the pre-pandemic popularity of the office. 

Should marketers build communities? 

It’s something of a specialty at Browned 2 Perfection, and Brown has had success building free and paygated communities for her clients. 

Even she has reservations about marketers building community, though.  

“Nobody wants to be sold to all day,” she said. “If you build community from the vantage point of retention, you’re still selling to them.” 

"Nobody wants to be sold to all day."

“It's tough to make the right community decisions from a growth first mindset,” Brooks agreed. 

Companies build successful communities when they want to serve the community, Brown and Brooks agree. 

“You have to understand a lot about what [the members] want, obviously, and you have to be acting in their best interest,” Brooks said. 

The ideal attitude, Brown said: “If it wasn't for you guys, we wouldn't exist.” But the typical marketer’s attitude is more like: If I don’t hit quarterly goals, I won’t exist. 

This is the catch-22 of community: It can serve a marketing team’s KPIs around CAC and LTV, but only if their KPIs don’t define the space. 

What’s the right KPI for community?

Community management requires its own, unique KPIs that center the user experience, and show that the community improves it. 

As we discussed earlier, community can lift retention, but when the lifecycle of a customer is long, it’s hard to prove that right away. 

So internally, how do you justify investing in community on a quarter-by-quarter basis? 

For public,“social-driven communities,” Brown looks at a few core metrics simultaneously:

  • Followers: Self-explanatory.
  • Engagement: Think comments, likes and shares.
  • Impressions: How many eyeballs does a typical social post reach?

For private communities, Brooks said, popular KPIs include:

  • NPS score: This is a survey-based proxy for how many members would actively recommend your community.
  • Active monthly members: What percentage of the community is active each month, logging into your community portal or attending events? The more, the merrier.

These metrics can all be tracked in relatively real time, and when they grow, it typically means that users are enjoying and engaging with the community. They’re proxies, in one way or another, for fun

What about growth as a KPI?

Increased engagement, or a skyrocketing NPS score — hard to argue against that. But is growing membership always a good thing?

In Brown’s experience, it usually is. When it comes to social communities, she often skips hard goals, like 20,000 followers, and focuses on growth.

“If you’re doing a good job, it'll skyrocket,” she said.

"If you're doing a good job, it'll skyrocket."

However, growth is a double-edged sword. It’s a positive demand signal, but it can also increase moderation costs, Brown noted. 

Sometimes, when communities balloon, those costs can outweigh the benefits — something The New York Times recently experienced

Plus, a community in “hypergrowth” becomes more heterogeneous, Brooks said. It can lose the common thread that made it a community in the first place. 

“One of the ways that we addressed it [at Toptal]... is you treat it like a fractal,” Brooks said. 

That meant breaking the rapidly expanding community into sub-communities — much the way Reddit is broken into subreddits, or universities are broken into colleges and clubs.

That way, Brooks said, members can still “feel that sense of belonging and get to know one another.”

Growth is good, in other words, but so is the coziness of a small community. So if growth is a KPI for a branded community, it probably shouldn’t be the only one. 

Is community a marketing channel? 

Brooks and Brown agree that every community, paid or unpaid, can function as a marketing channel and generate word of mouth.

“If you build authentic relationships with people in your community and they genuinely like you, they're going to talk about you,” Brooks said.

In fact, Brown has found that unpaid communities are a great channel for marketing paid communities. 

If members “fall in love with the free,” she said, they’ll splurge on a paid version of it. 

However, community isn’t just a channel for pushing out marketing messages. It’s “a two-way street,” Brooks said.

Ideally, a community is a focus group as well as a marketing channel. A brand should listen to its community as well as pitch them new products. 

That’s what creates loyalty. It’s harder to measure than sales, but long-term, it’s more important. 


Mae Rice
about the author

Mae Rice is senior editor at MarketerHire. A long-time content marketer, she enjoys interviewing marketing experts and learning about the weird and wonderful feedback loops that connect marketing and culture. She also loves any ad that makes her say "Huh?!" — especially Tim and Eric's ad for Totino's pizza rolls, which she watches way more often than you would think.

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