CMO at CM Group and Sailthru.
Athleta recently announced AthletaWell, a social platform centered around women’s well-being. AthletaWell is part of a growing trend among retailers who are aiming to create a stickier online presence. Under Armour purchased the exercise app MapMyRun years ago using a similar strategy. Online communities like these allow brands to avoid sacrificing data and engagement to the giant social media platforms.
Brands already invest heavily in marketing and advertising on social platforms. Creating a brand-new one may sound like a fool’s errand. But there are several factors that retailers should consider before pushing the idea aside. A brand-owned community gives brands direct access to customers and fans with no restrictions from the large social platforms. It provides ample data collection, feedback and measurement opportunities that can help brands build a first-party-data-driven strategy. And, it can drive up brand loyalty and brand affinity if it provides a true value exchange for its members.
The best branded communities operate using a strong value exchange: they collect insights and data in exchange for valuable content and connections. The beauty of brand-owned experience is that it helps retailers collect both zero-party and first-party data. Zero-party data is information that customers purposefully share, such as their birthday, favorite sport or shoe size. First-party data is additional data that the company collects as the customer searches its site, uses its app and interacts with its email. The combination of these data types can improve everything from triggered customer journeys to promotions and product recommendations.
They’re different from social platforms.
For many brands, social media is a huge win. PlayStation, for example, has a highly engaged community that interacts heavily with the brand and other fans. And that’s fine, because Sony likely already has tons of data about its PlayStation customers that it collects through the game console itself. Using social media to amplify the PlayStation brand voice is a smart top-of-funnel and loyalty play.
But there are many brands that don’t have a highly scaled first-party data opportunity. Many retailers spend money and resources creating different social media strategies for each platform because they feel that they need to be “out there.” Many, however, have trouble building the community they want or gathering the insights they need to make the investment truly valuable. Many people also spread themselves across a broad variety of platforms, which can make it even harder to develop a core community through these sites.
Jewelry brand Betsy and Iya decided to stop marketing on social media altogether in 2020 and wrote on their blog, “In 3 months of zero posts: Sales didn’t go away. Connections didn’t go away. Our business didn’t go away.”
For brands like these, scaling back to just the few platforms that are creating clear value could free up valuable resources to do a better job on those platforms. This strategy can also free up resources to amp up a more direct strategy through content, community or both.
Micro-communities can drive macro value.
There are a variety of successful examples of brands with content- and community-based strategies that serve to drive more engagement with their target audiences and likely allow them to collect valuable insights to help with marketing and advertising efforts. REI, for example, has a variety of different apps that you can download, including those that provide trail maps and sport-specific apps. This likely helps REI learn about where their customers go, what they like to do and how often they might be using their gear. Insights like these can help to create a highly personalized marketing program driven by data — a value exchange that benefits both the brand and the consumer.
Communities are also a good complement to — rather than a replacement for — loyalty programs. While loyalty programs deliver immediate perks and discounts for members, communities deliver an intangible connection to other people, which can be stickier than a loyalty program. Word-of-mouth promotion is a trusted form of marketing: According to 2015 Nielsen data, 83% of people trust recommendations from people they know. When brands think of them as part of a holistic program, communities can drive loyalty-program participation. Imagine a “power” community member who alerts other members to little-known benefits of the program, for example. And brands can craft loyalty communications that feature community elements.
For example, a brand could could create a VIP community for loyalists that keeps them more engaged with the program and each other. Even the best loyalty programs typically require tweaking due to things like engagement, distribution of top tiers and program cost. And a customer can fall out of a loyalty program due to things like changes to their expendable income or location, but they won’t necessarily fall out of the community the brand embodies. A community is always open, no matter when the customer made their last purchase or when they might purchase in the future.
Communities that really connect can start to deliver additive value that makes them even more sticky. C2C resell sites for shoes and apparel, such as GOAT and StockX, are communities that were built around well-known brands. Brands with limited collections have an opportunity to build community through reselling using their own online experience — and perhaps adding value through offerings such as the authentication of products that are resold on their site.
Together, I believe zero- and first-party data will be the future of successful marketing. This is because third-party data is becoming harder to rely on due to privacy regulations and companies like Apple and Google that are making moves to reduce third-party targeting. There is so much opportunity and potential value in creating engagement with customers and prospects through direct relationships, but it does take resources. Consumers have a significant amount of choice online and can generally see through a half-baked attempt. I recommend that brands reevaluate their approach to social media and consider where they may be able to divert resources away from platforms that drive underwhelming value to create an owned community instead.