Brands as communities: the path to navigating the permacrisis

Building communities around your brands isn’t just public service — it’s tapping into a fundamental human need to sustain your business.

We all need a deep sense of community. The crises of the past three years have redefined what that looks like for many of us — and it’s time for businesses to adapt.

As the Accenture Life Trends report correctly identifies, we sit at a particular point of opportunity around online community building. Many of the incumbents who have sucked all the air out of the community space online have effectively retreated from true community, at exactly the point when our need for human connection has been reinforced through its absence. And, indeed, many of us are in the process of renegotiating how we live, and whom we spend our time with.

And it’s inarguable that digital will play a part in this process. One of the through lines of the past 25 years of online evolution is the fact that humans are intensely social. It’s critical to our mental and physical wellbeing. From the earliest days of email discussion groups and Usenet discussion forums, to the recent dominance of global-scale social networks, humans have used the internet for social purposes.

The evolution of online relationship building

That will never change. But what will change is the forms those social communities will take. That’s a particular concern — and perhaps opportunity — right now, as the previous incumbents have all but exited the space. Today’s social networks are no longer very social. TikTok is more of an entertainment channel than a way of communicating with friends, and Instagram is a series of influencers and sponsored posts, occasionally punctuated by the odd post from your friends.

Why? The big social networks need to make big money to sustain themselves, and facilitating small groups of real-life friends doesn’t pay those bills.

When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves cut off from all but the closest of communities — our households. And if anything, that has reinforced our need for connection. Even before Covid-19 tore our world apart, your people were starting to rethink their sense of community:

They’re saying that after years spent constructing carefully curated online identities and accumulating heaps of online “friends,” they want to be themselves and make real friends based on shared interests. They’re also craving privacy, safety, and a respite from the throngs of people on social platforms — throngs that now usually include their parents.

As in so many things, the lockdowns acted as an accelerant to a change in motion.

The weak and strong ties of social connection

Our social needs exist on a spectrum. There are the strongest ties, those with close friends and family, and then there are weaker ties with your work colleagues. And then there are the weakest ties, with the friendly face you buy your coffee from in the morning, or the bar staff in your favourite bar. Or, indeed, work acquaintances you only occasionally see. They can be surprisingly impactful in your life.

The opportunity for companies here is to step into the void vacated by the big social networks and build genuine community, an inherent sense of belonging around the brand. In the parlance of online community building, this is about making the brand, or the product, a social object: something people gather around to discuss.

Some companies have been exploring this for years. For example, Lego has the Lego Life app, where children can share their creations and build relationships with others through persistent yet pseudonymous identities. The gaming companies have known the strength of this for years, hosting community spaces in forums or Discord, and hiring community management expertise to run them.

Don’t fool yourself that you’re on this journey already: a loyalty scheme is not a community play. It’s relationship-building, a way of tying a customer to a brand in a (hopefully) mutually beneficial way. It does almost nothing to foster connection between customers, though. To expand beyond that simple relationship, and bring your customers into a community ecosystem, you need to understand what drives people to connect.

Expanding your communities

One reason that people use digital to make social connections is isolation: if you’re the only fan of a particular hobby or brand in your physical neighbourhood, then you can find connections with others like yourself easily online. Indeed, many of the earliest online communities were born this way.

The obvious example is fandoms: being able to discuss the latest episode of a Marvel Cinematic Universe show with like-minded people globally is a boon of the internet for many. But it goes far beyond that. Many professions carry with them a degree of social isolation: farming, for example.

With that social isolation coupled with a mutual benefit in sharing information, farmers — and farming brands — have been building online communities for years. Find customers with a degree of social isolation from other customers, and a need to connect, and you have a potential winner on your hands.

Enhancing your communities

For years, people have denigrated online communities and relationships as somehow less “real” than those formed in physical reality. And yet, during the pandemic, sometimes those online relationships proved more persistent and valuable than face-to-face ones. But people also quickly learned that you could deepen and enhance your existing relationships via online tools.

All over the globe, WhatsApp groups, and similar, sprang up to keep people connected with their neighbours. This wasn’t facilitated directly by any of the big platforms, but organised ad hoc by people, forging small, self-run, self-sustaining communities that brought value to their life.

This is the second model of online community: provide the tools and spaces to allow your customers to forge their own online communities. Again, we can look to the gaming industry for inspiration here: they provide social tools that allow groups to form for the purpose of activities within the game. If you sell outdoor gear, could you create spaces that allow your users to self-organise trips?

This is an online community as an enhancement of the existing community.

Structure your community

Finally, online communities are finding new, more powerful life through Web3 tools. The Accenture Life Trends report cites a very specific example:

For instance, crypto sports community WAGMI United purchased Crawley Town FC, an English league two football club, with the mission to advance it to the Premier League. They released an NFT-gated community for the club, and owners of the NFTs gained voting rights in addition to their asset.

Giving community members an invested stake in the community itself ties them ever more strongly to it.

Are you a community brand — or a commodity one?

Fundamentally, once you strip away the “touchy-feely” connotations of the word “community”, it’s a customer retention strategy. Abandoning a brand for a cheaper one is easy, and a choice many people will make in this economic climate. Abandoning a community you’re invested in, which is full of relationships you value, is so much harder.

By finding ways of building or hosting commutes around your brands, you build a depth of loyalty that might just see you through the storms ahead.

Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash