What is Community-Based Marketing + How Does it Work?

With online communities popping up left and right—which means a strong shift towards community, and away from public social networks and traditional marketing strategy—we thought we’d cover the basics of community-based marketing.

Before diving into the details of community-based marketing, however, here’s a quick refresher on what defines “online community.”

What is Online Community?

Yeah, we’ve covered this before. But repetition is crucial to retention, and we want you to be in the know when it comes to building the best online community possible. So… if you feel the need, check out our original post about online community. Then carry on with us back here.  

As one particularly dense but rather fascinating peer-reviewed study states, “community is a common understanding of a shared identity.” Additionally, there are 3 markers that researchers say indicate a brand community:

  1. Consciousness of Kind – Basically, what this means is that people in a community are connected together through an intrinsic understanding—some “thing” that differentiates community members from non-community members. 
  2. Rituals & Traditions – Rituals and traditions are important not only in community, but also in every other aspect of our lives. They bring us together, demarcate time and progress, and allow us to come together and hold space for life’s ups and downs and in-betweens. As specific acts and behaviours, rituals and traditions help solidify culture and meaning within a community and life in general.
  3. Sense of Obligation to Community – Here we mean the “sense of moral obligation that drives community members to serve each other.” A lovely and loving concept/phenomenon, indeed.

Why highlight these defining elements of community? Well, they’re pretty important to keep in mind when developing your plan for community-based marketing. In fact, you could say they are the foundation of community-based marketing.

1,000 True Fans + Community-Based Marketing

Before we get further into what defines community-based marketing, let’s look at a neat essay that nearly broke the Internet back in 2008. Written by Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired Magazine, “1,000 True Fans” centers on the concept that, in order to “make a living,” you need only a thousand true fans.

Applied to community spaces, the same rings true—quality over quantity equals community growth and stability.  That is, “superfan” community members who are invested in you and your organization or product, especially once you hit 1k of them, are far more valuable than those who simply “follow” you, but aren’t fully invested. 

Superfans are dedicated and spread the word. Every day members are… everyday members—potentially convertible and still important, but not exactly where the conversions and ROI occur. And not where you want to focus your community-based marketing efforts.

Think of concentric circles with true fans at the center and a wider circle of regular fans around them. These regular fans may buy your creations occasionally, or may have bought only once. But their ordinary purchases expand your total income. Perhaps they bring in an additional 50%. Still, you want to focus on the super fans because the enthusiasm of true fans can increase the patronage of regular fans. True fans not only are the direct source of your income, but also your chief marketing force for the ordinary fans.

I’m going to repeat that last sentence.

True fans (dedicated community members) not only are the direct source of your income, but also your chief marketing force (community-based marketing!) for the ordinary fans.

So, What is Community-Based Marketing?

With “1,000 true fans” in mind, we can think about community-based marketing as an organic system that exists (and grows) as a result of your community members telling other potential community members about your community/organization. Basically, community-based marketing is a word-of-mouth, customer-to-customer kind of deal. 

When you acknowledge, support, interact and give value for free to your community members, they, in turn, give you their loyalty via engagement and telling other potential members about your online community, including why they should join.    

Intertwined with community-based marketing you’ll also find community-led growth. While these are two distinct terms, one doesn’t really exist without the other (community-based marketing cannot exist without community-led growth). And both have to be in your pocket as you move forward with building your community space.

If nothing else, just remember that both are about connection and interaction as opposed to a transaction. We are, after all, talking about community. Which means we’re dealing with people, not numbers.  

Like AJ Agrawal writes in a 2016 Forbes’ article entitled “Is Community-Based Marketing Trending?”

“The more you empower your customers and make them feel like an integrated part of your… community, the more they will empower the growth of your business through community-based marketing. By keeping current customers pleased, you can spend virtually nothing and get a huge turnout from it.”

Pros & Cons of Community-Based Marketing

Pros of Community-Based Marketing

  1. Reduce Dependency on Paid Advertising – With the abundance of paid social advertising and influencer marketing these days, people are beginning to see through the inauthenticity of both. They want real conversation and connection. Not a semi-veiled sales pitch around every corner. Through community-based marketing, you get to offer your community members the real interactions they want. You get to offer something of value in exchange for their data and dedication. All while greatly reducing your costs for paid advertising.
  2. Better Customer Experience – This one is cyclical, in a good way. Engaged community members can offer insight and collective feedback to your organization, which your organization can then use to create a better and better brand, product, and community experience for all
  3. Give Your Customers a Voice in the Direction of Your Organization + Word-of-Mouth Growth –  When you empower your people, you empower your brand. That is, community-based marketing ensures that you empower your members with the kind of voice that’s moving in the direction of your brand. With this voice, members become “part of the team” and are much more likely to advocate on your behalf and pull in new members. The concept of 1,000 true fans strikes again! 
  4. More Responsiveness + Loyalty – A strong online community consists of interactions among members and community leaders—it’s a space where people come to rely on one another for information, insight, feedback, reviews, and more (including purchasing decisions). And if you’re right there in the mix of conversation and exchange? You can respond to questions, complaints, and suggestions quickly, as well as provide support in a much more timely manner than you would without a community space.
  5. Sell Directly to Community Members (D2C) – Yes, we are slowly but surely (thankfully) saying goodbye to disruptive social advertising. In its place, community-based marketing strategies are opening up the door for you to sell directly to your community members in a way that feels (and most likely is) authentic to them and you.
  6. Humanization for All – When you build a successful online community, it shifts the traditional power dynamic and puts power in the hands of your community members. With this power (and trust of your community), members tend to share their honest opinions (positive or negative), post authentic user generated content (UGC), and create their own unique relationships. The end result? A much more authentic, genuine, useful, and human experience for all.

Drawbacks of Community-Based Marketing

  1. You Need a Unique Skill Set + Distributed Leadership – It may seem like it from the outside, but community-based marketing is no easy task. It takes hard work, a dedicated distributed leadership team, and solid community data (that you put to good use!). As opposed to traditional performance marketing, community-building and community-based marketing is about implementing extreme authenticity across all communication touchpoints. It’s also about constantly fine-tuning your approach based on how your community members respond and the kind of feedback they offer. If you’re ready to put in the work, however, the benefits certainly pay off. 
  1. Long-Term Approach – The community-based marketing strategies used to build a successful online community are all about long-term trajectories. If you’re after immediate results or sales, you’ll want to try a different approach. But if building your community and creating an amazing customer experience are top on your list of priorities, you’ve come to the right place.
  2. High Commitment – Though it requires near-constant attention, community-based marketing yields the goods: speed, personalization, authenticity, and connection. If you’re willing to put in the time to build and support community infrastructure, listen to members, and respond and communicate all the time, then you’ll reap the benefits of community-based marketing.

Benefits of Community Based Marketing—is it Right for You?

In addition to touching on some of the biggest pros to community-based marketing, we also want to highlight the kinds of organizations that are most likely to benefit from online community and CBM strategy. 

For the most part, community-based marketing benefits a variety of brands, organizations, and businesses in a number of ways. To help determine if it makes sense (hint: it most likely does) for your organization to implement CBM, think about the following: if your brand centers itself around the release of new products, updates, offers, and more—and if you value customer experience, crowd-sourced feedback and insight, and making the most of your data—then community-based marketing is going to be hugely beneficial to your growth, retention, and ROI.

If you’re also interested in accomplishing the following (again, you most likely are), CBM strategy is most likely what you’re looking for.

  • Build trust between your organization and its customers/members.
  • Lower the cost of customer acquisition (at a certain point your “superfans” do the work for you).
  • Show existing customers that you are engaged, listening, and genuinely interested in what they have to say.
  • Make the most of your community data.
  • Produce better and better products and services thanks to the collective insight and feedback from your community members.
  • Create an incredible customer experience (for minimal cost) based on genuine customer feedback and engagement.
  • Become one of the go-to thought leaders within your industry.

Community-Based Marketing Strategies, Tools & Methods

When combined with useful community-management tools, the right community-based marketing strategies, tools, and methods can help amplify your efforts. 

Below are some of the CBM strategies and methods we’ve found contribute to the overall success and experience of online communities.

Advocacy & Ambassador Programs – This CBM strategy ties back into one of the three brand-community markers (rituals and traditions) we mentioned earlier. Advocates and ambassadors are what anchor and ground a community. When you create space for members to become advocates and ambassadors, they in turn help drive meaningful conversation, connect new members and make them feel welcome, and spread the good word about your community.

Online Platforms – With a solid online community platform, you and your marketing team can build the kind of community space that makes the most sense for your organization. You can moderate it (without taking over relationships that are already occurring organically within the community itself; remember, community is not an advertising platform, and if you make it such people are certain to jump ship). You can spark conversations, and help shape its direction. And at the end of the day, you’ll own your data. 🎉

Support a Social Cause (AND MEAN IT) – Is there something your organization is passionate about that also happens to align with its values and the values of your audience? If so, great! If not, find something! Then support that cause in meaningful and impactful ways. When you do, people who align with similar causes and values will naturally be drawn to you. You are more than just your product or service, and people want to feel that in tangible, direct, and human ways. Social impact business models are long overdue yet starting to come into vogue (thankfully!). So yes, it’s time to get on board the social impact train. For the sake of community growth and the sake of… everything.

Host Events – Create your own rituals and traditions by hosting regular events, even if only once a year. Through events, you help create shared meaning within a community and something that people both look forward to and talk about all year long. 

Become a Content Queen – It’s all about value for free, baby. When you share useful, relevant, high-quality content (with the goal of educating instead of selling), your community members feel as though they are receiving something of value—which they are. Simultaneously, your valuable content helps position your organization as a thought leader in your industry. Win and win.

A People-First Approach is the Path to Building Great Communities

At the helm of great community-building strategy and community-based marketing is one thing: your people. If you always approach your community-based marketing strategy with a people-first mindset, you’ll set yourself up for success from the start. In other words, your community isn’t about you or your advertising. Your community is a way to genuinely engage with your audience and create space for them to be themselves. It’s about supporting in useful ways while being non-intrusive, transparent, and allowing the real conversations to unfold.

Always remember that through your community, you have the opportunity to build a good reputation and establish your brand as a thought leader. Your community can also help set up your organization for resilient long-term growth

Start with empathy for your community members and continue with empathy for your community members. Create pathways for communication, give value for free, make use of the data you own. Soon enough, you’ll be on your way.

Work with experts who build successful communities

Mobilize is made up of community experts who have launched communities for the likes of Dropbox, United Nations’ SDSN, Dermalogica, and more. We work with you to align your business goals with a tailored community strategy to ensure its success.

Whether you’re just getting started or are looking to improve outcomes with your existing community — we have strategies and industry-tailored programs to help you get things done. Schedule a demo for a personalized walk-through of our technology and learn about our expert-led strategy services.