/ Community Member

“In times of crisis, an online Community can be more than a collective of your customers; it can be a lifeline for your business.” – Robbie Hearn

Fact:  The average South African spends around two hours and fifty-four minutes a day on their social media platforms.

How many times a day do you check updates on your social media platforms? How often have you asked a family member or friend for advice when making a purchase decision? Research shows that 90% of customers trust a referral from their personal network, with 81% of those referrals taking place online. With the vast amount of online interactions occurring daily, companies are realising that customers express their opinions and views online and have tremendous ability to transform and influence the opinions of others. Their online power and reach are immense and have significant implications for brands and marketing communications.

What is an online Community?

A community is a group of interconnected people that communicate and relate to one another. We are all surrounded by some form of community. Whether it is a group of runners participating in a marathon or co-workers working side by side - communities exist everywhere! Communities can take many forms and while they may look a little different online, in essence it is the same concept.  An online community gives consumers a safe and reliable platform to interact with like-minded people. Here members can engage with one another, share ideas or experiences and complete online research activities in their own time and at their convenience. For brands, an online community is an effective tool that provides the ‘Voice of the Customer’ (VoC) and continuous listening, not only with existing customers but also with potential new customers.

Changes in the research landscape call for digital platforms

It took 38 years for radio to attract 50 million listeners and 13 years for television to gain the attention of 50 million viewers. The Internet took only four years to attract 50 million participants.  Social media has become a global phenomenon of web-based applications where users create their own content, build communities and share information.

With this rapid rise in digitisation and online communication, communities have become an integral part of the research, marketing and communication strategies that companies employ. Community platforms enable customer engagement and have changed the way marketing initiatives are approached due to the interactivity it allows. The influence of online engagement on consumers has also increased, with 74% of consumers stating that their decisions are influenced by the opinions of others on online platforms. The origins of “influence” and ‘influencers’ places emphasis on the fact that influence stems from genuine engagement which has proved to lead to an increased likelihood to purchase.

The reality is that with the stringent implications of the updated POPIA (Protection Of Personal Information Act), there is growing interest in exploring alternative methods to understanding online behaviour in a manner that is user-prompted, allowing users to share their views in an authentic and convenient manner.

Today’s customer is more mobile, content-seeking, impatient and independent than at any other time in history which means, in today’s business environment, companies have to be agile to survive and thrive. Customers want the opportunity to be a valued part of the business.

To be a frontrunner, businesses need to continuously engage with their stakeholders or risk missing out on invaluable insights. Only once the ‘Voice of the Customer’ (VoC) is allowed into the decision-making process, can companies consider themselves to be truly customer-centric. Community members have proven to provide organisations with richer, honest and more complete information.

Where communities fill the gap?

Brands are faced with the challenge of competing for limited consumer attention, which has led to the increase in the use of influencer marketing. In essence, this is a form of marketing where emphasis is no longer placed on a target market as a whole, but rather on the influence of specific individuals. This rise in social media and online platform usage has given consumers a voice, and brands have realised that they no longer have full control of the message that is shared. Instead, consumers share virtual word-of-mouth which is at the core of influencer marketing. Influencer marketing proves to be a crucial feature in the marketing process, as consumers use the advice of others to make purchase decisions, especially when the purchase holds financial or psychological risk.

Influencer marketing, implemented correctly, uses the two-way communication opportunity that social media poses alongside a guided strategy to align authentic conversation with the marketing message that the brand would like to have communicated. Influencer Marketing has evolved from the previous celebrity endorsement to a more credible type of influencer. Influence, at its core, consists of the logic and reasoning in the message, the character, credibility and trustworthiness and an emotional dimension, as suggested by Aristotle. This welcomed the rise of three types of influencers beyond the celebrity influencer. These include influencers, micro-influencers and brand influencers.

Micro-influencers are ordinary people with a small following who have expert knowledge on certain subjects. Their knowledge is what attracts a niche market, despite having a modest follower base. Customers who choose to be part of an online community or group will also fall into this category. Brand influencers are ordinary people who are active on social media communities of brands and mostly without intent, drive the conversation. Their inert passion for the topic or brand attracts attention from others and based on their discussions or activity their influence expands.

The influencer takes the form of a friend connecting target individuals to a brand and this influencer not only brings their own followers,but the followers’ network too. Creating trust with consumers is best done by aligning the consumer with someone they can relate to or already trust. In a South African context, there is a lack of media diversity, thus creating an increased demand for quality content on the available media platforms. Brands tend to tap into a limited pool of influencers, which decreases the authentic conversations between brands and consumers.

Why do you need a Community?

Having an online community can be beneficial in many ways. It is proven to provide rich insights into customer preferences and needs, increased customer loyalty and retention and enable a collaborative way of interacting with stakeholders. Some of the greatest benefits also include:

·       Quick, cost effective data collection

Multiple studies have shown that communities are far more useful for data collection than panels. The intrinsic motivation and brand dedication of community members have proven to provide organisations with richer, more honest and complete information.

Besides being price competitive in comparison to panels that solely rely on incentives, we found that members of a community are more outspoken, more engaged and take more time to provide meaningful solutions.

·       Enables business to be agile

In today’s business environment, communities can be relevant for business by allowing them to be more agile. If customer experience (CX) is done in a fashion where a continuous conversation with stakeholders happens,  allowing the ‘Voice of the Customer’ into the decision-making process, then companies can truly be a change agent.

·       Authentic conversations and social collaboration:

“You don’t know what you don’t know”. This might sound obvious but often companies believe that doing quantitative research will give them all the answers. But what about the questions you are not asking?  By providing customers with a safe, respected meeting place, they will become your problem solvers and trusted advisors.

It is also no secret that consumers have become keener to advocate brands that make them feel involved and in a one-to-one relationship.

The appetite for meaningful social bonds among brands and their online audiences is bigger than just what happens between people. Brands are part of the solution in providing internet users with the authentic relationships they increasingly desire.

Consumers want brands that behave humanly and have a higher purpose

We often hear clients say “I want to measure my customers. This should be translated to: “I want to interact with people and find out how they experience our offering / brand “. Remember that customers are people. Consider the things that attract you to a community or group of people in the real world: Common / shared interests, values that reflect your beliefs and morals, honest people that are who they seem to be, people who enjoy the same things in life as you, share your lifestyle or have shared life-experiences with you and people who care about you. Customers are no different.  They associate with brands that are a natural extension of who they are or who they are trying to become.

How communities will change the face of CX?

With the automation of systems and the use of artificial intelligence to learn from big data, communities enable companies to better understand and align those customers with the highest engagement value to the topics that the brand aims to communicate. This creates the desired link between brand research and the ‘Voice of the customer’ (VoC), to develop an integrated marketing strategy that is truly customer-centric.

Brands should place more emphasis on creating genuine conversation, building trust and creating emotional ties with customers based on the authentic topics of discussion, which can be aligned with the brand strategy topics. This brings the marketing message back to customers’ own realities and the real conversations they create, instead of an idealistic marketing approach, wherein the voice of the customer does not exist.

South African companies now more than ever have a means to align their online messaging with the ‘Voice of the customer’ (VoC) in all regards, to ensure higher levels of engagement by tapping in to those customers already engaging in authentic conversation around their brand, looking to co-create their ideal brand experience.