Community Marketing & The Culting of Brands

I’m big on community. It’s the common thread connecting all my work. It started with gaming forums in high school; then tech meetups in college; and then conferences (WordCamps) after moving to Toronto.

When I joined GoDaddy in 2015, it was to serve as the Community Manager for GoDaddy Pro. This was the first time I’d thought of “community” at a professional level. All my community work had, up to that point, been volunteer-based.

I’ve since moved on from that Community Manager role. The last couple of years have focused on content projects like the GoDaddy Blog. But my “community itch” hasn’t gone away.

I’m still a believer in the power of community marketing, as much as I’m a believer in the power of content marketing.

Content and community go hand-in-hand.

As marketers, we have the opportunity to serve communities through our content. We tell stories that inspire. Share resources that guide. Host events that unite. And, yes, sell products and services that make things better for our customers.

Over time, by serving communities through our content, we shift our companies – our brands. We move from passive observers into active participants and leaders in the community.

Consumer brands are champions at this. Top of mind: Red Bull and extreme sports. Nike and running. Under Armour and personal fitness.

These brands aren’t only serving communities by selling products to them. They’re also investing in experiences and free tools that bring people together: Red Bull Crashed Ice; Nike Run Clubs; Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal.

It’s not limited to consumer brands, either. On the B2B side, look at Adobe and creatives (Behance, 99U). Or Microsoft and developers (Github, Visual Studio Code). Or Drift and marketers (Hypergrowth).

The Culting of Brands is an older book with some dated examples – sorry, Saturn! — but it’s the best thing I’ve read (so far) that echoes my ideas of what community marketing could be. The premise of the book looks at what lessons we can learn from cult brands like Harley Davidson.

The following is a compilation of my notes from the book, reworked into a simple five-step plan:

  1. Have a clear vision
  2. Find your first members
  3. Create opportunities for interaction
  4. Sustain the activity
  5. Turn members into leaders

Let’s dig in.

1. Have a clear vision

“We have to accept that we’re providing venues for making meaning, and that we must therefore devise belief systems, worldviews, and ideologies to enable that fundamental process.”

In other words: define the thing(s) you stand for.

The power of a cause is to unify and galvanize members to action behind a common goal. It’s an internal motivating force. What are you rallying people around?

There are a few options for this: You can “paint an aspirational picture” for how the world should or could be, and how to get there. Or you can build on an existing movement. You can be for something, or you can be against something.

Regardless of the approach, your brand needs to embrace it. “Your brand should become a public symbol for the meaning of this group.” The group – the movement – should feel that you stand for them.

Action item: Create a group charter. “These are the things we believe.”

2. Find your first members

Your first few members set the tone for the group. You want members who share your vision and believe in it. Members who, as the group grows, will act as leaders for new members.

The majority of people have a reluctance to join something that’s too deviant from the norm. To find members, you’ll need to straddle a line between the familiar and the new.

You can use relationships to present a familiar face to an unfamiliar idea. It can be literally familiar (friends, family) or figuratively familiar (“people like me”). You can tap into this by building familiarity with potential members. Show up wherever they’re already spending their time.

Bringing people in requires an up-front investment on your part. Joining needs to provide a value that hits on the needs of potential members. What’s the hook? What can you offer?

After members have joined, you need to check in on how they’re doing. This process of frequent engagement builds a stronger connection. Develop a program around it, a defined process that you can share and replicate. You’ll need others to follow the process as the membership grows.

Action item: Join existing communities. Look for groups that have the types of members you’d like to recruit. Participate. Build the familiarity. Then invite people to join you.

+ Keep track of your members with a CRM.

3. Create opportunities for interaction

“Create places where people can socialize and mix.” That includes interaction between existing members and potential members. It could be occasional, like a monthly or yearly event. Or it could be perpetual, like an online group.

“Strong bonds develop as intimacy between members grows.” That intimacy is what keeps people invested. Mutualism the glue of the community. It binds members together through common interest rooted in a shared sense of obligation.

The mutual responsibility is an outcome, an indicator of cohesiveness. “The stronger the programs, the more likely you’ll see a sense of mutuality.” Members need to have a stake in the group, a sense of ownership.

Action item: Bring people together. Host in-person events. Bolster with a persistent backchannel for communication. Record these events for posterity, and to entice potential members to join.

4. Sustain the activity

Neglecting the group (not investing time, attention, or resources) is a surefire way to make everything backfire.

“The opportunity cost of belonging is high.” There must be a corresponding level of investment from the group leaders, i.e. the brand.

That means being present. That means showing a genuine commitment to the cause and to the group members. That means rewarding members for staying involved.

Routine activities that prompt interaction will build a sense of belonging over time. Think repeated exposure and shared experiences.

Action item: Set up a calendar of recurring events to bring people together again and again. Start small. Don’t overwhelm. Scale up as the membership grows. Keep recording and sharing for posterity and recruitment.

5. Turn members into leaders

“Command-Control is not a sustainable model for brands. Ownership must be shared with the membership for the cult to thrive.”

A feeling of ownership will lead to feelings of loyalty to the community. The brand (manager) is less of a commander and more of a supporter/nurturer of the community members.

Empower your best members. Give them the tools they need to help lead the group. Help them grow the community by recruiting new members.

Action item: Compile resources for other group leaders to replicate your process.

Community Marketing is real.

The Culting of Brands is a good primer for thinking about community marketing. It gets us shifting our thinking from “the audiences we want to target” to “the communities we want to serve”.

In a nutshell: Find the communities that make sense for you, and start participating. If the community you want to serve hasn’t coalesced yet, be the one who brings them together.

I hope the five steps above will help you get there.

+ I’m going to be thinking a lot more about community marketing this year, which means I’ll be writing about it a lot more, too. Have any thoughts you’d like to share? Drop a comment below, shoot me an email, or hit me up on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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Image credit: Photo by Rob Curran on Unsplash

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