The Ad is Dead; Long Live the Community
In a very tactics-obsessed industry and environment, Alex advocates for a strategic approach to longer-term success that, in all likelihood, will take time to develop; however, when presented against the backdrop of the unsustainability of digital advertising, it seems a prudent, logical course of action.
The last Communitech Marketing P2P of the year took a Lightning Talk format that featured two guest presenters: Alex McEachern (from Smile.io), and Tina Nguyen (from Nicoya Lifesciences).
This post is about Alex’s presentation: Advertising is Out – Brand Communities are In; you can read about Tina’s session in Growth Marketing in a Technical Market.
Smile.io describes itself as “The World’s Largest Reward Program Provider”. The company believes that the future of commerce is rooted in emotional relationships, and is working to help every business build a strong brand community that promotes sustainable growth.
Alex is the Head of Marketing, and has been with the company for a little over four years. In that time, Smile.io has grown significantly.
How Are You Going to Grow?
“As advertising saturates our world, the value of each individual ad falls. This is because the total amount of money we have to spend doesn’t change.” – Bruce Schneier
Alex began by asking the audience (of marketers) to consider how we will help our companies grow. What he hears a lot is that if you want to grow, then you need to put some ads out there.
But would those tactics work on us? Alex believes that advertising is not a sustainable grow tactic, and he cited three supporting points:
- Buying behaviours are shifting
- Ads are expensive (and getting more expensive)
- Ads are ineffective
First, people often like to buy things, but hate to be sold to. Buying behavior, in both B2B and B2C, has shifted significantly as more information has become available to us as buyers. Consider the last few purchases you made, large and small – you probably used a few different approaches to gather information before making your decision: some online research, including product details, reviews, and demo or usage videos, speaking with family and friends, etc.
Second, the cost of ads is increasing at a rate of 5x that of inflation, while the effectiveness is declining. Those trends suggest that even if ads work for you now, it won’t be long until they don’t.
Third, a quick poll of the room showed that most of the audience uses ad blockers. And we aren’t alone – the people we’re trying to reach also rely on technology to keep out unwanted ads.
I can’t help but think of this quote from Data and Goliath: “As advertising saturates our world, the value of each individual ad falls. This is because the total amount of money we have to spend doesn’t change.”
The Ad is Dead. Long Live the Community!
Brand Community: a collection of people who are invested in more than just the sale/transaction of a business.
So what do we do?
In Alex’s view, we need to focus on customers, not sales, and one way we can do that is by building a brand community.
He advocates for a shift in thinking away from the very transactional question of, “How do we generate a sale?” to the more relationship-driven question, “How do we create a customer – for life?”
But hey, what exactly is a brand community? Alex describes this group as, “a collection of people who are invested in more than just the sale/transaction of a business.”
Building a brand community delivers significant benefits for your company, including higher retention, better conversions, and more shares (so, wider distribution that creates more awareness and demand).
But building a community isn’t easy, and it can take a long time.
For those considering this route, Alex listed three keys to keep in mind:
- Value Add Marketing: for instance, content marketing, organic social, strong customer support, groups and forums, events, brand rallying points, etc.
- Empathy and Relationships: he stresses that you really, truly need to understand why your community members are buying what they’re buying (so, less “I want a new lipstick”, and more “I want to transform, and lipstick helps me do that”)
- Switching Barriers: he stressed that he doesn’t mean a cost that’s imposed upon someone if they choose to switch (e.g., like a contract break fee), but something you put in place that a customer would have to forego if they switched; so it could be your unique and valuable content, or amazing customer support, or access to likeminded peers…
Remember BEDMAS? Order of Operations Matters.
Take care to attract real brand advocates, and to provide them with value as part of the community.
Alex listed a virtuous cycle of activities – join, engage, and share – that manifests in brand communities: members join, then they engage, and they choose to share; by sharing, they amplify your reach and attract new members who join, engage, and share…and so on.
But he warned that one common mistake he sees is companies try to get people to share before they’ve really joined and truly engaged. This inauthentic approach isn’t sustainable, and it tends to attract transactional discount-seekers; that might work, tactically, for a while, but it’s not sustainable over the long term.
Instead, take care to attract real brand advocates, and to provide them with value as part of the community. In turn, they’ll bring in other high-value customers, and you’ll build a strong base of loyal, long-term customers and authentic brand advocates.
A Little “Q”, a Little “A”
Alex had really struck a chord with his session, and we had time for a few questions from the audience…
Q: If you’re in a company that wants results now, how do you pursue this approach?
For practical advice, he suggests proposing community-building as a way to augment the existing tactics.
For a dose of reality, Alex commented that it took Smile.io about eight months to really see results from their focus on community-building.
That’s an eternity in today’s short-term, tactics-obsessed world.
Alex acknowledged that, like many long-term strategies and investments, it can be tough to convince a short-term focused organization that the approach is worthwhile. For practical advice, he suggests examining the real-world performance of your paid advertising efforts to identify challenges, making people aware of the negative long-term trends/outlook in digital advertising, and proposing community-building as a way to augment the existing tactics.
Q: What are your thoughts about using paid content?
Smile.io doesn’t do any paid advertising – everything is achieved through useful content.
Alex explained that, “I’m a bit of a purist, so I’m kind’ve against it.”
(I really think I’d get along well with him)
He also stated that Smile.io doesn’t do any paid advertising – everything is achieved through useful content (music to my ears!).
But he suggests that, if you are going to use advertising, then it should always be in a value-add way. So, for instance, using ads to get more people your useful content, and ensuring your content is genuinely about education (or some other value) rather than transactional self-promotion.
Q: To build this community, you need to get people’s attention…if you’re new, or on the second or third page of Google, how do you get exposure?
Alex suggests that, if you are going to use ads, then using them to push people into the community is one way; if not, then pursue real connections…but it could take a long time.
Alex used the metaphor of farming: you’re planting seeds, then you’re taking care of saplings, then there’s slow growth, and then things mature and you’ve got more seeds to plant.
There was a comment from the crowd about the utility of partnering, and of amplifying exposure by publishing through other locations. Alex wholeheartedly agreed, and explained that Smile.io looks for other blogs and communities where they can contribute as a way to extend their reach.
Alex’s session was a breath of fresh air for me: in a very tactics-obsessed industry and environment, he’s advocating for a strategic approach to longer-term success that, in all likelihood, will take time to develop; however, when presented against the backdrop of the unsustainability of digital advertising, it seems a prudent, logical course of action.
I applaud Smile.io for adopting a strategic approach, and I hope to hear more from them in the future.
Would You Like to Learn More?
If you’re interested in learning more about how to build a brand community, then check out Alex’s class over on Skillshare.
Header/Featured image: Skillshare