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Why Marketing Post-Covid Will Be About Community and Connections
Why Marketing Post-Covid Will Be About Community and Connections

In the post-Covid-19 economy, our businesses will become increasingly dependent on our digital connections with our customers and community. The longer you have been working in marketing, the more counterintuitive this brave new world will be.   From direct mail to email to television and display advertising, traditional marketing weapons are becoming increasingly ineffective. The online search drives nearly everything these days. It is time for a new approach. Today's marketing must leverage technology's power and integrate the community's human appeal.

Here are some examples driving this trend: 

  • Online Meeting Platforms, Zoom, and Teams wake up to find their online meeting platforms' businesses are exploding. Everything from bible study to classrooms to business meetings has gone online.
  • The online streaming service, Hulu, offers a "Watch Party" service that permits subscribers to watch movies and shows together, using Hulu to connect online and jointly watch synchronized content from different locations.
  • Facebook's portal system allows users, families, and friends to make smart video calls from a device in their living rooms.
  • Amazon Prime turns 150 million Prime members into a streaming, online books, audiobooks, and entertainment distribution channel.
  • Girl Scouts are leveraging geo-lookup technology and have partnered with Grub Hub to make cookies more available. You can even arrange contact-free delivery in many locations across the US.
  • Ministry Brands, a software company for nonprofits, helps churches around the United States manage everything from online Church service video streaming to online offering collections and background checks online. Business is brisk.

What's going on here? 

The answer is one part Pandemic, two parts software development.   Nir Eyal can help us understand how and why this happens from the software perspective. Eyal is Stanford MBA and behavioral scientist who wrote a book called, Hooked. The book has taken the software development world by storm. Eyal started creating online games and learned how to make communities of gamers who couldn't stop playing his company's games.   In his book, Eyal builds on the gaming software paradigm to show how to build habit-forming products of all kinds.   His formula for success involves a four-step process of creating a trigger (say, an email from Facebook saying one of your friends posted on Facebook), action (posting a comment), variable reward (likes for your comment), and investment (making some posts of your own gradually over time.)  Community, it turns out, is addictive. By isolating us, the Pandemic has added fuel to the fire.

The Big Changes Afoot in Marketing

"Two-thirds of marketing is taking place without us [the marketers]" intones East-Tennessee-based Mark Shafer, online marketing guru and author of Marketing Rebellion, "...Our hyper-empowered, tech-enabled customers have moved to a different place." In a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, When Community Becomes Your Competitive Advantage, HBR's Jeffrey Bussgang and Jono Bacon take the idea one step further: "If a company can transition from simply delivering a product to building a community, they can unlock extraordinary competitive advantages and create a superior business model." Among Mark Shafer's solutions is User Generated Content (UGC). Shafer suggests leveraging UGC content, much as a surfer might ride a wave (rather than be hit by it.) HBR authors Bussgang and Bacon believe businesses need to create an environment that "incentivizes the behavior [the business wants] to see, exposes the value generated, and highlights and rewards great participation." 

There are social, business, and technological underpinnings to these trends.  

  1. Social - We crave connections of all kinds. The past year of Covid-19 isolation has been a lonely one for most of us. The big winners of the Pandemic have been pound dogs, suburban real estate agents, and, well, online communities. To give some dimensions to this trend, Facebook has reported 1.8 Billion people to use Groups to join communities of different kinds on Facebook. As Eyal's model prescribes, we are rewarded with likes from like-minded individuals when we contribute views and content to Facebook Groups. Affinity is revenue in many fields, such as journalism, entertainment, and product promotion. Tweets, clicks, and likes drive this.
  2. Business - Social Proof Drives Conversion and Lowers Acquisition Cost. Positive comments from third parties about you, your company, or your product provide social proof. Social proof is valuable. While it may not necessarily be from a friend or family member, social proof offers an endorsement that says this product or service is trustworthy. Think about the last time you went somewhere new.   Did you ask someone where the best place to eat or shop was? Did you take them up on their recommendation? This is how social proof works. From Amazon's "People who shopped for this, also bought" to Shopify add-ons to Google My Business page customers reviews, software tools for providing social proof abound. We trust, therefore we convert.   
  3. Technology - User-Generated Content Improves Search Rankings. There are several reasons User Generated Content makes it easier for search engines to find you:
  • Constantly Updated Content. Harnessing the power of customer comments means your customers are doing the content development for you 24/7. This keeps you on your toes as to both trends and problems. Google treats user-generated content of a site as your content but gives you tools to manage it as well. See a recent video on how Google Search handles UGC here.
  • Keywords Oh My! When customers write about your product in their own words, they increase your site's amount of content. The users' vocabulary is not yours, so the content they create provides large numbers of so-called long-tail (less-frequently used) keywords to your site. Think of it as casting an ever-broader SEO net for your content.           
  • Links Galore.   Users pepper their content with links to content on your site, links to other sites, and social media connections. These links improve SEO. The more high-authority websites link to your site, the higher your page ranking becomes.
  • More Trust. Research has shown that consumers trust other users much more than brands.    Google and other search engines trust user-generated content as much as they do yours because users speak the truth about their interactions with your brand.


Start with Google My Business and Facebook

So, how should your business leverage this trend? We recommend our clients start with baby steps. Since Google owns the ranch in search, we recommend spending the small amount of time it takes to have a robust Google My Business (GMB) page. GMB pages are free to set up, and your GMB page is what people are searching for your business usually see first.   Ensure every satisfied customer writes a review by following up with them post-purchase with a link to your GMB reviews page. Integrate hours information and appointment setting capabilities, and if you have multiple offices, make sure all of them appear in the GMB locations. Add answers to frequently asked questions and take the time to tell Google detailed information about your products and services. GMB's capabilities are growing almost daily, so stay abreast of changes and update GMB once a quarter. Facebook small business pages offer a similar suite of capabilities to GMB and should be managed and updated similarly. 

Building A Product Reviews Capability

For larger organizations with larger budgets, consider adding user-generated content to any products you sell online. Ensure that you find ways to provide social proof to your product profiles.   Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings in this category is growing quickly. Larger, more established providers include Bazaarvoice and Trustpilot, among many others. Even Shopify offers a product reviews app.

B2B Solutions

For companies operating in the B2B space, the advisory council is a valuable way of creating community. As the Pandemic allows, select a group of your best customers and invite them to join you are a resort somewhere pleasant.    Pay for their hotel and meals for a few days in exchange for their input in round table discussions. If this is not possible, a zoom meeting or two rewarded by some gifts can work. For example, ten years ago, one vendor gave me a Gortex golf suit which I still have today!   Use these customer councils to test your hypotheses about new products and enlist their help defining new ones.   Prioritize opportunities to improve margins, create a competitive advantage, and enhance the customer experience.   Make sure to take action on their gripes so that they know you value their insights.

Community Building

Digital or not, our community is where we find it. Here are some examples from my community. My friend who owns a fence contracting business gets referrals from the neighborhood Facebook page. Another friend, who owns smoothie franchises, donates smooth drinks at local golf fundraisers and hands out free drink cards to student-athletes to build customer-trial. A local orthopedic clinic provides its staff to work the sidelines of local football games and prioritizes scheduling injured athletes. A local restaurant hosts post-game drinks and snacks for a local high school football team's parents and coaches. Another company I know monitors post office address changes and offers welcome wagon security upgrades to new arrivals. Our church's services and giving are online now.   

The possibilities are endless! Make them digital and see them scale!

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