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We’re now more than halfway through a year none of us will ever forget. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, millions of us have spent months mostly stuck at home, unable to work, shop or travel normally. Away from friends, colleagues, acquaintances and all but immediate family, many of us have turned to the Internet not only for information, shopping and entertainment, but also for social connection.

Meanwhile, trust in institutions, the media and advertising has continued to decline amid social unrest. Protests against racial injustice have spread throughout the U.S. and across the globe and hundreds of companies, including apparel, food and beverage, and consumer packaged goods brands, have pulled back from advertising on Facebook in protest over the platform’s policies regarding harmful content, including hate speech.

For many brands, these factors are prompting either a rewrite of their brand playbook or the addition of a whole new chapter. With traditional retail channels disrupted, brands are realizing that it is now more important than ever to understand who, exactly, their customers are so they can engage them directly online in more personal and authentic ways.

Virtual brand communities — online destinations where a brand’s fans can create and share content with others who share a love of the brand or a common interest — are the perfect solution for companies looking to build close, long-term relationships with their customers.

These communities provide two things consumers are looking for today: social connection and a trusted, safe environment in which to interact with others and the brands they care about. For brands, the communities provide an authentic way to engage with diverse groups of brand fans and ensure they are gathering insights from their entire customer base. By creating trusted, private spaces where small groups of loyal brand fans can gather virtually, brands can drive sales and engagement and gather authentic customer insights that can be used to develop new products and improve existing ones.

Consumers Have Shifted Even Further Online, and Brands Need to Meet Them There

Prior to the pandemic, many consumer brands focused on building brand communities by holding in-person events where fans and potential customers could meet with brand representatives and take part in an activity or experience that wasn’t necessarily directly related to shopping. Ath-leisure brands held in-store yoga classes, for example, while snack and beverage brands co-sponsored interactive play areas at pro sports events.

Now opportunities for brands to interact with their customers in real life have been greatly curtailed due to the coronavirus threat. Stores are limiting the number of shoppers who can be inside at any one time to maintain social distancing, group events of all kinds have been canceled, and major league sports are happening with no spectators in the stands and no pregame activities that bring brands and fans together. Safety concerns mean brands must now look for alternate, virtual avenues for community building.

Human beings crave connection, recognition and validation at all times, though, and they look to be part of social groups that can provide these things, whether in the physical world or the online one. That’s why virtual brand communities are so appealing to consumers right now — the pandemic has kept millions sheltering at home for weeks on end, so people are looking to connect online with others with whom they share values, interests, hobbies, goals or a fondness for a particular brand, product or lifestyle. Brands that had already established thriving online communities before the crisis, and those that moved quickly to create such communities, have benefited as consumers have shifted more of their attention and time toward their screens.

Amber Atherton

Amber Atherton  Rick Heath

Consumers Are Looking for Private, Safe, Online Spaces to Engage with Brands and People They Trust

Consumer trust in institutions, the media and traditional advertising continues to weaken and even though more consumers are looking for connection right now, they are not necessarily open to sharing information, advice or support with just anyone they encounter online — or on just any platform.

Gen Zers and Millennials began moving away from Facebook and toward other social media networks like TikTok some time ago, and brands that have been paying attention are looking to shift their spending to new platforms where they can create safe, private community spaces where their brand fans feel comfortable interacting. Underscoring this trend is the hundreds of companies, including Dunkin’, Hershey’s, Levi’s, Unilever and Vans, that have pulled their advertising from Facebook as a way to encourage the platform to change its policies regarding hate speech and false claims.

Brands should recognize that consumers of all age groups are relying on word-of-mouth recommendations from family, friends and other like-minded people and that private brand communities give them a space to safely share content with those they trust while building connections and friendships. Often, members of a virtual brand community originally connect online because they share a niche interest. A food brand, for example, may see members of its virtual community swapping vegan recipes that their kids love, while a home improvement brand community may host a thriving discussion of eco-friendly renovation products and techniques.

The point is that consumers are seeking private spaces where they can access authentic thought leadership from grassroots activists and self-taught experts rather than looking only to traditional voices of authority. And, if done the right way, a brand community can provide everyday consumers with more than just a way to interact with others and a brand they love; it can also give them a way to affect decision-making at the company. The brand’s fans can use the community to directly provide honest feedback and insights that the brand can use to improve service and even create new products.

Why Virtual Brand Communities Are Especially Relevant for CPG Brands

For CPG brands, creating virtual brand communities is particularly important because these communities can help drive frequent, repeat purchases — the ultimate goal with CPG categories. Online communities of CPG brand fans are often home to activities that attract newcomers to the brand and keep existing members tightly connected to one another. Members of CPG brand communities may regularly share recipes, visual content they have created, or tips and life hacks that somehow relate to the brand or one of its products. The best virtual brand communities are positive, supportive environments and Gen Zers, known as the most open and creative consumer demographic, find them particularly appealing.

Building virtual communities can also help CPG brands generate more stable, predictable return on investment than investing in paid influencers might. With influencers, brands have long seen wildly volatile results. Sometimes a particular post or person generates huge results over a short period, but brands often don’t see any real, long-term increase in traction. The paid influencer model is therefore not sustainable for many brands, especially versus virtual community building, which typically involves no direct payments to community members and much sharing of user-generated content, advice, information and encouragement.

Why Virtual Brand Communities Are So Powerful

For consumers, virtual brand communities can fulfill a need that is much deeper than just diversion or entertainment or self-expression. The best online communities meet their members’ needs for social connection, support and even friendship, which is especially important at a time when socializing in the real world has been limited by necessity. Brands can help fill these needs by creating thriving virtual communities that function as a vehicle to drive loyalty, repeat purchases and feedback. The key is to provide a safe, private environment where brand fans can interact with the brand and other people they trust.

Amber Atherton is founder and ceo of Zyper, a marketing platform that connects brands with their superfans to drive engagement, insights and sales.

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