Last updated:

When cosmetic company Sephora sought to generate brand buzz, they didn’t just launch a new product or ad — they created Beauty Talk, a vibrant online community. Today, this dynamic digital forum is a hub for Sephora fans, who share beauty tips and seek advice from brand experts. At any given time, there are at least 70,000 members logged in and engaged.

Community is essential to the way people live — and that applies to the digital world, too. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the meaning of community shifted as lockdowns and social distancing became the norm. Suddenly, online communities are a center of daily life.

Online communities connect people, but they also connect brands to customers. Learn why community is vital to digital marketing and how brands can build real connections in the digital world.

For more on the importance of community marketing:

Community Marketing: Why Building a Community Around a Brand Fuels Growth

Online Communities Welcome Brand Interactions

First, it’s important to understand the difference between social media platforms and online communities. Spoiler alert: it’s probably not what you think.

Social media can be viewed as overly individualistic, where toxic behavior is rife. 45% of users say they’re frustrated with bullying and offensive language on social media, according to “The Era of We,” a joint report by Global Web Index and Reddit. In contrast, online communities are more controlled and better moderated, in which members bond over a shared interest or goal. 

Although they may have thousands of members, online communities allow for authentic self-expression and a feeling of belonging. Connecting with others who have similar interests is cited by 66% of survey respondents as the main reason people love online communities.

Here’s where it gets interesting: In this supportive and meaningful environment, online communities welcome brands. In fact, more than three-quarters of users say they’re open to brands participating in forums and communities — but on one condition: brands must offer an authentic persona that adds value and contributes to the community.

Key takeaway: Brands should create or participate in community forums outside the walls of social media networks. Audiences in online communities are focused, authentic, and receptive to genuine interactions with brands. 

Consumers Go Far Beyond Networking on Social Media Platforms

Each day, social media users spend an average of two hours and 24 minutes on eight different social media platforms and chat apps. Rather than focusing on one or two platforms, people are now “multi-networking,” according to Smart Insights’ Global Social Media Research 2020 report. 

The current social media landscape looks completely different than 10 years ago. Snapchat and WhatsApp didn’t exist, and TikTok, the fastest growing platform, has only been around since 2018. With so many platforms to choose from, social media users jump between several of them in a matter of minutes. Now, however, the next social media frontier is shopping.

Researching products and services has always been a popular activity on social media, but in this latest report, 13% of respondents say that having a buy button would increase their chance of purchasing. Several platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, already support shopping features. As social shopping grows in popularity, expect more to come.

Key takeaway: Brands should invest marketing efforts across a range of social sites to leverage the new multi-networking consumer behavior. As demand for social media shopping grows, brands should be on the lookout to integrate this feature into their customer journeys.

For additional reading around social media trends:

4 Social Media Trends to Keep an Eye On

Digital Communities Gather Around All Industries and Topics

There’s no industry untouched by the surge of social media and online communities. Social media marketing has become a key pillar in brand strategy and business. So keeping up with industry benchmarks in social media performance is critical to optimizing strategies and getting the most from campaigns. 

Instagram is a favorite social site for brands and businesses, according to the Social Media Benchmarks Report 2020 by Digital Marketing Communities, as it offers the ideal visual format to connect and engage with customers. Rather than simply promoting ads, Instagram is a platform for engaging images and authentic posts that reflect a brand’s culture, character, and values, not just its products.  

The report finds that the average engagement rate for Instagram posts across all industries is 1.22%. However, there is indeed a standout winner — the Higher Education vertical has the highest engagement rates, at 3.57%, with sports teams coming in second at 2.33%. 

Posting frequency is down this year, not just on Instagram but Facebook and Twitter too. Brands are clearly looking to post less yet with greater effect, supporting engagement that leads to interactions and conversions.

What are the most effective tactics to create brand engagement on social media? Giveaways top the list, while another strong performer is the carousel ad format, which achieves higher engagement on Instagram across all industries.

Key takeaway: Brands should focus on social media platforms that perform best in their industry while utilizing the most popular tactics for each specific one. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ad formats, such as carousel, to boost engagement. 

Online Communities Are a Consumer Data Goldmine

Data drives digital marketing performance, which applies to online communities and social media. That’s why tracking and analyzing this data is vital to understand what is on customers’ minds right now and address their needs in the most effective and timely way.

In 2020, there are several key community metrics to focus on, according to CMXHub, starting with traffic data, such as Facebook Insights and Twitter Analytics, which show how many users view posts and when. Although traffic doesn’t necessarily lead to engagement, it’s still useful to understand potential engagement. Comparing potential engagement (traffic) to the number of actual engagements will demonstrate whether the post is effective or needs improvement.

The next stage is tracking actual contributions, whether comments, forum posts, reactions, chat messages, or private messages. These all indicate the quantity and level of interactions that customers are having with the brand.

Finally, a key community metric is “unique products of your community.” This is any kind of activity or action generated by a community member. For example, a gaming platform posts a challenge for a new feature to be released. Tracking those users who complete the challenge pinpoints a highly engaged audience that is ripe for retargeting. 

Key takeaway: Tracking community metrics doesn’t have to be complicated, but it’s absolutely essential to understanding the behavior and interests of community members. Focus on metrics that drill down to the various levels of engagement, so it’s easier to identify high potential customers. 

For more on the importance of data-driven marketing: 

Data-Driven Marketing: Why It Matters for Your Business

Online Communities Are a World of Opportunity

People love to interact with brands in online communities, even more than on social media. As social platforms rise and fall, consumers are multi-networking, giving brands many more channels to connect with customers. With proper tracking of community data and industry benchmarks, online communities can be key drivers of brand buzz.

No community is static. They’re always changing in response to outside forces and the contribution of individual members. In the digital world, change happens even faster, unencumbered by physical limits to communication. Brands must adapt too, with powerful strategies to build online communities that will captivate their customers.

For a list of amazing small businesses to support, check out our D2C Shopping List!

Stephanie Abe
Author

Steph is the Community Marketing Manager at AdRoll. A relationship-builder, she’s behind the Growth Guerilla Collective (GGC); the community for D2C marketers. Before AdRoll, Steph ran Customer Marketing at a B2B SaaS company in San Francisco. She is passionate about customer-centric marketing.