In 18th-century England, people gathered in coffeehouses to drink coffee and tea, learn the news of the day and meet with their peers to discuss the rapidly evolving future. For Gen Zers, well-curated TikTok comment sections and moderated Reddit or Discord forums are the modern outlets for forward-thinking discussion. Today, marketers focus their media budgets on the expensive influencers of TikTok or Instagram. Instead, brands should be investing in, curating or growing their own online communities to align with tomorrow’s cultural leaders. There is an interesting opportunity for brands looking to invest their media budgets in communities.
Declining Trust of Influencers
The decline in trust of social media and influencers from consumers has meant that there is a heightened need for brands to humanize, as young consumers crave more meaningful interactions. Trusted online communities have become synonymous with authenticity and some of the most genuine interactions on the internet. Post-Fyre festival, it’s never been so important for brands to recognize the shortcomings of influencers and those consumers who do not buy in.
Brands that understand this mindset and can successfully tap into these spaces will likely drive product purchases, forge long-term relationships with consumers and get them to invest in the success of their brands. Consumers looked to online communities for guidance during the pandemic, and this trend presents opportunities for brands to join the conversation authentically. The full potential of online communities has yet to be realized. Post-Facebook, we’re only just uncovering the collective impact these audiences are having on translating the cultural zeitgeist into real currency.
What I have learned during my time building online communities is that to successfully communicate with Gen Z, your brand must learn to live in its online communities. Not only are barriers to entry low, but there is evidence to suggest “that Gen Z feel more confident online when using community focused social apps like Discord or Twitch over feed apps like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.” Furthermore, “41% of the data and privacy-minded generation think of closed community platforms as private spaces.”
Gen Z Identity Is Formed in Online Communities
Building community is linked with identity. For example, music production software Ableton recently announced a series of free production masterclasses in partnership with Black Artist Database (BAD). The community group started as a Google Sheet named “Black Bandcamp” and blossomed into an online platform. Ableton offered resources and creative control to BAD’s founder Niks Delanancy, and in turn, embraced a socio-cultural movement as well as winning trust from future consumer markets.
Through spotting burgeoning online communities, brands can engage and communicate authenticity with young audiences. As marketers, instead of preaching, how do we engage in meaningful discussions with Gen Z?
First, we must set out to understand them. Their identity is fragmented and never has a generation claimed its identity from such a broad palette of influences. These fragments can be seen across different cultural subreddits, hashtags, TikTok trends or the newest Discord servers. To understand their mindset, influences, aspirations, emotional drivers and habits, marketers must learn to enter their version of the coffee shop: their online communities.
How to Build a Community Marketing Strategy
Before heading into this space, there are a few things that brand managers should be aware of before crafting their creative strategy. When approaching community marketing, for brands looking to forge relationships with Gen Z, there is generally a four-step blueprint I’d recommend:
1. Do your research. Marketers who fail to research relevant communities fail to invest in their own futures. Do any necessary market research. Then gain a detailed, nuanced understanding of the community you are about to enter. These online communities are cultural insight hubs.
2. Co-sign the campaign with the community. Ensure that the community’s most engaged members are willing to co-sign the campaign as they will be the ones stamping it as credible.
3. Be allies, not sponsors. Ensure your brand is a long-term partner and is not just a flash-in-the-pan sponsor.
4. Iterate, listen to your socials and move with the culture. Social listening and engagement are key for brands that want to take user feedback on board and show that they are listening by making a unique contribution in response.
Influencer marketing is slowly declining in trust, and Gen Z is looking at comment sections and forums for privacy and trusted advice from their peers when making purchasing decisions. Perhaps plenty of brands aren’t acknowledging Gen Z online communities because they simply don’t know where to look. If they can follow the above blueprint, brands could achieve more cultural relevance, transparency, authenticity and consumer buy-in.
With all the furor of a horizontal, decentralized Web3 coming our way, we are failing to recognize the opportunities in front of us to invest and platform the online communities already out there being led by Gen Z. Influencer marketing is dead; long live the “commun-economy.”