Why are communities the future of marketing?

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Mark Schaefer, author of Belonging to the Brand: Why Community is the Last Great Marketing Strategy, has a lot of ways to answer that question, and he goes into many of them in Marketing Smarts Episode 534.

He makes the case that communities and customer enthusiasm last in a way marketing campaigns don't: "Most marketing as we know it is ephemeral. We have an ad or we don't have an ad. We have a budget for a campaign, it gets approved, when the money runs out, the marketing project is over. In a community, there's an implied social contract." (10:27)

He emphasizes that community relationships create positive emotion: "In a community, when people start becoming friends with each other, it's not just that they love you, they love each other. That emotion transfers to the brand. Creating these community relationships transfers to you. It creates an emotional switching cost for your brand." (6:51)

It's the oldest kind of marketing on the planet, he says, because communities give back to the customer instead of asking something of them: "It's the only kind of marketing people actually want, which is why I say it's the last great marketing strategy. It was the first marketing strategy. We loved a company because we'd go down the street and the people knew our names and we bought our bread, or our flowers, or our fish, or our shoes." (25:17)

Get more insights from the conversation with Mark and host George B. Thomas in the full episode, which you can listen to from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.

"Marketing Smarts" theme music composed by Juanito Pascual of Signature Tones.

Full Transcript: The What, Why, and How of Community- and Brand-Building for B2B Marketing

George B. Thomas: Do we as marketers ruin everything? Is that "everything" moving forward going to be the word community? I sure hope not. In today's episode, we're going to talk about the why, what, and how of community- and brand-building for you the B2B marketer and your B2B marketing victory.

That's right, today I get to sit down with my friend Mark Schaefer and we have a great conversation around what's keeping him up at night when it comes to community and brand-building, hurdles, potholes, victories, success, and words of wisdom. Needless to say, this is a great conversation that every B2B marketer (maybe every marketer) should listen in to. Let's get into the good stuff, the why, what, and how of community and brand building for B2B marketing victory with the one, the only, the man, the myth, dare I say the legend, Mark Schaefer.

I am super excited because I haven't had a chance to talk to Mark Schaefer in a hot minute. To be able to catch up and talk about this idea that we're going to talk about, that I think you're going to be able to leverage, understand, mold into what it needs to be for your business, and that is the conversation of the why, what, and how of community and brand building. It's a great title, but I feel like we're going to go about 17 layers deeper than that title during this episode.

Mark, I love starting the episode with this question. Because you are in the trenches as far as this community- and brand-building, what the heck keeps Mark Schaefer up at night on this conversation that we're having today?

Mark Schaefer: First of all, my dear friend, I am so happy to be with you today. I got to interview Tom Peters a few weeks ago. He wrote the bestselling business book ever, In Search of Excellence. I talked to him two years ago, and he told me he was retiring. Here it is two years later, and he has a new book out. I said, "What's going on? You told me that you were retiring." He said, "I am desperate to get my ideas out."

That's what keeps me up at night, too. What he was saying was that the most successful leaders, the most successful speakers and authors, they do it because they have a fire burning inside of them and they're desperate to get their ideas out. I am so sure the time for this idea is right. I have a pretty good track record over my career of saying this is what's coming next, so hopefully I've gained a little bit of credibility in the marketing community.

I'm not just being fluffy about this. I really think community... Well, it's not just me. I'm not a bragging person, but I'll give you one mic drop moment. When I wrote the last words of the book, that day that I wrote the last words of the book, McKinsey came out with a major research report that said community is the next big thing in marketing. I like that validation, but I'm really sure this is an idea whose time has come.

George: I totally agree with you. It's so interesting. I feel like I've always been kind of focused on community. I want to get to what community brings to those that you're actually gathering around, but I want to start with because there's brands, some of these people have problems with I don't know how to create content because my industry is boring, and now you start to talk to them about this extra layer of community and what that means.

We make time for what is important in life. Why is building communities around the brands that you work for important to B2B marketers in 2023 and beyond, why has that become important now?

Mark: I love the way you set this up because I think it works beautifully with the thesis of the book. In the beginning of the book, I talk about how businesses got into social media. If you do really good at social media, then you're creating content that has an audience, which is awesome because when you have an audience, you have some reliable reach with your customers. In a virtual way, they're kind of opting-in to to your marketing. But that's where most companies are stuck.

You have to think of it as a continuum, as an evolution. You have an audience with your content. Great job. But you're leaving money on the table. What is the purpose of your marketing, of your brand? To create that emotional connection, that meaning in people. The ultimate way to do that is community. An audience is still a bit of a cult of personality. I have a blog. I have a podcast. If I go away, the audience goes away. But a community for a business is sustainable.

Here's something profound that I've found. In a community, when people start becoming friends with each other, it's not just that they love you, they love each other. That emotion transfers to the brand. Creating these community relationships transfers to you. It creates an emotional switching cost for your brand. Now if I leave, name the company, that means I lose this community. I don't want to lose this community, I'm going to be devoted to this brand. When you get into the psychology of community, how it relates to a brand, it is profound.

George: That's super interesting. My brain is going in all sorts of different directions. If I try to hone it in, when I listened to you say that last part, I was like, wow, a lot of companies are focused on serving up a product to buy instead of a place to belong.

Mark: That's why they fail. Most communities fail. Those are the hard cold facts. Because companies are trying to sell stuff. That is not a reason for people to gather. You hit it right on the head. The first idea is what is the purpose, what is our purpose as a company, and how does that intersect with our customers in a way that would want to make them gather?

An easy brand to understand, HubSpot, is an amazing brand for that, and MarketingProfs, all the emotion of MarketingProfs. It's almost like there's so much love in MarketingProfs that their annual event is a family reunion. It's that kind of community. That is where the power is. You're always going to be with MarketingProfs, you're always going to be with the brands that you love, because you want to be part of this community.

Another brand that's kind of easy to understand is Patagonia. When I say that word, you instantly know sustainability, the environment, responsible recreation. I have a friend who said, "I will only buy Patagonia, because I'm in their community and I believe in what they stand for." Their purpose isn't hitting a quarterly sales goal. It is this is our purpose and people are going to want to gather around that. That's the important place to start.

George: It's so interesting. I think about the words success and significance. It's almost if you're focused on significance, you're focused on community. By the way, significance equals success. There's this whole layer.

What scares me most about this conversation that we're having right now, based on the title that probably got people to click in here, is I'm scared that people will think community is a strategy or a tactic, and it's just not. So, I want to get into this next question where if you're starting to build, or you've built and you're now going to maintain a community, what should B2B marketers be thinking about? Less of what historically might have happened, it's a strategy or a tactic so we can sell more stuff. No. What should they be paying attention to fulfill this human need of belonging, friendship, and empathetic journey?

Mark: That's a big question. There's a lot, probably hundreds of ideas in the book to support that, but let me point out three.

Number one, most marketing as we know it is ephemeral. We have an ad or we don't have an ad. We have a budget for a campaign, it gets approved, when the money runs out, the marketing project is over. In a community, there's an implied social contract. Can you ever think of any marketing you've ever done in your life where there is an implied social contract other than community? That's the first thing that's really different.

Number two, the person you hire to work in your community is probably the most important person in your marketing department. Not your CMO. They may not be your most experienced person. They may not be the highest paid person. This is the star of your company. It could be a team of people if you're a really big company. That's the second thing that I think is very different that you need to really pay attention. I talk about in the book there's this thing called a parasocial relationship, where you may not really know a person like you've met them before, but through a community you create this relationship and it's almost like they become part of your family. That is awesome for a company. You have to really pay attention to the people who are doing this and give them the budget and give them what they need to really succeed.

The third thing I would say that's different that would have to be in place is something that you and I have spent our careers struggling a lot with, and that is how do we create something, it could be content or an activity, to make it worthwhile to be there. You have to make it interesting, you need to make it fun in some way. Almost every successful online community I've seen has had an offline component. I don't know for sure, but I think the biggest community in the world might be Twitch with 75,000,000 or 100,000,000 users. They still have conferences, they still have meetups to bring these people together. Almost every online community has some kind of offline component.

Those are just three things off the top of my head that are really important, but there's a lot more. It really takes a different leadership mindset to succeed in community.

George: I love this idea of a different leadership mindset.

Mark: Before we pushed record, you mentioned the word servant. I don't want to miss that, because you taught me something there. I didn't use that word in the book, but I wish I did. If you had told me that, I would have claimed it was my own idea because that's how I roll. I think that's an amazing way to put it. One of the themes you'll see in the book is it turns traditional management and leadership upside down. Instead of command and control, it really is giving up command and control, and it's listening and acknowledging.

I have a community devoted to learning about the future of marketing and here are my two main roles in that community. Number one, maintain a culture that is safe and nurturing with zero tolerance for toxicity. Number two, dispense status, let people know they're valued, they're heard, they're acknowledged, because that makes them feel valued and validated in the community.

George: So good. Honestly, just how my brain works, when I hear you say that I'm like, yeah, just let people know they're loved, that you want them to be there, that they are a valuable part of your day in and day out life.

I'll probably want to circle back around to that whole team thing because I think there's something interesting there. I love the fact that it's like this servant leadership that we're leaning into. But I want to kind of cut something off at the pass because I know my marketing friends and I've seen it through history. Oh, Vine is out, everybody jump on Vine. Blab is out, everybody jump on Blab.

Mark: I loved Blab. Didn't you love Blab?

George: It was fun. The point is, everybody go jump on this hot thing. Mark Schaefer writes a book on community and, oh my gosh, we have to have a community. Is community for every business or is there a line that you would say it's not for you? What is your take on that?

Mark: It's a wonderful question that I've thought a lot about. I think I have a one word answer for that: Yeti.

Okay. Six or seven years ago, I start seeing people wearing hats that say Yeti, and I think, "Isn't that an ice cooler? Am I missing something here?" Then I see shirts, I see stickers on cars, I see stickers on laptop computers. I gave a talk in Wichita, Kansas. There were a bunch of students there from the university that wanted to get a picture with me, so we gather. This sophomore in college raises her phone, and on the back of the whole phone there's a sticker that says Yeti.

Now, she's not really in the income bracket that could afford to buy a lot of Yeti, so I just said, "I have to know. Why?" That's almost like having a tattoo when you have a sticker that big on your smartphone. She goes on to tell this story about Yeti and what it stands for, how she belongs to the brand. They will never have to market to her again. She will never have to see an ad. She doesn't need branded content. She doesn't need SEO. She doesn't need coupons. She said, "I buy a Yeti product for my family every year at Christmas because I believe in this brand. I am part of their community. I believe in what they stand for."

It's the ultimate marketing. It's the marketing without marketing. Is there a place for every business, every nonprofit, every university? I don't know. But I will say Yeti. If you can do this with an ice cooler… Believe me, that's their whole marketing strategy. For the first five or six years of that company's history, it was 100% community and word of mouth. They never took out a paid ad in five or six years. It could be different now, I haven't really studied them in a while.

I'm not really concerned about overdoing it, because it's not about what I think or what I say. First of all, this book isn't my opinion. Everything in this book is backed up with data and research. I think when you read this thing you're going to say, "Oh my gosh, this guy is right. Look at this data."

Here's the other thing. If you don't have the culture in your company to support this, it's not going to work. I don't really think it has to do with the product, whether it's Yeti or whether it's MarketingProfs. I think it has to do with the culture. Is the culture right to do it? That's going to really determine.

On average, people belong to five, six, seven online communities anyway. If you give them something exciting and a reason to belong, I think there's a lot of capacity out there for people to belong that's untapped today.

George: It's interesting. I love interviewing you. You said culture, and my brain goes so you have to get the inside right before you can be a shining beacon to the world.

Mark: Right, 100%.

George: Also, in that last segment you talked about it might be for everybody, and then I started to get worried. I'm not a real worry wart, but I started to worry about what would Mark say to that company that decides yes, community is for us, but they quickly turn community growth numbers into a vanity metric?

Mark: One of the things I hope people know about me and trust about me is I'm not a hammer looking for a nail. When I wrote about social media, I didn't say social media was going to solve everybody's problems. Content marketing, personal branding, these are things that I've written a lot about, but I'm not saying this is going to solve the problems of the world, and I'm not saying it's for everybody.

I consider myself a strategist, a holistic marketer. I look at, number one, what is the culture of the company? Whether you choose social media, content, or community, your culture is what's going to show up. If you have a toxic culture, then I'm not going to tell you to do this stuff.

I do think that this is the most overlooked opportunity in the history of marketing opportunities. Number one, most companies do not have a community. Of the companies that have a community, 70% are focused on transactions and customer service. Almost every company in the world is overlooking the emotional part of community, the brand marketing part of community. That's why this book is important, I think. Community isn't new, but looking at it in this way is entirely new.

George: I have a couple more questions that I want to ask you, but we've alluded long enough to in the book. Mark, why don't you explain to the Marketing Smarts listeners the book that we're talking about, the title, a little bit about it and why you had to give birth to it?

Mark: We haven't said the title of the book yet? Oh my gosh. It's Belonging to the Brand: Why Community is the Last Great Marketing Strategy. A provocative title, but I also think it's true.

Why I needed to give birth to it? Well, it really started in 2018. I was writing a book called Marketing Rebellion, and this book was a wake-up call, it was a very risky book to write. That book really kept me up at night a lot. It was a wake-up call saying a lot of this stuff that you're doing, that you've done for years and years, it just doesn't work anymore.

When our customers have the accumulated knowledge of the human race in the palm of their hands, they don't need you like they used to need you. We need to come alongside them at their point of need in a different way. Instead of sell, sell, sell, and manipulate, we need to help, help, help. How do we do that?

There was a chapter in the book that came out in 2019 about belonging and community. When I finished the book, I thought that is the most important chapter in the book, that is the future of marketing. Then one year later, boom, the pandemic hits. People start telling me, "Mark, all these things you said in the book are coming true right now. Look at what's happening in the world."

How did it start? Remember, these companies were saying, "We are with you in these unprecedented times." That's exactly what I said in the book we have to stop doing. We have to roll up our sleeves, we have to get down in the trenches and actually help people and do something. It took a little time, but companies actually started doing that. One of the things that started to gain momentum is community, one of the things that I predicted.

I just felt so strongly. There was one other thing that I think haunted me. I saw a headline in The New York Times that said The Loneliest Generation, and it talked about our children, it talked about the isolation, the loneliness, the depression of our children at unprecedented levels. It's a crisis. There was a research study that came out that showed of American adults age 18 to 24, 51% have sought medical help for a mental health crisis. The average for all other generations is 24%. It just crushed me, it crushed my heart.

I tell a story in the book about something that happened to me when I was 12 years old. I was a ghost, I was a shadow, and then a miracle happened, literally. In high school, I was adopted into a community, and it might have saved my life. It certainly unleashed my life. I became a leader. I thought, "Where would I be if I hadn't been adopted by this community?" Would I even be writing this book? Would I be talking to you right now, George? If you think about the millions of our children that are going through something like I went through, what if they're not unleashed? What can we do?

I'm not saying start a community and save the world. What I'm saying is it's a damn good marketing strategy. You know what else? It also heals people. It's marketing that works. It's marketing that heals. It's the only kind of marketing people actually want, which is why I say it's the last great marketing strategy. It was the first marketing strategy. We loved a company because we'd go down the street and the people knew our names and we bought our bread, or our flowers, or our fish, or our shoes. We don't have that anymore, but we want that, we want to belong to a brand. It's a great marketing strategy and it can have a positive impact on the world.

George: It's such a deep level. By the way, I do want you to start a community and change the world. Thinking of that just gets me excited. Hopefully, the listeners are understanding the level in which the power you have as a marketer to make people's lives better.

I have to say, too, if in that last part you were like, "I didn't read Marketing Rebellion," here's where my brain went: Get your culture right, which is probably reading Marketing Rebellion, and then get what is like the sequel to that and get this book and get it under your belt, get your teams paying attention to it. It's just such a good interview, and I suggest everyone get the book.

Mark, it's been amazing. I can't believe we've already been hanging out together for 25 minutes for the podcast.

Mark: I don't want it to end.

George: I know. It's crazy. I do have to ask you one more question. I think there are hurdles that people could fall prey to, there's a success point that they're probably wondering what does it look like, but you've been through this, you've helped companies through this. Pertaining to the topic and conversation that we're having today, what are some words of wisdom that you would leave the Marketing Smarts audience as they head back to their regularly scheduled day?

Mark: The words I almost always end things with are some words that you hinted at earlier. The subtitle of Marketing Rebellion is The Most Human Company Wins. Think about the kind of marketing you're doing today. If people hate it, stop it. Just stop it. You know if people hate it because you're a person, too, and you would know if you would hate it.

Just why are we doing that? Twenty years from now, we're going to look back at interruptive ads, spam, robocalls, our mailboxes filling up with direct mail from things we don't even remember we signed up for, and we're going to think, "What the heck was that all about? I'm so glad we found a new way to connect to our customers. I'm so glad we created that community." I really believe that's where we're going to be in twenty years.

Humbly, I would say give the book a chance. Read about these ideas. I never tell people what to do. All of my books, all of my speeches, it provides a new way to look at the world. I think this is a new and very relevant way for people to look at the world.

George: Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast episode? Make sure you reach out and let us know in my inbox or on Twitter using the hashtag #MPB2B.

I also have to ask are you a free member of the MarketingProfs community yet? If not, head over to Mprofs.com/mptoday. You won't regret the additional B2B marketing education that you'll be adding to your life.

We'd like it if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we'd love it if you would share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast where we talk with Ashley Voss about developing a content and social media strategy to foster thought leadership and business growth for B2B marketers, I hope you do just a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversation you'd like to listen in on next. Two, focus on getting 1% better at your craft each and every day. Finally, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble B2B marketing human. We'll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.

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