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How to engage with the people that matter most to your business

community-engagement
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This post is by Jeremy Taylor, Managing Partner of CONNECT2 Community Engagement Ltd, the UK’s leading community engagement experts.

What Is Community Engagement?

Community is increasingly becoming a focus for businesses in many sectors, and in many countries.

It’s a word often misused, and frequently misunderstood.

A real community exists in the real world, with affinities, ties and loyalties well beyond social. Collections of followers and fans connected by social media do not constitute a real community. They are a fading fad, easily faked and with limited impact. There are businesses that refer to their customers as communities – almost always a misappropriation. It is possible to form a community out of a customer base, but only if there are affinities beyond a common purchasing habit.

Think of a community of people who are emotionally connected by a common cause, a goal, a purpose, a geography, a belief… there are many types. They are where people live their everyday lives, talk, compare views and share their stories.

Community Engagement (or Business to Community Marketing – B2C2) is a growing discipline, set to take off around the world. Yet at present, virtually no brand has a senior marketing post covering this area, even though the community is where it gets the majority of both its customers and business.

B2C2 takes a different methodology, moving away from intrusive and push messaging to pull. It works from the inside out, not outside in. It’s both an art and a skill, especially as there are many communities both within a local area and across the country.

The key factors are the power of influencers within the community, and word of mouth. Once a community embraces a brand, that brand can thrive, gain loyalty and utilise the power of engagement for valuable feedback and insights.

As our understanding of real-world communities grows, data profiling techniques are now being developed to match community purpose to brand and corporate purpose and objectives, a new and sophisticated way of connecting with large groups of potential customers.

It is a new approach, full of commercial possibilities.

How Does Community Engagement Help To Solve Major Business Issues?

Business to Community Marketing (B2C2) is a tool capable of tackling some increasingly central issues for marketers. Here are five where we have seen it have a major positive impact.

  • B2C2 represents a way of tackling trust issues for business – working with communities enables businesses to demonstrate their corporate stance in action, not just talk about a corporate or brand purpose. Community members actually seeing and experiencing a corporation working in partnership towards a real community goal is a game-changing way to connect, building trust and opening the door to a far deeper and longer-lasting customer relationship
  • Working with a community is a true alternative to traditional local marketing. Engaging local communities, and offering benefits to their members as well as to the community as a whole, gets the local connectors onside and they can become powerful advocates of the brand to their own personal community networks.
  • Real world community engagement is a major step on for organisations increasingly frustrated by the limitations of dealing only with social media. Results are more measurable, messaging is more powerful and customer relationships more deep-rooted.
  • A community can on occasion become a commercial partner – ‘crowd buying’ brings large groups of customers along in one transaction, with their own specific needs and buying power. It’s important to work with the dynamics of the community they come from to maximise the opportunity.
  • Sustainability and corporate responsibility are growing in importance year by year. Many organisations are frustrated by their inability to control supplier networks to accurately reflect their stated objectives and fulfill objectives. The Tri-Community approach, working with local communities where the suppliers operate, with charities on the ground and also with customer communities is a radical approach to tackling this issue, and one with huge potential.
  • Customer communities can be built where the brand stands for something beyond a transactional relationship. This is still rare in the business world where a corporate purpose tends to stand apart from the customer relationship, but organisations such as charities where the cause is more central to the culture are starting to realise the benefits of a true community of customers with a common cause and strong affinities.

Some Key Community Insights

Community structure aids engagement

Communities are the natural environments where people live their daily lives. Common affinities and interests that give rise to the existence of the communities ensure that there is always a conversation to be had, a mutual interest to pursue or even a cause to follow. Communities are great at identifying actions that members can take that will benefit all members – raise money, build or restore a community centre, help the underprivileged.

It’s these identifying commonalities that enable outside organisations such as the state or businesses to engage with communities in practical, down-to-earth and impactful ways, addressing messages that are important and motivational to individuals in their capacity as community members.

Communities tend to have their own communications channels, digital and print; far more importantly they are the home of word-of-mouth. In real-world communities, people meet very regularly in both formal and informal groups and what they do when they meet – is to talk. Finding ways of accessing those multiple conversations is the key to engaging the community.

Communities provide a trusted voice

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer confirmed that while trust in authority is draining away it is being replaced by trust in those closest to us, and most like us. The UK population trusts family and friends over four times more than political parties and leaders.

Community structure can help to access this source of trust. Anthropologists have long established the various roles played by key individuals within communities in connecting them, sharing knowledge and driving them on towards meeting goals. Identifying these important people and engaging with them in their community capacity can provide access to the conversations.

Within communities trusted voices come from the Connectors – members who are motivated and inspired by their community membership. They are the ones who drive action and opinion within their own networks, where their voices carry both weight and influence.

If business can engage these individuals with a strong community proposition, word of mouth will spread the message. If the proposition offers something of genuine benefit to the community, endorsement of the brand or business can also be gained from the Connectors, the loudest voices with the best networks inside each community.

The secret lies in knowing how to find and engage the right people in the right communities.

The home of conversation

What do people talk about? Things that are relevant to them and their lives, and their needs and aspirations.

Add this simple insight to the role of the community in the life of the individual and it becomes possible to look for the crossover points between the corporate purpose of a business, and the community purpose.

Part of the proposition used to make the engagement might well be about making a sale, but it is important that there is more to it than that. The building of trust through the community engagement is the entry point, and trust is built through the demonstration of responsible behaviour to the benefit to the community and its members.

Resonating messages that achieve engagement for a business need to be relevant to both business and community. It is vital that the message or proposition for community engagement reflects a genuine stance for the business as discussed earlier – anything that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny will be seen through and discredited very quickly. So business behaviour within the community is just as important as business message, if not more so.

Conversations take place wherever two or more people are together. They take place in the digital world and face-to-face. Opinions are exchanged, experiences discussed and compared. All these conversations influence the standing of the organisation under discussion.

On-line forums tend to rapidly boil down to polarized opinions. Subject matter is either loved or loathed, with little in between. In real-world conversations there is much more room for discussion and shades of opinion. Research has shown the importance of both sources of word of mouth in the shifting of opinion and the influencing of sales. Vitally, both are given credibility by the establishment of trust.

Affinity to communities offers points of influence

CONNECT2’s work with clients has demonstrated over and again the power of community causes to influence the lives and actions of its members.

It’s hard to find many examples of a thriving community where there is no cause focal to its existence, and usually one that needs to raise money. Often the cause is directly related to the welfare of the community or its members, or linked to a structural improvement requiring funding. Sometimes communities sponsor outside causes and expend energy in raising money for a charity or project of their choice.

Assisting them in reaching these financial targets is a powerful way for businesses to reach out to communities.

A second universal need for communities is knowledge. Many people are motivated simply by being a source of knowledge for the community (a time-honoured role in any community, one that is rewarded with status and trust). Businesses can successfully engage communities by supplying specialist knowledge to the benefit to the whole community.

In fact, here is a golden rule. In a community context, it’s vital that businesses act to benefit the whole community, and never try to ‘buy’ access by rewarding any one individual directly.

What Is The Importance For Business?

This is an area ripe for adoption by forward-looking business leaders in their constant battle to maintain competitive advantage.

As the communities themselves start to become more aware of the possibilities and become more sophisticated in their relationships with the corporate and business world, rules are starting to be established and models for successful engagement built.  Being seen to behave differently and more responsibly through community engagement could make the vital difference over the next few years.

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Jeremy Taylor is Managing Partner of CONNECT2 Community Engagement Ltd based in London, the UK’s leading community engagement experts.

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