Today, a vast part of brand awareness and business success points directly to online communities and consumer advocates shaping brands, driving growth and increasing revenue. But if brand advocates and online communities are assets that can bring value to a business over the lifetime of the company, then why are so few brands today investing in the resources needed to build them and help them flourish?
Loyal community members are known to purchase more, foster deep brand affiliations and advocate more strongly for a brand than non community members.
The sense in committing to community
I learned my first lesson in the value of brand communities when I was 17. I was working part-time after school and on weekends at our local ski shop, B&D Sports & Ski Hut in Redwood City, California. I was a cashier-sales-rental department “associate” and I couldn’t have been more excited about it.
B&D was a family owned business. We were a Ski Magazine and Ski Industry Authorized Dealer (which made us extra special, and me even more proud) and we were known for our ‘customer first’ approach, outstanding choice of skis, boots and outerwear, and “all help, no hype” service. The owners, Larry, and his wife Jean, strongly believed that returning customers were the future of our business, and, that customers were people and not walking wallets or cash cows.
So while there was the need to sell our goods to keep our jobs, there was also a firm “sell for the future, not the day” and a “no milking the customer” policy in place. It didn’t matter if customers were just coming in to chat or making the mega purchase, everyone customer was treated equal.
Our goal was to create Faberge Organics Shampoo word of mouth marketing, where customers would tell a friend about our personal touch to business, and the friends would tell two others –and so on, and so on and so on. And it worked. We had a loyal and growing customer base that would return yearly to purchase new products, get their skis tuned and purchase those last minute “must have” items.
Our staff were a fun-loving bunch of ski, board and surf enthusiasts (in the summer months) who got a thrill out of telling, not selling. Our job was to make sure our customers got the right stuff so they could make magic on the mountain.
There was “no tech talk” to customers unless they were begging for it (and some actually did). If that meant foregoing a sale to a valued customer because we didn’t have what was right for them, we did, and that was okay. They would remember us for not selling them something they couldn’t use. And remember us they did! Our customers were thankful and loyal. So loyal, that they’d even stop by during the week on their way home from work to share their weekend ski adventures with the crew.
The store turned enough of a profit to pay the bills and keep a staff of 15 to 20 employed in the winter, but there wasn’t a whole lot left over. Newspaper ads (and billboards!) were all the rage, but they were expensive and there wasn’t a budget to invest.
Although the idea of hundreds of new customers traipsing through the door was attractive, growing our current clientele through word of mouth, and building the best and most loyal community of customers we could with what we had, was our focus. We weren’t worried. We had what we needed: one of the most knowledgeable teams around, excellent merchandise, snacks at the register, cold beers in the fridge, parking lot BBQs, and our secret weapon: weekend bus trips for families.
Yes, for those who could handle the 3am Saturday mornings, parents and kids could join one of “Kelly & Brett’s Amazing Tahoe Bus Trips; a 4am depart for a fun filled day to a different a different resort in Lake Tahoe. The trip came complete with a four hour bus ride each way, music, movies, half price ski rentals, morning donuts, after ski snacks and a discounted ski ticket.
We didn’t make a dime off of the trip. The price of the seat price covered the bus and the tickets, and this was the highlight of the winter for a lot of kids and adults who otherwise might not have been able to get to the mountains as often as they wanted. It was a staff highlight as well. Life was good, winters were white, our customers were happy and sales were strong. It couldn’t get any better. And then, it got worse.
One fine summer day, a chain of ski stores called Any Mountain opened their doors a half mile down the road. Their purchasing power was multiplied times the amount of locations they owned and they were able to offer pre-season discounts all season long. The talk of the town was all about “the store who must not be named” (also known as “the discount devil”, “the price popper” and “that store down the road”) — Any Mountain.
We were scared. And probably more accurate than that, we were sad. The writing seemed to be on the wall. The Discount Devil down the road was most likely going to put us out of business. The fun would be over and we’d have to either find “real jobs”, (i.e: in an office) or apply at “That Store” for a job. And no way were any of us ever going to work at there.
So, we prepared ourselves for dismal sales and for our customers to flee. We figured the ones who complained most about our high prices, but for some reason continued to purchase, were already out the door. We made plans to cut back on staff and purchasing for the following season. But once the season started rolling, something interesting happened.
Yes, our sales dipped, but they didn’t dive. Yes, we needed to scale back on staff, but not by that much. Yes, our customers checked out the competition and even purchased skis and clothing there. But by the end of the year most of them came back. Our sales were down, but for the most part our most loyal customers stayed with us. And even better, they continued to bring friends with them, who also became loyal customers even though they knew they could get better prices down the road.
Our sales were down, but we weren’t out of the game. They could have bought elsewhere, but our most loyal customers stayed with us, and they even brought their friends. The personal touch trumped deep pocket discounts.
If we had invested our time and money in acquisition tactics or participated in deep discounting to compete on price, our customers probably would not have returned. If that is the only way you can differentiate yourself, and brand yourself, then what unique selling proposition do you have to offer?
Fast forward to 2015, and community proves to be one of the most valuable assets to a company. The tools and ways we do business have changed, but the principles haven’t. So why are so few brands investing resources in online communities?