Marketing as Community Development

A number of years ago I had the pleasure of working with a visionary leader at City University Canada – a Canadian university belonging to a US based private, not for profit, parent brand. CityU Canada has campuses in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary and Edmonton and specializes in delivering graduate degree programs for working adults in the areas of Master of Education and Master of Counseling. Hired as a marketing consultant on retained contract, I lead the planning and execution of marketing efforts over a number of years there.

An unlikely approach to marketing

The Canadian branch of the CityU brand harnessed the power of community among working practitioner faculty, and working professional educators studying in their Masters of Education and Masters of Counselling programs. Word of mouth within and around the various communities, became a major force in their marketing, combined with a tremendous sense of belonging, it generated fierce loyalty and pride within students, graduates and faculty. To that, I enabled organic social media across numerous platforms, and an SEO strategy anchored in website content and embedded YouTube channel video, as well as a generating a steady stream of earned media publicity. The design of branded materials and campus identity, courtesy of an exceptionally talented outside designer, knit the Canadian brand identity together.

Community development

At its core, community development was about relationships between faculty, students, graduates and prospective students, united under the brand. And all additional marketing efforts simply served to reinforce what the community valued. It wasn’t about directly marketing the university. Marketing was an outcome of earned loyalty to the group, and a desire to belong. The metrics used to measure success were growing enrollment numbers, and positive feedback from students and industry members hiring graduates. Revenue was an outcome, but it always exceeded expectations.

Enter metrics

After a departure in long time leadership (and myself soon after) came the US ownership call for new management to increase paid digital campaigns, with an eye on measurement and metrics. While the approach delivered results, in exchange for quantifiable metrics, it required ongoing promotional funds, and over time, the once strong community focus of the marketing strategy began to erode.

The future of marketing

It turns out our “marketing as community development” approach may have been ahead of its time.

I just finished reading Mark Schaefer’s new book, “Belonging to the Brand – why community is the last great marketing strategy”. In it he argues how creating community around a brand is the ultimate marketing achievement. When a customer opts into an engaging, supportive and relevant brand community, we no longer need to lure them into our orbit with ads and SEO. What we used to consider marketing is essentially over.

He goes on to note how much of our brand story is essentially out of our control currently – narrated through social media posts, reviews, testimonials, influencers, and powerful content creators. Research supports that 2/3 of our marketing is done by people who don’t work for us.

Into the mix he tosses observations on three colliding trends: (1) the deteriorating effectiveness of traditional marketing, (2) the exploding level of mental health problems – magnified by the pandemic, and (3) transformational technology on Web 3.0 which will help people gather. He argues we have never been more lonely – pandemic separation, remote work, and social media induced comparison isolation. As social creatures, we crave connection and community.

Audiences vs Communities

The book goes on to define the difference between and audience and a community. Members of my weekly marketing tips newsletter for example, are what I would consider an audience. The content is centered around one person’s input, and exchanges with individual group members, but there is not a platform that encourages interaction or relationships between group members. If the content ceases to be produced, the group no longer exists.

While having an audience (email newsletter list, podcast or blog subscribers) is an extremely valuable part of your marketing strategy, this growing trend around the value of community is progressive. (Note how I did not include social media followers as an audience. Some may argue this, but since that audience is hosted on a platform you don’t own, and could potentially be shut out of, I would be cautious in declaring that audience “yours”)

Travel advisor community examples

In working with a number of clients from the travel industry, I’ve seen “marketing as community development” at play. The following examples might help bring the concept to life for your business.

A Face to face and online group community

Jen Henriksen is a Cruise Planners franchise owner and group tour specialist. Out of her agency, she runs “Jen’s Travel Journey’s” offering personally guided small group tours. As a tour operator and former teacher who has travelled with over 1500 people, she is experienced, exudes fun, and genuinely enjoys bringing together a community of travelers. She does a monthly email newsletter about upcoming trips, but it’s her quarterly face to face breakfast socials, bringing together prospective travelers and loyal multi-trip clients to generated trip ideas, which is the basis of her community. She hosts pre-trip online classes to encourage the sharing of history and education about the planned destination with the group. Her passion for learning and shared exchange between group members further reinforces the community. Members form friendships on trips, around her brand, which essentially does her marketing for her. It’s an excellent example of community-based marketing at work both face to face and online, which has emerged out of an audience-based email list.

Facebook group communities

Private Facebook groups can be communities, provided the group is centered around a customer-based interest or common values, and not just the groups host desire to sell something (a very important differentiator!). Since a Facebook group is also hosted on a platform which you do not own, I would also suggest that joining the group require email collection at the very least. That way you own access to the group audience, should you decide to host it elsewhere in the future. With these caveats, here are a couple examples of successful Facebook groups which have become communities.

Club Med Fanatics group

The Club Med Fanatics private group is hosted by Nichole Patrick, Owner at Traverse the Earth Travel, LLC. The 1,700 member strong group was created for people who love Club Med. Members ask questions, exchange tips, and generally advise each other on the most minute of details important to trip planning, family fun, and travel details. Want to know if you can play pickle ball at Club Med Punta Cana? Enthusiastic members tell all! Into the mix Nichole occasionally drops travel advice like tips on expedited entry to Turks & Calcos, and she certainly lets members know about vacation packages and sales, but her content is not the focus. It is a compliment. The community is there for their love of Club Med and to help others who are like minded. The community is not there to just sell into. That is a possible outcome of being a knowledgeable community host.

Tahiti, Fiji, Maldives group

This 5,100 member strong private Facebook group is hosted by Susan Green of Susan’s Travel Services. Functioning much like the group above, but on a larger scale, Susan actively posts content, video and goes live into the group with exclusive tours, interviews, and a general sense of fun. Her magnetic personality is entertaining, while being informative. But while she is very active in the group, her members also actively share information between themselves around their love of these destinations. I’m not aware that Susan has ever hosted a face to face gathering of some of her group members, but it could be an interesting next step towards solidifying the community around her brand.

What does this mean for you?

Recognizing the power of community to make you less hostage to traditional marketing is key, as is realizing that an audience is not a community. Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that community is built around the values and interests of a group of people. Your brand comes along side. If a community is built only to sell into, it will most certainly fail.

Circling back to my initial story about “marketing as community development” while at CityU Canada, I would add an additional note of caution in taking this strategy. Community development takes patience and leadership over time, and it can deliver exceptional results with sustained nurturing. But it can also fail in the hands of those looking for data driven metrics – observations also aptly noted in Mark Schaefer’s book Belonging to the Brand. The approach requires visionary leadership.

Mary Charleson

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