“Crowds Don’t Have A Purpose, Communities Do”

“Every marketing solution must focus on people” – The Passion Conversation

I found myself nodding along as I read that statement over and over again. We can either over analyze the consumer, using millions of data points, or force feed a specific value proposition that we think is great. In either case, it is easy to lose sight of the person behind all that data. What doesn’t get old is focusing on the people who chose us (or our brand). It is important to celebrate those that rally around a band’s product or service. Marketers call these gatherings tribes or brand communities. The importance of these brand communities have been well documented. However, much of the documentation provides the reader with a glance a posteriori. The architecture is often sidelined. To understand the value in brand communities, is to understand how they form and where value is derived from (for members and thus the brand).

It is the markers of community that form the frame of the community and the experiences shared between members are the nuts and bolts. To cultivate and grow community is to invest in opportunities that allow members to have shared experiences. The brands that get this wrong, view community as another medium for promotion, not celebration. The title of this piece is a nod to this notion. Brands that try to build community through promotion is just building a crowd. What happens when the action dies down? The crowd leaves. Real, sustainable community is built through active participation.

Conceptually, Muniz Jr. and O’Guinn (2001) described brand communities as: “specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of relationships among admirers of a brand”. Specifically, these are consumer collectives that are built around coproducer activities or consumption practices. For consumers, these communities often address identity, meaning, and status-related concerns (Schau, Muniz Jr and Arnould, 2009). Most importantly, McAlexander, Schouten and Koenig (2002) remind us that “brand community is customer-centric, that the existence and meaningfulness of the community inherent in customer experience rather than in the brand around which the experience revolves” (McAlexander, Schouten and Koenig, 2002). Scholars define three markers of community: conscious of kind, shared rituals and a sense of moral responsibility. However, I believe that value may not necessarily be derived by specific tactics used to develop these markers of community as posited by Muniz Jr. and O’Guin, but by understanding certain shifts. These shifts create a need to reexamine how communities form and create value.

Rethinking Brand Community

In order to rethink brand community, we must acknowledge to important shifts in media and cultural practices. First, emerging media has caused a shift in how consumers search for information and thread content together among dispersed channels. In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins wrote: “…the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want. ” Consumers create their own paths through media. For example, I might follow a story from Twitter, to CNN, and then to a niche site. I might even repurpose content for my own reasons. Together, along with others’ ideas, I begin to create a specific narrative in my mind.

Cultural practices have also shifted. Three specific traits detail this shift. First, people create content to be shared across multiple media channels. Second, ideas, or content, are often remixed or remade into new ideas. The third trait is the increased connectivity which allows content to flow much more easily among networks (i.e networked society). Combined, the internet creates a collapse of authority and there is an emergence of a collective authority. Once communicated, brand messages can take on multiple meanings.

Because of these shifts, once produced, brand messages are not necessarily linear narratives. These messages become non-linear messages that occur over multiple media channels. They are consumed and become part of a larger network of ideas. Consequently, communities have the ability to form over multiple channels. I believe this creates the need to reexamine how communities form and how they derive value.

Form and Value

In our current social landscape, non-linear brand messages evolve over a period of time, with the consumer pulling out specific narratives and remixing them to suit their interests. As we digest narratives, and remix ideas, we create our own personal mythology from the bits of communication over multiple media channels and use it to make sense of things. We essentially fill in gaps with our own ideas.

That said, I believe community formation occurs in a similar way to the media flow that Jenkins described. He also wrote: “…a move from medium specific content toward content that flows across multiple media channels, toward the increased interdependence of communication systems toward multiple ways of access media content, and toward ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture”. With these shifts in mind, you could easily insert community in place of every mention of content. I believe under these circumstances, communities are much less “bounded” than what our working definitions had in mind. Just as media flows, so to does communities.

Brand messages that invite participation, along with consumers creating new ideas from specific narratives, create gaps. As Faris Yakob wrote: “Gaps in the process, give people a role”. Community forms around these gaps and value is derived from an audience actively filling those gaps with new ideas. As consumers continue to consume and produce ideas together, the collective begins to develop a larger purpose.

Brands that populate multiple narratives that allow for gaps, over multiple media, invite participation and the collective creates purpose. As ideas propagate through networks, brands have the ability to see what ideas, or which gaps work.

In conclusion, this reexamination would support the argument that brands do not need to push a single-minded proposition through each and every channel. With limitless “bandwidth”, brands can produce narratives that develop over multiple channels. These “gaps” add complexity and it is up to consumer to assemble the complexity and fill the gap with new ideas.

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