Achieving Brand Loyalty with Online Communities, Amidst Technology Individuation

ARTICLE
BY SARA PLAVSIC

It’s hard to remember a world not instantly available at your fingertips. Our social lives have become so hyper-connected to technology that for consumers the digitization of everyday experiences is commonplace, if not expected. As media consumption becomes more personal, ubiquitous, and social, Canadians are creating new and ever-changing forms of online communities using social platforms like TikTok, Reddit, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

Canadians are deriving a sense of belonging and connection to a much larger and often global online community, beyond their immediate surroundings. They appreciate the opportunities these communities provide for building intimate and powerful personal relationships that are borderless and based on hyper-connectivity (afforded to us by the sheer scale of global connectivity, increased diversity to those we are connected to, and on-demand, instant access to a digital world). Those who embrace online communities stand out in their enthusiasm for participating in – and shaping – online spaces to broaden their sense of connection with others. Building on these dynamics, online communities create a malleable platform for personal contributors and brands to connect consumers with content that, if resonant, can dominate conversations and influence consumer trends.

Our recent Social Values research indicates that 28% of Canadians feel that they’ve been able to fully take advantage of online platforms and networks to brand themselves and to influence and engage others. In other words, almost one-third of individuals surveyed feel confident that they’re able to exert a personal influence over people in their online networks, to increase social status, influence thinking and behaviours or even profit from the content they create.

 

women taking picture of food

 

To understand how people view the growing share of self-expression and social engagement that happens online, Environics Research has begun to track a new Social Value called Technology Individuation. This construct asks people whether they see time spent building online identities as valid and functional for future societal development, or whether, on the contrary, they think online self-expression is taking away from our capacity to be ‘truly and authentically ourselves’.

 

Online community-led trends are shifting how we discover and consider new products, services, and experiences because they are reframing our spheres of influence, allowing anyone to become a leader in the content they can command an audience for. As brands continue to insert themselves into online communities, it’s important to remember that trust is paramount and increasingly hard to win. Authenticity is key to building brand loyalty, and understanding what users expect in various online contexts is vital to interacting in ways that are read as authentic – by building trust instead of eroding it with missteps that clash with community norms.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing examples of building a successful online community is that of the fictional CGI character Lil Miquela – who commands three million Instagram followers and was named one of Time’s 25 Most Influential People on the Internet in 2018. Created by the technology start-up Brud, Miquela, who is entirely computer generated, is a Gen Z model turned pop-star influencer that’s all the hype on social, with a line-up of product endorsements from the likes of luxury brands like Prada and Calvin Klein. Miquela’s existence on social media is a playful social experiment that pushes the boundaries for who commands online narratives and branded consumption in an increasingly digital-first world.

Brands have been able to successfully capitalize on the communities that individuals (and specifically individual influencers like Miquela) have created by deftly tapping into the trust these unique contributors have built with their dedicated followers. But consumers are becoming increasingly discerning about brand presence and influence in social spaces. With social media platforms rolling out functional shopping capabilities, like Instagram’s ‘shop now’ hover button, brands can easily get in front of new consumers by leveraging individual contributors to promote their products – but depending on how brands navigate their approach, consumers can be put off. The spectrum from “socializing” to “influencing” to “selling” is full of ambiguities, and making the wrong move at the wrong time (making an abrupt shift to marketing in a context that felt like a space of friendship and community) can been perceived as inauthentic.

So, what can personal contributors, influencers, and brands who also rely on digital platforms like Instagram for authentic community learn from Miquela’s success? Miquela has been able to carve out a unique online community of dedicated followers by generating digital content that is differentiated, current and engaging, that over the past few years ultimately allowed her to build loyalty with her fans. Paradoxically, Miquela is literally artificial but has managed to create a sense of authenticity by consistently being “herself” for her fans: staying true to the mood, style, and interests that attracted her followers from the beginning. By remaining attuned to the shifting spheres of influence, where content is increasingly branded and fictionalized, brands need to remember why consumers seek online communities in the first place: to create a sense of community based on belonging, hyper-connectivity and trust.

 

man with phone and screen is shining with connectivity

 

Brands can cultivate a captivating presence online by creating and growing their virtual personality in social spaces where people come to build connections, explore, and have fun. In doing so, it’s important to understand how your brand will be received by the individuals who participate most actively in online social spaces, and how trust, and hyper-connectivity shape their expectations. Consumers are looking to connect with authentic and relevant content online that represents their personal interests – whatever they may be – and reflect who they are as individuals with like-minded people. If we can learn anything from Miquela it’s that leaning all in on what your brand means, what it stands for, and what makes it unique to you, consumers’ trust will follow.

When seeking to build your brand through online communities, consider the impact your brand will have on consumers and how a branded relationship with unique influencers and personal creators can continue to build authentic consumer trust.

To learn more about changing customer expectations and how to grow brand loyalty, download our Digital Economy report.

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