Community marketing: making an old trend new again?

Photo by Jopwell from Pexels

I’ve recently noticed an increasing trend towards community marketing. People are promoting this “new way” of doing marketing which is much more geared towards consumers as opposed to “push” and top-down messages from brands.

When it comes to job descriptions people are looking for community marketers, a blend of what were once community and social media managers. But having the benefit of being in this industry for 10 years now, I cannot help but ask myself: haven’t we come full circle?

Why is community marketing trendy?

From the people I’ve spoken to and articles I’ve read, people want to get back to the basics. I sense overall social media fatigue whereby people are done running the influencer rat race and just want to build meaningful connections again.

Of course, that’s only true for a fraction of people but it’s certainly creating a change in the way we approach marketing. Brands themselves have realized the importance of building authentic connections otherwise they wouldn’t be hiring people to build community for them.

But this trend strikes me as a bit of a 180, if you think about how social media marketing started.

The origins of social media for business

Around 2009 or a bit earlier, companies started creating Facebook pages and Twitter profiles. Back then, social media for business was all about community building!

There weren’t any (or as many) ads and Facebook hadn’t turned into the media mogul it is today. When companies first set up Facebook pages, the whole idea was to build community, and I distinctly remember this being the appeal of having a social media presence.

First of all, social media allowed companies to adopt a tone of voice they didn’t have before. Something more playful, down to earth and approachable than the usual corporate speak. Second, it allowed them (and still does to some extent) to play in the consumer’s arena more than ever before, which is why content creation and engagement with fans was such a primary focus.

The idea was to surprise and delight fans with original content they wouldn’t find on corporate channels. Make them feel closer to the brand and really reward them for being true loyal “fans”, not just for spending their money.

At the time everything was centred around organic growth and reach, yes yes, that was actually a thing! You might not believe me but it was actually possible to achieve organic engagement rates higher than 1%.

This all changed when Facebook introduced advertising, coupled with the introduction of the news feed, around 2011 (for an extensive history of Facebook ads, read this Hubspot blog post).

Suddenly companies were able – and encouraged – to put money behind their posts so more people would see them in their news feeds. The race to reach the masses started and the rest is practically history. Nowadays we see countless articles on how digital ad spend is on the increase and Facebook and Google own the monopoly.

This changed the approach to social media marketing, shifting it from something community based and putting the focus back on traditional advertising as we know it. Pushing messages about why your product was so great to consumers, in a social friendly format. Of course the brands that were good still remembered to create content that interested consumers, but for the most part the ad spend increased to build advertising campaigns.

Taking content marketing into account

Let’s not forget that speaking to consumers and sharing messages that interest them isn’t new either. Robert Rose and Joe Pullizi from PnR weekly would have a field day if they heard that!

And yet, this is what community marketing is trying to flaunt as its “edge”: stop pushing branded messages down people’s throats and start talking to them like humans, build a community…

The fact of the matter is, that’s really the basics of good content marketing. And if we look at this handy “history of content marketing” infographic you can see that examples of that can be found as early as 1732 (spoiler alert: it was Benjamin Franklin).

What purpose does community marketing fill?

At the end of the day – and call me a sceptic – I think what we’re witnessing with community marketing is simply brands starting to become desperate to connect with consumers, and young professionals sliding into what they think is a “new” kind of role.

Brands are desperate because let’s face it, nowadays you have to spend increasing amounts of money to get results and even then the return on investment isn’t huge. Brands like Adidas have admitted to over investing in digital, while P&G questioned Google and Facebook on their metrics.

Coupled with that is increasing distrust from consumers, not only towards brands but also towards influencers. Influencer marketing faced its own backlash, with influencers revealing the reality behind Instagram photos and only 4% of people trusting what influencers say online. Once again, what used to be a genuine way of reaching consumers has broken down.

So how else can brands create that meaningful connection with consumers, the one they are absolutely desperate to have? It seems that for now, community marketing is the answer…

We’re going back to the tactics of the last decade but the landscape has changed since then. With organic reach no longer being what it used to, will brands truly succeed with community marketing? What will the revival of community based tactics bring? I for one, am curious to see if they succeed.

Published by emmacdo

Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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