The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone’s editors or publishers.
In 18th century England, people gathered in cafes to drink coffee and tea, learn the news of the day, and meet their peers to discuss the rapidly changing future. For Gen Zers, well-organized TikTok comment sections and moderated Reddit or Discord forums are the modern outlets for cutting-edge discussion. Today, marketers focus their media budgets on expensive TikTok or Instagram influencers. Instead, brands should invest in, organize or grow their own online communities to align with the cultural leaders of tomorrow. There is an exciting opportunity for brands looking to invest their media budgets in communities.
Decline in influencer trust
Declining consumer trust in social media and influencers means there’s an increased need for brands to humanize themselves as younger consumers seek more meaningful interactions. Trusted online communities have become synonymous with authenticity and some of the most genuine interactions on the internet. After the Fyre Festival, it’s never been more important for brands to recognize the shortcomings of influencers and non-buying consumers.
Brands that understand this mindset and can successfully leverage these spaces will likely drive product purchases, forge long-term relationships with consumers, and inspire them to invest in the success of their brands. Consumers have turned to online communities for guidance during the pandemic, and this trend provides opportunities for brands to join the conversation in authentic ways. The full potential of online communities has yet to be realized. After Facebook, we are barely discovering the collective impact these audiences have on translating the cultural zeitgeist into real money.
What I’ve learned in my years building online communities is that to successfully communicate with Gen Z, your brand must learn to live in its online communities. Not only are the barriers to entry low, but there is evidence to suggest “Gen Z feel more confident online when using community-driven social apps like Discord or Twitch rather than streaming apps. like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook”. Additionally, “41% of the data- and privacy-conscious generation view closed community platforms as private spaces.”
Gen Z identity is formed in online communities
Building community is tied to identity. For example, music production software Ableton recently announced a series of free production masterclasses in partnership with Black Artist Database (BAD). The community group started as a Google Sheet named “Black Bandcamp” and grew into an online platform. Ableton offered resources and creative control to BAD founder Niks Delanancy, and in turn embraced a socio-cultural movement while earning the trust of future consumer markets.
By spotting thriving online communities, brands can engage and communicate their authenticity with young audiences. As marketers, instead of preaching, how do we engage in meaningful conversations with Gen Z?
We must first try to understand them. Their identity is fragmented and never has a generation claimed its identity from such a wide range of influences. These fragments can be seen on different cultural subreddits, hashtags, TikTok trends or the latest Discord servers. To understand their mindset, influences, aspirations, emotional drivers, and habits, marketers must learn to capture their version of coffee: their online communities.
How to Build a Community Marketing Strategy
Before entering this space, there are a few things brand managers need to be aware of before crafting their creative strategy. When approaching community marketing, for brands looking to build relationships with Gen Z, there is generally a four-step plan that I would recommend:
1. Do your research. Marketers who don’t research relevant communities aren’t investing in their own future. Perform any necessary market research. Then gain a detailed and nuanced understanding of the community you are about to enter. These online communities are hubs of cultural information.
2. Co-sign the campaign with the community. Make sure the most engaged members of the community are willing to co-sign the campaign, as they will be the ones who will call it credible.
3. Be allies, not sponsors. Make sure your brand is a long-term partner and not just an instant sponsor.
4. Iterate, listen to your social networks and evolve with the culture. Social listening and engagement is essential for brands that want to take user feedback and show they are listening by providing a unique contribution in response.
Influencer marketing is slowly losing trust, and Gen Z are turning to comment sections and forums for privacy and trusted advice from their peers when making purchasing decisions. Perhaps many brands don’t recognize Gen Z online communities because they just don’t know where to look. If they can follow the diagram above, brands could achieve more cultural relevance, transparency, authenticity, and consumer buy-in.
With all the fury of a horizontal, decentralized Web3 coming our way, we fail to recognize the opportunities before us to invest in and platform the online communities already led by Gen Z. influence is dead; long live the “commune-economy”.