Digital Transformation

Building a Community of “Belongers”

Written by
Sebastian Jespersen
Building a Community of “Belongers”

David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, published an opinion piece in late May on the cultural earthquake caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. His column stirred up a storm of controversy among supporters and critics.

Brooks sees what he calls the old American creed of rampant self-sufficiency being replaced by a new creed of togetherness and solidarity.

According to Brooks, after the pandemic runs its course, "economic resilience will be more valued than maximized efficiency... We’ll value community over individualism, embeddedness over autonomy.”

It is going to be a deeply challenging time as we rethink how we do business. Federal Reserve Chairman, Jerome Powell, said that the economy’s downturn is significantly worse than any recession since World War II, and the impact could be prolonged and painful.

Smart marketers recognize that there will be a distinct “before” and “after” in consumer behavior as a result of the pandemic. You must start now to create the digital tools needed to embed your brand in the customer’s post-COVID life. If you take full advantage of consumers’ expanded use of the Internet, your brand will emerge stronger than ever.

Digital Life Becomes Everyday Life

The lock downs in response to the coronavirus resulted in hordes of people working remotely – some for the first time. The home bound family suddenly began spending a lot more time in front of the computer, as everyone from preschoolers to executives moved their tasks to a virtual environment.  

People became far more digitally involved than they were prior to COVID-19 – which made it easier than ever for brands to attract a community of dedicated “belongers” to their website.

The pace of change in human behavior, occurring simultaneously in so many places worldwide, has been astounding.

If you plan to take a vacation at your favorite beach in Spain this summer, for example, the experience will be quite different than what you’re used to. You will now have to book a patch of sand that maintains appropriate distance from other people. The mayor of Canet d'en Berenguer, a coastal town north of Valencia, compared making sunbathing reservations to selecting seats online before seeing a movie.

Earlier this year, it would have been difficult for parents to imagine schools shutting their doors for months at a time. Yet that’s exactly what happened in cities and towns all over the world. During the pandemic, families under stay-at-home orders learned what it’s like to go to school via the Internet. Google Classroom, a free virtual education service for teachers and their students, doubled its active users to more than 100 million from early March to early April.  

Online Life Has Expanded

The New York Times conducted an analysis of Internet usage during the pandemic, providing insights from two online data providers. The study revealed significant shifts in attitude while society was shut down.

The virus kept pushing us to use our digital devices more extensively for working, playing, learning, gaming, relaxing and connecting with video chat.

There were lots of losers, particularly among small to medium size firms. But there were many winners as well. Companies that manage how and where we work benefited immensely. Turning to Zoom for business meetings zoomed.

Local news sites were also big beneficiaries, racking up huge jumps in traffic as Americans sought information about how the pandemic would affect them personally. Subscriptions grew for entertainment on streaming services like Netflix and YouTube. Doctors and clinicians expanded the use of remote telehealth consultation.

According to the Times study insights, it seems we wanted to do more than just connect through messaging and text. We needed to see one another to gain a real sense of belonging. What was formerly considered intrusive became a better way to get things done on the Internet. The number of moments in the day where consumers and brands entangled in new experiences soared.

Some categories were totally transformed. Forbes reported that as people settled down at home, wineries and liquor stores remained connected to customers via Zoom and other apps. The leader in the winery category was Acker, Merrall & Condit, an upscale wine retailer on the Upper West Side of New York.

Though Acker is America’s oldest wine store, celebrating their 200th anniversary this year, everything they organize for fine wine enthusiasts is tied to 21st century digitization. During New York’s lock down, virtual wine tastings replaced events that used to happen face-to-face in their store.

Acker has a Fine Wine Concierge, a pricey wine club, that hosts virtual auctions of notable wines, and a retail store that allows online ordering with curbside pick-up. Acker’s website gives affluent customers the feeling of belonging to a cult of luxury wine enthusiasts.  

How did things go for this 200-year-old retailer while a pandemic raged outside its front door? Business has never been better. Online sales are up 300%.

Our own research at Vertic shows that Acker’s growth during the COVID-19 crisis is not an oddity. A few other brands ­­– both newcomers and famous names – share much in common with Acker. They boast a community of devotees enabling them to ride out the pandemic in good shape. Each of these pacesetters attracts “belongers” differently.

Here are a few takeaways from their success that other marketers can learn from:

Joining Together for a Shared Cause

Patagonia, the wildly successful outdoor clothing retailer, was among the first to close down its 39 stores when the coronavirus began to spread in North America. Now they are being extra cautious about the safety of employees as they begin to reopen. None of this is surprising.

The well-being of its staff and community of environmental believers comes ahead of anything else at Patagonia. This privately held retailing phenomenon lost as much as half its revenue while the pandemic grew. But management isn’t concerned. Patagonia expects to regain the lost business once the pandemic is behind us. Putting its values first always serves the brand well in the long run.

The purpose-driven mission of Patagonia is “be in business to save our home planet.”

Shopping at any of Patagonia’s stores or via e-commerce gets the buyer a quality garment at a fair price. It also affirms belonging to a community that deeply cares about the future of life on our planet. The clothes make you look good – and so does the belonging.

Building a Business with Virtual Experiences

”It’s not just a membership. It’s a community,” proclaims the Peloton website. In its first decade as a virtual fitness center, membership grew to include millions of devoted “belongers.”

With Peloton technology, you can pedal along at home together with companions seen on the exercise bike’s TV screen. You can get started doing virtual workshops with the Peloton app, streaming live classes to your phone, TV or web browser. As you would expect, when the COVID-19 disaster shut down gyms and people were confined to staying at home, business boomed for the brand.

Peloton’s stock, which just a year ago had a disappointing IPO, soared almost 100% in the early weeks of the pandemic, and there are a ton of back orders waiting to be filled.

Members of the Peloton community are inspired by a growing list of virtual experiences. The trainers and fellow riders make up a virtual community that celebrates one another’s fitness goals and successes.

Reaching a Goal with Community Support

As the name suggests, DietBet invites “belongers” to place bets on their ability to lose weight in a fixed timeframe. Online players wager money – usually from $20 to $50 – and everyone who reaches a certain weight loss goal divides the total.

DietBet’s stated mission is: “Bet on yourself. Reach the goal. Split the pot.” It’s like visiting a weight-loss casino. They claim that their dietbetters have collectively lost close to 15 million pounds.

The best part is the support “belongers” get from other community participants. They are connected via an online chat portal, and players are encouraged to post regular updates on their weight-loss progress and cheer others on.

The excitement of a chance to win the bet and the motivation from other players makes DietBet a powerful newcomer in a tough category. There is a sense of camaraderie and belonging that makes this innovative approach to weight loss a good bet.

All of the above trendsetters – Acker, Patagonia, Peloton and DietBet – operate in totally different categories. Yet they share one thing in common: each has a digital strategy that rates togetherness over self-sufficiency, and community over individualism. David Brooks would approve.

As the pandemic recedes, the business world is looking at an uncertain future. Billions of people, after the long stay at home, know much more about how to penetrate the mysteries of the Internet. How do we acquire and retain customer loyalty at such a time?

There is no easy answer. But building a community of “belongers” on your website could be part of the solution. Any action that leads to zero degrees of separation between your brand and your customer is going to be consistent with the coming cultural transformation.

Now is the time to think about building a community of “belongers” who identify with your brand’s reason for existing.


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