Power to the People


The Marketing Power of Online Communities

Imagine you are the customer of a major beauty supply chain, and, being a proactive shopper, you spend a lot of time learning about the brand’s products and their application. Now imagine this retail chain hosts its own branded forum – a community of like-minded consumers, tied together via the Internet, social media and a common appreciation for amateur cosmetology.

With me so far? If so, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, an online forum, so what’s the big deal?”

Well, for the past several years brands have been discovering that they can leverage the power of these online community platforms to do some of the heavy lifting of their marketing departments and greatly expand the reach of their message for little more investment than the price of keeping the community active and compelling enough to thrive.

A case in point, the cosmetics retailer Sephora hosts a massive online community called “BeautyTalk” that gives users the power to trade advice, ask questions to online experts, watch video tutorials, get tips from celebrities, and read relevant articles from a branded blog.

The company – which prides itself on its self-service model – launched BeautyTalk in 2010 with three main objectives: To build the Sephora brand and community; to establish Sephora’s expertise in the beauty world; and to drive sales and loyalty.

But Sephora got more than they bargained for:

• A user-generated content engine that now fuels the bulk of the 500,000 social media mentions the brand gets in a given month
• And, a totally user-generated forward product-marketing feature known to the community as the Traveling Sephora Box. (Community members fill a box with Sephora products that didn’t work for them and mail them on to another user who takes a few items of interest and adds a few of her own. The box is then forwarded to the next user who repeats the process.)

“When we launched, we knew that we would attract beauty enthusiasts worldwide who were eager to ask questions and share their beauty knowledge,” the company said. “What we didn’t anticipate was that our users would turn those online connections into offline action. BeautyTalk and the Traveling Sephora Box have created excitement around the brand by energizing clients to actively engage with each other offline in the name of the Sephora.”

By giving power over to its most committed users (who spend, on average, more than 133 hours in BeautyTalk a month), Sephora achieved the holy grail of marketing – turning brand commitment into brand advocacy.
The company isn’t alone. More brands are leveraging third-party platforms (Sephora uses Lithium) to allow users to create newsletters, blogs and feeds in a moderated environment that helps drive search engine optimization and create brand buzz across social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

“One of the great things about how an online brand community works is that you can not only stimulate word of mouth but see what it consists of and track how it develops, particularly in the creation of company advocates, not just company advisers,” writes Mike Hall, a partner at online communities firm Verve.
Other third-party platforms, like Tongal, take community marketing to the next level by offering brands the opportunity to work with a public braintrust of creatives to develop unique campaigns that are crowdsourced to ensure optimal success.

As a platform, Tongal operates based on the assumption that a diverse collection of people is likely to make certain decisions better than independently operating individuals or even experts. To date, Tongal has worked with dozens of brands to develop compelling video campaigns – like this popular one for Duct Tape, based on the movie Tron.

According to Tongal co-founder and president James DeJulio, more brands now are developing their own networks or working with existing communities through social networking to leverage the intelligence of the masses.

“Give people a voice and a chance to participate and you can leverage consumer insight to pull your marketing up, rather than try to push it down,” he said.

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