I can’t pinpoint when I first realized that “community” was morphing into a marketing buzzword. The phrase “building community,” it seemed, was being deployed more frequently by startup founders and their respective brands, rather than by actual members of one. For example, I am currently a member of four Discord “communities,” as they’re called, through paid subscriptions via Patreon and Substack. I contribute absolutely nothing to any of these groups, aside from lurking. I am still considered a member, though, simply because I paid the access fee.
Within such virtual spaces, “community” is a shorthand for interaction — not necessarily belonging. From a business standpoint, community is a means to harness customer loyalty. From fitness companies like Peloton to beauty and fashion brands like Glossier and Victoria’s Secret PINK, brand communities have become essential marketing mechanisms, especially in the direct-to-consumer world where companies rely on social media buzz or personal recommendations to reach new customers. Communities naturally drum up hype for a brand and its products; in some instances, members might even provide feedback for product development and are the first to test new samples.
Being a “Glossier girl,” as its brand ambassadors (and anyone who uses the hashtag) are called, connotes a sense of cool, low-maintenance beauty that can be achieved via a handful of cult products. Into the Gloss, Glossier’s beauty blog, used to function as a sort of community forum, where the team solicited opinions about customers’ ideal facial cleanser and general product feedback.
Welcome to Glossier Seattle! ✨ Even as a digital-first company, we’ve always viewed our retail experiences as an essential part of bringing the world of Glossier to life with our community. Glossier Seattle opens at 1514 10th Ave TODAY (!!!). We’ll meet you there. pic.twitter.com/dnmkJtX7XM— Glossier (@glossier) August 20, 2021
For a fitness membership service like Peloton, members become informal spokespeople for its lifestyle and slogan (“Motivation that moves you”). In addition to formal Peloton-run member pages and forums, there are hundreds of fan-run Facebook groups, Instagram pages, TikTok accounts, and even Etsy stores devoted to Peloton merch. Many members develop parasocial ties with their favorite instructors and cultivate relationships with members they frequently ride with.
Historically, the relationship between consumers and companies was more transactional and direct. You would seek out an item you needed in a store. You might be put on a mailing list and sent promotional catalogs or coupons every few months, but communication remained relatively sparse. Today, the age of passive consumerism seems to be over. The expectation is to keep patrons active, enthusiastic, and engaged beyond the parameters of the product that they’re offering. Brands want consumers to be fans and follow them on social media, tag them in posts, contribute to private chat channels, and attend in-person events.
In a saturated market where new direct-to-consumer startups are popping up left and right, customers “want to feel that they’re getting something superior,” said Krystal Melissa Wu, who has worked as a community manager for various tech companies. “Community is not something you can replicate or cultivate overnight.” Digital ad prices are also on the rise, which might incentivize businesses to double down on their existing community of buyers, rather than seek out new ones.
Consumers, too, have become more aware of the mechanics of brand-building. As a result, companies are under pressure to simulate authenticity by leaning into more personalized forms of communication. Fast fashion retailers casually refer to me, a customer, as “babe.” A kitchenware brand texts me when its bestsellers are back in stock. At-home fitness services want me to attend in-person classes and other Manhattan-based community events.
The community model is currently being touted as “the golden child of marketing,” according to Wu. Thanks to social media, “community” has become a definable business metric. Before, marketers were still doing this work, Wu said, through less-publicized in-person events, forums, and chat groups. “It’s always been a way for businesses to reach new and old audiences,” she said. “If we took the spotlight away, communities would still exist. It’s just one of those things that seem more apparent now because of social media.”
We seem especially primed for it now. Once Covid-era restrictions began to be loosened and people started hosting gatherings again, many were restless after extended periods of isolation. Many wanted to socialize, meet new people, and be in community with others. The fervor toward branded community has yet to subside and is only ramping up, especially in spaces like Web3. The Walt Disney Company wants to take it one step further by building residential communities for superfans to reside in.
Still, it’s unrealistic for every brand or online influencer to expect community from customers. People have a limited amount of attention and time. The promise of community begins to feel disingenuous when what’s described is little more than a euphemism for a targeted demographic of interested consumers. Is there any other reason to facilitate community if not for a business to sell more products and accrue more members? Is it possible to find real community beyond the parameters of one’s consumerist interests?
Community, according to the clinical and community psychologist David McMillan, can be defined by four conditions: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. In Vox reporter Allie Volpe’s piece on finding community, she writes that community members should “feel a sense of belonging (membership), feel like you make a difference to the group and that the group makes a difference to you (influence), feel like your needs will be met by other group members (integration and fulfillment of needs), and feel that you share history, similar experiences, time, and space together (shared emotional connection).”
This list of criteria isn’t always fulfilled in most branded communities, where members might not be invested in the needs of others or share any significant history or life experiences. So why do consumers still gravitate toward and participate in them?
Hugo Amsellem, vice president of community at Jellysmack, a company that works with video creators, believes that this is due to a pervasive lack of community in modern society. “We’re confused about what community should look like,” Amsellem told me. “The only places we find community are at work or at home.”
Over the past few decades, traditional institutions, like organized religion, neighborhood associations, unions, or service organizations, have diminished in social relevance. Americans are working too much to devote time to community causes and activities beyond the realm of family and work. As a result, people are seeking out products and influencers to fill in this dwindling social gap. Brands, of course, welcome this interest, and many have positioned themselves as a sort of privatized third space to facilitate a sense of community.
Amsellem argues that virtual interactions are only a Band-Aid solution to our community-deficient lives. “Consumers are stuck on this fast loop of content consumption and creation, but they ultimately never find that sense of belonging,” he said. “I do believe that some people find comfort in online communities, but usually, those who are really online are those who feel the loneliest offline. It’s a self-selecting demographic. Being online does not necessarily solve their loneliness or make them feel like part of a group.”
On the internet, users are often driven to form micro-identities based on content or products they consume. As a result, a vague sense of camaraderie can be grown out of online fandoms, even though there’s often no formalized structure to ensure that members’ needs are being met.
“People want to attach themselves to something,” Wu said. “But there has to be an intention for community, rather than it just be a space for people to communicate.” Most fandoms don’t always develop into a community, according to Wu, although having an engaged fan base is a good foundation for brands or influencers. The grocery store Trader Joe’s, for example, has a large online fan base, but the company doesn’t seem interested in leveraging customer interest into a corporate-led community. “With fandoms, it’s more of a self-led space that might be more grassroots where anyone who’s expressed interest can join,” she added. “For community, there needs to be more of a purpose behind interactions or events.”
Wu’s philosophy is in line with the notion of “building community” that many founders and marketing experts emphasize. Still, intentionality doesn’t disguise the transactional nature of belonging that’s central to the existence of many branded communities. This is, in some ways, antithetical to the experience of community; there must be an element of reciprocity among members and an investment in their collective well-being. In some cases, consumers might have enough of an affinity for the brand that they’re unbothered by the economic basis of their belonging. The transaction — or the experience of owning, say, a Glossier product or a Peloton bike — leads them to feel like part of a specialized in-group. However, the conditions of membership remain contingent on the individual’s relationship with the brand, rather than other members.
When Anna Gát founded InterIntellect, a platform that hosts virtual salon-style conversations, she was determined to not focus on community just for the sake of accumulating more members.
“We started hosting events and salons first before we saw a community of interested members grow around these gatherings,” she told me. “I think it’s really important for every community, even if it’s led by a brand or platform, to have a telos or raison d’être. InterIntellect is a community because the people there want to share in cultural abundance, learning, pleasure with others without it being super expensive, inaccessible, or bound to geography.”
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Most InterIntellect events (both in-person and virtual) are open to the public for a small fee; attendees don’t have to stay in touch or participate in the community any further than the event. For those who remain interested or keep showing up to events, they have the opportunity to pay a monthly or annual membership fee to join the InterIntellect Discord and receive discounted or free access to salons.
The fee, Gát said, ensures a base level of engagement among community members: “I believe in thoughtful monetization, so that people can check themselves and their commitments before signing up for something.” The money also goes toward staffing and future events, she added, so it feels less like a patronage model where money goes toward “talent” and more like a pooling of resources to benefit the collective.
Communities can naturally form in all sorts of social circumstances, but they often need a formalized structure to expand and sustain. This is where the guidance of community managers might come in, according to Wu. Ten Little, for example, is a kids shoe retailer that also operates a private community forum where parents can connect with childcare experts and other parents. The forum provides added value to Ten Little and has become the basis for its community, with a mission of providing a “safe, judgment-free space for all things parenting.”
Meanwhile, Victoria’s Secret PINK recruits college-aged students to serve as campus reps, encouraging them to build an empowering campus community while promoting the brand’s apparel. Most of these students likely would not have been in community with one another, if not for their affinity for the brand. Still, the presence of campus reps, aided by PINK, allows them to establish a community-like structure through branded events, giveaways, and occasional community service.
More businesses have now recognized the benefits of community. It’s a worthwhile investment that can help maintain customer loyalty and interest. However, most people have limited bandwidth; many likely aren’t a part of more than one community while attending to work and family life. Amsellem, who oversees community at Jellysmack, warns of the potential for “community fatigue” with the proliferation of branded micro-groups, which aren’t always invested in members’ well-being.
“This is not just happening online,” he said. “If you think of the workplace as a community, the employment churn is a form of community fatigue. If you look at the rate of Americans moving to different cities or neighborhoods, that’s also community fatigue.”
Branded groups and fandoms might fulfill the social function of community, but they satisfy a fleeting need. Investment and time are required to establish a foundation for lasting community; members need to feel as if they have a shared emotional connection, not just an affinity toward a product or brand, but with each other. It’s rare to come across this collective third space that blends together the public and private, Gát said.
“You can’t think of community as a zero-sum game, even if people are paying for it,” she said. “I see a world where online and offline communities can coexist in a person’s life. We should encourage people to negotiate their time with the things they love, while also giving them space to explore in a healthy way.”