People first, brand second. Really.

Engaged Community

[Originally posted at ‘Round the Square]

Putting customers first, and brand second, can be somewhat of a tough pill to swallow for marketers.

Sure, most understand the need to build communities around their brands, and to nurture those who cluster around the experiences their brands enable. For many, however, it largely remains lip service. Marketers talk about putting customers first, yet many continue to focus on the more transactional tactics of marketing products, programs, and services to build their brand.

They’re missing out.

Human nature doesn’t drive us to connect with brands. Rather, people desire a sense of connection with other people. (Does anyone really love Facebook? What people do love is the easy means of connection Facebook affords.) Your brand, informed by those communities around it that matter most, is a means to an end—a platform for interaction among like-minded individuals.

It’s not about you, it’s about them.

Armed with new tools, and more timely constituent information than has ever been available before, businesses (nonprofits and for-profits alike) can effectively put people first and build their brands in the process—increasing loyalty, decreasing costs, and bringing important feedback and new ideas to the fore.

A few things to keep in mind:Putting people first means (drumroll…) putting people first.

Your brand program should be informed by the values and lifestyles of those who interact with your programs, products, and services. Use social media and RSS readers to set up listening posts to hear what people are saying, not just about your brand, but among each other. Interact with customers in-person wherever and whenever possible. Invite a group of high-value constituents over for tea.

If you come to understand the nature of those clustering around your brand, you’ll inevitably come to understand the nature of your brand as a platform for community. Institutionalize that kind of thinking above and beyond the walls of the marketing department and re-organize around it if possible. It’s a more effective, and cheaper, brand-building practice than marketing product “speeds and feeds.”

Your constituents aren’t monolithic, and connections must be reinforced.

Those who cluster around your brand likely share a common, high-level set of values—yet each has their own personal reasons for showing up to the party.Some may participate for social, emotional, or spiritual reasons.

Some may be indulging passions, pursuing particular goals, or exploring new ideas. Determining your constituent segments remains vitally important, but you must do more than pump out perfectly tuned communications.

Your brand program should advance opportunities for people to interact among themselves along those resonant wavelengths, and to help them realize their personal visions—however big or small. Doing so strengthens the community around your brand, in turn building your brand.

Don’t try to control the cluster.

People that cluster around your brand will most certainly talk. In fact, you want them to, and it’s far better if conversations are within earshot. If people are critical of your brand, wouldn’t you rather hear it firsthand? Rather than seeking to control or edit the dialogue, embrace it and engage in it.

Peoples’ criticism may in fact be spot on (Domino’s anyone?) and your brand community could become a crowd-sourcing tool for improvements and bold, new ideas. Rather than control, seek to steward those who cluster around your brand by providing context and content that maximize engagement.

By putting people first—really putting people first—marketers can truly bring brands to life. More than just putting a “community” button on your website, more than just amassing 4,000 followers on Twitter, building your brand around people means a strategic shift in thinking.

It requires literally decreasing the distance between you and those who matter most, listening, engaging, and not being afraid of what you might find—because it’s likely true, and it might be the spark of a great new idea.

How is your brand putting people first?

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