Shut up and listen: how to build a community

The need to build connection with customers is nothing new for startups. But how do you go past superficial measures and build a true community? When startups are honest, responsive, and attentive,  their brand community gives loyalty, commitment, and public approval in return.

The corporate space is seeing something of a return to the real.

Modern consumers want to be engaged with, not sold to. Relationships between company and consumer are much more give and take. When startups are honest, responsive, and attentive,  their brand community gives loyalty, commitment, and public approval in return. They’ll tag you on their social media, recommend you to their friends, and leave detailed praise on Trustpilot. 

The principle of deepening your bond with your customers is nothing new. It’s simple customer retention. We know it’s cheaper to keep existing customers than to acquire new ones. 

But in old school sales, customer retention meant follow-up phone calls, spam emails, loyalty cards, and subscription discounts. Some rely on the good old stickiness factor – stickiness kings Apple make it so painful for Mac buyers to use anything but Apple leads and accessories, they never bother to switch to the competitor. 

But Millennials hate phone calls and are tired of spam. Gen Z’ers don’t like wallets full of membership cards (because they hate plastic, and arguably wallets). And people in general hate being forced to be loyal. Modern consumers have more power than ever. They want you to win their loyalty. And perhaps surprisingly, they’re even more ready and willing to give it than previous generations.  

There are no more sales tricks or sneaky bribes. Successful brands are winning loyalty in refreshingly genuine ways. By espousing values like honesty, transparency, inclusivity, and community, you can reach the growing numbers of customers who want something to believe in, not just to buy. 

This is exactly how Flux went from a community of 5,000 to the #1 business news podcast on Spotify.

Flux: a case study in community building

Flux founders Justin, Brett, and Gus started with an authentic axe to grind, and a personality to match. The website asks: ‘​​Remember all those classes in school that taught you how to plan for your financial future? Yeah… neither do we.’

Their purpose is simple: to improve financial literacy in Australia by making it easy, fun, and collaborative.

A multi-channel method is at play to appeal to different users. Flux understood that their user base consumes media in different ways: podcasts, newsletters, social media posts. The key is that all roads lead to a simple and unobtrusive call to action: download the app. The app is free, and adds genuine value by condensing the content into a single access point, further streamlining the user experience.

The key here is understanding your community. Distinguish between who your product is for and who your product benefits. Who your product is for determines how you position it, and who your product benefits determines the channels you should be reaching out to.

Working with the customer

Flux has been obsessed with customer feedback from its inception, and as such, is a study in giving the people what they want. The team developed sound feedback loops to inform product development, ran double surveys on new products, and shared the results of those surveys with their budding communities. The expansion of the app has quite literally been a collaborative process with the customer.

Non-cynical news sharing 

Flux business news bites (‘What The Flux’) appeal to the TikTok generation by delivering industry essentials in 5-minute bursts. Brett and Justin bounce off each other, lightheartedly mimicking the classic newsreader cadence (“Brett, get this.” “Allow me to indulge in some stats, Justin…”). The lightning-speed summaries are peppered with laughter, revealing the founders’ authentic personalities and enjoyment of their work. 

But this podcast isn’t plagued with annoying or demographic-based plugs. It hasn’t sold out to big brands. Flux only partners with brands that share their ethos, and the ads they do run to help fund the free content are always relevant to the audience. Each episode ends with a natural reminder to enter the Flux prize draw – again, it’s advertising, but it brings value to the listener. 

The podcast’s central functions are knowledge sharing and entertainment. It goes back to give and take. Share education for free, and customers will respond with engagement.

Considered tone of voice

The Flux mailing list sign up is touted as ‘the quickest way to become smarter than your boss’. At every touch point, Flux is acknowledging the consumer mindset. Perhaps the ‘smarter than your boss’ gag runs a little deeper, hinting at the weariness of young, broke, tech-literate generations having to explain Excel to high-earning bosses. Flux’s three-word hero tagline is ‘Win at money’ – perhaps an appeal to the post-housing-boom, post-jobs-for-life cohort who’s found it so hard to get a ‘win’. 

It’s never negative, and it’s not in your face. It’s an example of an on-point tone of voice. Speaking your customer’s language is arguably the most important way to build trust and engagement. 

Pairing gamification with good sense

The spotlight has been on gamification recently due to its addictive effects. But Flux has gamified saving in a head-smackingly simple, lighthearted, and risk-free way. Saving $25 and taking a guess at a 7 digit number enters you into a prize draw for $250,000. Users can play every week, and there are smaller prizes available for near-guesses. 

But there’s no risk involved, and no resulting dopamine rush to get you addicted. It’s also a fair and square luck of the draw. No skill is needed, and no privilege awarded to those with more cash or better financial knowledge. This is in part what makes the Flux audience a true community: it’s equitable. 

Three ways to build your community 

Flex has done things spectacularly well, but their model may not work for everyone. Here are some more general points to bear in mind when building your community.

Set up systems for feedback

We live in an individualistic society. Consumers feel empowered when they’re treated as such. You can’t tailor a brand towards every single person, but you can make them feel listened to, and make them a part of the collaborative process. 

Glossier is perhaps the best example of this, having used their blog, Instagram, and even a dedicated Slack group to get customers to share their thoughts from the start. You might use your social media channels, actively asking questions and thoughtfully responding to comments. You can also create hashtags on Twitter, place feedback buttons around your website, or install a live chat function. 

When their customer satisfaction levels were in the toilet in the mid 2000s, Dell created a whole website, IdeaStorm, as a dedicated suggestion box for customer feedback and reviews. Hopefully, you’ll never need to go that far. But it’s an exemplary, noble, and face-saving example of rebuilding customer trust after a disaster.

It can be tempting to resort to surveying. It’s easy to create a 5-minute questionnaire and send it round in a mass email offering a small reward or prize. But you’ll get a much more honest answer when the customer is speaking from a place of emotion and experience, when the conversation is more of a two-way street, and when there are onlookers.

Help your customers succeed

Communities shape individuals. Those wanting to succeed in education, becoming a parent, or learning a new skill do it best in groups and classes. 

British-born unicorn Gymshark understood the “gym is easier with mates” mentality. Gymshark handpicks relatable influencer athletes from diverse backgrounds to spread the brand word. It uses both micro and macro influencers to do this. It provides tonnes of free education online, and runs in-person pop-up shops replete with live classes and demonstrations. Gymshark actively listened to and participated in the debate about models and beauty standards, and represents a wide range of body types that challenges the status quo of the fitness industry. 

It’s a club people want to be part of, and a great example of fostering support and camaraderie in what can be an intimidating space.

Remember to retain

Retaining customers doesn’t just mean retaining revenue. It means accessing higher spends per customer, because 66% of people are happy to spend more on brands they’re loyal to

The sunk cost fallacy works to your favour here. The longer a customer has been buying from you, and the more time and effort they’ve spent following and engaging with you, the higher the value they place on the brand. 

Many marketing and social media campaigns take a tunnel-visioned aim at new customers. When you’re campaigning, don’t neglect the values your loyal user base is bought into. Even more importantly, if you’re pivoting, rebranding, or reaching into a new product category, think carefully about how legacy customers will feel. Abandon them, and they abandon ship.

For those starting a company purely to make money, the community building phase will be particularly challenging. There are no profits to be made and no instant gratification. 

Those with a vision outside of creating wealth will have an easier time. You’ll find a reward in seeing subscription numbers climb, followers multiply, and users genuinely benefiting from your content. 

Either way, your audience must be grown before you start selling.

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