Turning Customers into Members

Applying magazine lessons to consumer brands

MembersIf you build it, they will come, or something to that effect, wrote W.P. Kinsella in his 1982 novel “Shoeless Joe.” If you recall the book or its film incarnation “Field of Dreams,” you know that protagonist Ray Kinsella follows that disembodied call to action, carving a baseball diamond from an Iowa corn field. He builds a field of dreams – where spirits and people come to play.

Building this field required vision and an understanding of the common need it would fill. This is not so different from a magazine, which also starts with a vision (plus large amounts of cash). When it works, advertisers and consumers then gather in a venue where they share an experience of reading, learning, and commerce. Their common interests draw them to the magazine and in turn, they become part of a new community of business and social interactions.

Magazines so aptly serve this social function that from their titles we can conjure images of their readers: The New Yorker reader seeking a haven of urbane, if tedious, prose. The Bon Appetit gourmand entertaining for six, then up at 7 to pack the kids off to school. Each magazine evokes the image of the community it serves, and in that sense, a magazine serves as a carefully cultivated meta-brand for a market or segment. The magazine meta-brand acts like a magnet for individuals with common aspirations, habits, and needs – and sellers seeking to meet those needs.

Meta-brands are not exclusive to the media. A consumer brand, which symbolizes a product or company, also evokes the character of its adherents much like a magazine brand describes its readers. Consider Sears customers versus Nordstrom customers or Harley Davidson customers versus Volvo customers. Each brand attracts a different type of customer. To the extent that brand devotees can interact with each other to propagate a brand, they can become what social scientists call a brand community. In a marketing context, the opportunity – and the challenge – is to cultivate brand communities using programs that encourage social interaction and branding beyond the sales transaction.

A brand community approach to marketing isn’t new. Channel organizations have pioneered reseller networks, conventions, publications, and more. These are community-building programs, but on a B2B scale. What is relatively new is how information technology lets consumer brands participate. In the course of business, a seller can now collect as much customer data as the media and use the same tools as the media to foster social interaction and community.

This raises a profound question. If a seller has more customer data than the media, a distinctive meta-brand that describes its brand community, and a marketing communications infrastructure that supports social interactions among customers, then what is the nature of brand development? It begins to look more like audience development, and the basis of competition becomes the ability to retain enthusiastic members.

Companies such as eBay have already unleashed the potential of this idea. eBay is a $3 billion company from which its “customers” don’t actually buy anything. Is eBay a media brand or a retail brand? Traditional commerce has a few standouts, including wholesale clubs, investment services brands, and a few visionary consumer brands that run customer events. But there’s more work to be done.

Brand community development is not just marketing. If you choose to think of customers as members with a vital role in your brand’s success, then you’ll start to build programs that reveal new ways of doing business. The first step is to develop the programs that bring customers together. If you build the infrastructure, they will come. END

David M. Kalman is the president of Terrella Media, Inc.