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Keeping it private: How brands nurture micro-communities

Vogue Business

Social media is like an overcrowded bar where there’s nowhere to sit. The result is people are enjoying it less — and that’s a problem for marketers, according to Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst for retail at Forrester.

The solution for an increasing number of fashion marketing teams is to think small and explore the potential of private groups and micro-communities in social media. Quality, not quantity, is the new philosophy. Brands that have explored the potential of mobile messaging include Coach, Urban Outfitters, Beautycon, APL, Supergoop and Tarte Cosmetics, as well as high-profile individuals such as supermodel Naomi Campbell.

Preferred platforms include Community and Attentive, which send personalised and behaviour-targeted texts to users. Investors such as Sequoia Capital (backers of Charlotte Tilbury and Glossier) and Bain Capital (Rent the Runway and Canada Goose) have seen the potential of Attentive — in April the text-based startup extended its Series C funding round by a further $40 million, bringing total investment to $110 million.

Nearly two thirds of 1,000 people, all under 30, polled in a 2019 survey by ZAK, a youth-focused creative agency, said they prefer to talk in private message threads rather than on open forums and feeds. Sixty per cent of respondents said that talking in private groups means they can “share more openly”.

Micro-communities act like a backstage pass or an Amex Centurion card by “making people feel special”, says Forrester’s Kodali. Private messaging and communities have the potential to boost customers’ brand empathy, which has a direct impact on brand loyalty, adds Jared Watson, assistant professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business. “It allows brands to craft individualised messages for each subgroup of consumer rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Rapid improvements in technology have opened up the field. “The marginal cost for marketers to disseminate 10 bespoke messages rather than one mass-appeal message is fairly minimal,” Watson says.

Private messaging and micro-communities can also exist on conventional social platforms and workplace tools. In its early years, beauty brand Glossier, founded in 2014, experimented with Slack, best known as a workplace messaging tool, launching a dedicated channel for around 1,000 of its most engaged fans. The beauty company had gleaned valuable feedback in the form of Instagram comments, tweets and emails, as well as posts in its 19,000-member “Into The Gloss” Facebook group, and posts on the independent R/Glossier subreddit.

In January this year, popular K-beauty brand Glow Recipe launched a private Instagram account, @RealGlowGang. “We saw the need to have a safe online space to foster more intimate and honest dialogues,” says Sarah Lee, co-founder and co-chief executive. “We wanted this platform to be about facilitating meaningful connections, not only between [the brand] and our followers, but also within the community itself.”

Brands can also tap into existing micro-communities by partnering with niche influencers. The best of these have a clear vision or personality that is perceived as authentic and trustworthy at a time when Instagram is flooded with manufactured fake followers. Some influencers are using the “close friends” feature on Instagram as a tool to build stronger relationships with their followers.

Creatives within the fashion industry are also launching secondary social media accounts, which act as a more intimate space where smaller groups of people gather around shared interests. French designer Ludovic de Saint Sernin has over 94,000 followers on his verified Instagram account @ludovicdesaintsernin, but also operates @ludovicdesaintserninx, which is private but has almost 35,000 followers. More than 302,000 people follow Tyler Mitchell’s Instagram account @tylersphotos, but he also runs @icmyfg — a “project and research space”, according to the American photographer — which has 4,821 followers.

Jared Watson partially attributes this shift in marketing to the high levels of loneliness experienced by many young people in the US and the UK, a trend exacerbated by Covid-19. According to one survey, 47 per cent of American adults reported they felt lonelier than usual, intensified by stay-at-home orders and social distancing. “This loneliness paradox gives brands an opportunity to develop extreme brand loyalty by being a resource for their fans to connect, either with the brand itself or with other fans,” Watson says.

Customers who feel more connection with a brand are more likely to spread positive sentiment about its products and services, says TJ Keitt, principal analyst for customer experience at Forrester. Devoted consumers also spend far more on average and exhibit high willingness to forgive mistakes. “This uncommon resolve makes them fertile testing ground for new services — as they’re willing to overlook missteps — and perfect targets for exclusive products,” Keitt says.

In April 2020, Glow Recipe launched its first digital sampling programme alongside live video consultations and beauty masterclasses for its private community. Lee says that the brand’s members have been “an incredibly valuable source” for insights on new products and ingredients. “Social media has been critical to our growth as a digital-first brand,” adds co-founder Christine Chang. The company hit $30 million in retail sales in 2018.

Consumer feedback can also inform decisions beyond product development. Glossier items are usually shipped in pink bubble wrap pouches inspired by electronics packaging that can be reused as cosmetics bags. Last year, the brand introduced a “less packaging” option that ships without the plastic pouch after people within its community complained that receiving a new bag with every order was wasteful.

Keitt’s June 2020 research for Forrester found that committed devotees constitute small but significant portions of the customer base across every industry, including multichannel retailers (of which 15 per cent of consumers are loyal) and digital retailers (18 per cent).

He also found that devotees generate much higher revenue than regular customers, particularly for airlines (219 per cent), digital retail (143 per cent) and multichannel retail (132 per cent). Sounds good? Not necessarily, says Keitt. “There’s a large gap between customers that are highly devoted and everybody else, which suggests that what has happened in these sectors is that brands have [over prioritised] customers who they sense are more devoted to them. This creates conditions in which other customers, who could be just as valuable, feel alienated,” Keitt explains.

An example of how things might go wrong is a luxury store associate who is obsessed with regular, ultra-loyal customers and fails to give other individuals proper assistance because they are “not viewed as a good customer, even though they might be”, says Keitt. His key takeaway — the nurturing of private communities should not come at the expense of the broader market out there.