How to Use Social Media to Unite Lonely Consumers, Build Brand Loyalty

Meet Three Brands That Are Getting It Right

By Published on .

Tom Hespos
Tom Hespos
The current burst in social-media use seems to address a fundamental human need: the need to interact with other people. While it may seem that sitting online leads to less human interaction, consumers actually feel they are more connected to people than they were before they joined social networks.

New data from the Harris Poll finds that 54 percent of consumers have had less face-to-face contact with friends recently, but 57 percent feel more connected than they did before. An amazing 60 percent of consumers on social networks say they know what's going in friends' lives, even though they do not personally interact with those friends.

One surprising revelation is that social media makes consumers -- especially those 18 to 34 years old -- feel "very connected" or "connected" to friends of friends or casual acquaintances. Amazingly, 59 percent of consumers in this age range prefer to interact with acquaintances via social media rather than face-to-face, showing how consumers are using social media to maintain these loose ties, rather than let these people slip away.

Given that, examine your own social network. Some of the people I'm connected with are people who share a common interest, and that's it. I'm loosely tied via Facebook to a guy in a Van Halen tribute band because we both love the band's music. I'm loosely tied to people on Twitter who have common interests like ATVing, marketing and home recording.

Now, what if those loose ties could be brought to bear on brands? Instead of connecting loosely over guitar heroics or shared occupations, can people come together because of a connection over a brand? Here are three brands that are strengthening consumer loyalty by connecting like-minded consumers in interactive communities and creating a strong sense of community, both online and off.

Coffee shops like Starbucks have a built-in offline community element and are gathering places for socializing, working, and dining. But Starbucks is also fostering a very unique online community, one that lets consumers collaborate on the brand they love. The brand's My Starbucks Idea website solicits consumer ideas and suggestions, both large and small, and lets the community discuss them, vote on its favorites, and see the ideas put into action.

The consumer-generated ideas range from thoughts on rewards cards, ways to foster community within the bricks-and-mortar Starbucks locations, and requests to revive drink flavors. The brand keeps the community in the loop with its Ideas In Action blog, where staffers write about new developments and announce community contest winners. One recent post announced the return of salted caramel hot chocolate after several members expressed disappointment at its discontinuation.

You don't step into a Starbucks location in the first place unless you like coffee, and the brand is finding a way to unite coffee fans online as well. The Harris study also found that more than half of the respondents value the opinions others share; Starbucks has created a platform for posting opinions and uniting like-minded coffee fans.

Like Starbucks, Dell's IdeaStorm website is built on serving a community of brand advocates. Consumers can post their ideas for Dell products, improvements, and feedback on new products. The community votes to promote or demote the ideas and, just like with Starbucks' platform, Dell responds to the ideas that generate the most interest from the community.

The website also includes "Storm Sessions," which are Dell-moderated discussions around a specific topic. Unlike the "ideas" part of the website, Storm Sessions run for a limited time before they are closed and reviewed by the brand. Dell's been running its service since 2007, and the community has contributed more than 14,000 ideas with 90,000 comments. IdeaStorm is already responsible for new computers that run on the Linux operating system, as well as Dell's use of bamboo to replace plastic wrap for packing its products.

Again, this taps into the idea of uniting fans with common interests. Linux is far from the most popular operating system in the world, but fans came together on Dell's website and voted the idea toward the top of the ladder, where Dell took notice. Social media did two jobs in this case: it brought Dell fans together in a branded environment where they could communicate with one another, and it also showed Dell that there was a very unique, passionate audience it was not serving.

Mountain Dew
The soft drink has done a great job in the past appealing to a consumer base looking for high-caffeine beverages -- namely video-game lovers and extreme sports enthusiasts. Yet the brand sought to unite all of its customers into one community with its Dewmocracy contests, which let consumers pick the newest flavor.

Several brands have used social networks like Facebook to help pick new flavors, but Mountain Dew added a new wrinkle to the formula. The brand spent more than a year on its latest Dewmocracy campaign, slowly expanding its scale from the most-dedicated fans to the public-at-large.

The first step involved sending seven flavors of soda to 50 Dew fanatics, who were also given cameras and told to debate and show their love for the brand on video. The cameras were a great idea because it made the social-media effort more personable. Rather than just looking at static images or Tweets, Dew fans could see like-minded fanatics in action. One young man proved his allegiance by brushing his teeth with the soda.

After narrowing the seven flavors to three, Mountain Dew turned to its Dew Labs Community, a 4,000-person group of passionate soda fans. Those fans then created nearly every element of the three sodas, including color, name, packaging, and marketing campaigns. After that process was complete, the three flavors were made available in stores for a limited time, with the general public electing a winner via online voting.

What Dew did was a little different from Starbucks and Dell. Where those two brands set up sites soliciting ideas from all consumers, Dew began its promotion by reaching out to its most dedicated, loyal consumers offline, and then gave that offline community a place to assemble its testimonials and feedback. The Dewmocracy campaign used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube just like the other brands used these social networks to unite consumers through a common interest.

Building community, uniting fans
Consumers are using Facebook and Twitter to stay in touch with close friends, but also to keep tabs on casual acquaintances or people with common interests. As seen here, consumers are more than willing to come together when that shared interest is a brand, and marketers should be looking for ways to bring their fans together in a branded environment.

All three of these brands were able to successfully unite consumers via social media, connecting them to each other through a shared common interest. At the same time, the brands were able to use the communities to improve their offerings -- through reinstating products, developing new software, or new flavors of pop -- which strengthened the brand in consumers' eyes.

Tom Hespos is the chairman and president of Underscore Marketing. He blogs at
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