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"COMMUNITY BUILDING IS A CON"
An attempt to reconcile community building with marketing science.
Preface: this essay builds on the great minds of Byron Sharp, Les Binet, Peter Field, Zoe Scaman & many more. I highly recommend you take the time to read their respective works.
It is undeniable that the ‘creator economy’ is having its moment in the sun. More people are searching & talking about it than ever before. Some creators now command audience sizes greater than TV shows. And huge amounts of money is swirling around the space. In 2022 the creator economy was valued at a whopping $104.2BN  and it has grown by over 165M people in the last two years alone . Becoming a ‘YouTuber’ is also now the job that Gen Z aspire to more than any other. Whether you are a fan or not its also hard to ignore the billion-dollar empire Mr Beast has built spanning media, burgers and chocolate . Closer-to-home community building seems to have even penetrated traditional marketing with the likes of Mark Ritson & Mark Pollard building large communities and turning them into successful businesses. Heck, even Les Binet has a YouTube channel now (it’s really good, go check it out).
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Ref #1: Search volume related to the creator economy has never been higher (source: Google trends)
Yet despite all of the above many marketers aren’t convinced. When ‘communities’ or ‘fandoms’ are mentioned many simply dismiss the idea outright. Community building they argue goes against important marketing science established by the likes of Byron Sharp, Les Binet & Peter Field.
In response to that I have set myself a (probably impossible) challenge. I am going to try and reconcile community building with marketing science. To achieve this I will break this essay down into three parts. First, I will attempt to reconcile some of the main criticisms against community building. Second, I will show how community building actually complements marketing science. And finally, I will offer a suggestion as to how community building might be implemented into the marketing mix.
PART ONE: COMMON CRITICISMS
Any time community building is mentioned in marketing circles Byron Sharp fanboys come out in force (he has a super loyal community - ironic). I think we can distil their criticisms down to three main points:
LOYALTY IS A LIE
BROADCAST IS BEST
SHORT TERM TACTICS
Let’s now break down each one of these criticisms and see if there is a way to reconcile them.
1.1 LOYALTY IS A LIE
There is a ton of evidence to show that brand loyalty is not important. Byron Sharp has proven that growth comes from gaining light buyers (penetration) rather than acquiring more heavy buyers (loyalty). He also showed that the majority of people aren’t loyal to brands and most switch between them all the time . Binet & Field have shown that penetration is far more effective than loyalty when it comes to growing sales, market share and profitability. A study of the IPA effectiveness awards also reveals that 82% of award-winning papers focused on penetration (whilst only 2% focused on loyalty) . And the Ehrenberg-Bass institute discovered that loyalty programs fall into the same trap as price promotions, they rarely increase light buyers and are pretty terrible at delivering growth. In light of this, it’s pretty understandable why so many are cynical toward community building.
Ref #2: It is proven that penetration is far more effective at driving sales, market share and profit (source: Marketing in the Era of Accountability 2007)
In order to resolve this criticism we first need to be clear about the type of loyalty being defined here. All of the examples above refer to behaviour loyalty (frequency of purchase) rather than attitudinal loyal (advocacy). Understanding this distinction can give community building a lifeline and hopefully keep the fanboys happy. Because if we define community building as a tool to drive advocacy, rather than repeat purchase, then it doesn't contradict any of the evidence outlined earlier. This definition makes a lot more sense too. Because no matter how much of a Mr Beast or Byron Sharp superfan you are there is a limit to how many products you will want to buy. Most won’t want to eat Beast Burger three times a day or need more than one copy of How Brands Grow.
Furthermore, this definition of loyalty is actually not that new at all. In fact, many brands have been building a community of loyal fans who advocate on their behalf for decades. Brands such as Supreme, Nintendo, Mid Day Squares, Liquid Death, Star Wars, Monzo and many more. So if we define community building as a method to grow an attitudinally loyal fan base we can get around this first criticism. However, we are not out of the woods yet & there are two more criticisms to resolve.
1.2 BROADCAST IS BEST
If we know that brand growth comes from acquiring light buyers (penetration) then it’s clear that we should choose media that reaches the greatest number of potential buyers. So which is the best media channel for this? Well, there is a ton of historical evidence to show that broadcast is best. Binet & Field, for example, showed that historically TV is the most effective channel for increasing large business effects .
Ref #3: Historically TV has been proven to be the best channel for reach & effectiveness (source: Media in focus 2017)
It was also shown that YouTube, arguably the biggest and most popular creator-led platform, accounts for only a tiny proportion of daily watch time on people’s TV sets. Beyond watch time, there is also data to suggest that TV advertising has far greater ‘signalling strength’ than social media. That it is better at helping brands be perceived as ‘stronger’ because TV has a greater ‘signal strength’ . In light of these points, it is easy to see why many believe community building is both a waste of time & money.
Ref #4: Youtube watch time on a TV set is still relatively small & TV has greater signal strength (source: Thinkbox)
In order to resolve this second criticism I want to delve into the data in a little more detail. First, whilst YouTube is relatively small when it comes to ‘watching on a TV set’ it doesn’t paint a complete picture. In fact, we now know that TikTok and YouTube command over two-thirds of all device-based video viewing by Thinbox’s own admission.
“Together, TikTok and YouTube command over two thirds of all device- based video viewing – with mobile phones by far the most common way of watching this content.” ThinkBox, A year in TV 2021-22 (p10)
We also know that people of all ages spent almost half an hour more on all other devices vs watching on a TV set . And younger audiences aged 18-24 spent an average of 5hrs & 6mins online a day …way more than total ‘TV watching time’ . At the same time, Ofcom has also shown a continued decline in average TV watch time across most audiences but especially amongst younger viewers .
Moving onto signal strength let’s once again delve a little deeper. Whilst there is a significant gap between TV & social media when we look at an average across all age groups, it narrows dramatically when we focus on a younger audience (aged 16-34). I also imagine this gap would narrower further if we could cut the data by an even younger audience(aged 25 & under). Why do I believe this is the case? Well, younger audiences are more familiar with social media platforms (having grown up using them) and so they will perceive them in higher regard. In ‘How Brands Grow’ Byron Sharp states ‘consumers like and know more about the brands they buy more regularly’. By the same logic, younger consumers like and know more about social media brands such as YouTube & Tikok.
Ref #5: TV watch time has continued to decline (sources: Ofcom/BARB)
The data above reveals that watch time is a messy business and hard to pin down. In reality, people watch stuff on YouTube/Tiktok whilst also having the TV on in the background. They also watch a bunch of varied content, across a variety of devices, throughout the day. What it does reveal is that dismissing channels such as YouTube & Tiktok outright is foolhardy. To be clear I am not saying TV isn’t an effective channel (it very much is). What I am saying is that TV is not always the best option for all types of brands…especially those that are massively outspent in their relative category.
Let me try and explain myself.
We know that share of voice (SOV) is correlated to share of market (SOM). Essentially the more you spend on media the greater your market share will likely become. Whilst this is great for big brands like Nike & Ikea it is a pretty unhelpful equation for smaller brands like Mid Day Squres & Liquid Death. The latter are so massively outspent on TV, by their biggest rivals Hershey’s & Evian, that they can never hope to spend enough to increase their SOM beyond them. To make matters worse the relative cost of TV has more than doubled over the last ten years. Making the playing field even more unfair for these smaller brands .
Ref #6: The relative cost of TV in America has doubled over the last ten years (source WARC media).
In light of this, I think community building can offer an effective alternative for some smaller brands. In a world where TV costs are prohibitive for some, community building via content creation could offer smaller brands hope. What exactly do I mean by content creation here? Well, I am not advocating running a bunch of short-form TikTok or YouTube ads. However, I am advocating for smaller brands to create powerful organic content that will help to build their community over time. Let me explain why in a little more detail.
YouTube & Tiktok are infinitely more democratic than broadcast TV. When it comes to content creation, on these platforms, you don’t always need to spend your way to the top. For every Mr Beast, there are thousands of other creators regularly gaining millions of views & followers by putting out content that is relatively cheap to make. Why is this the case? Well, it’s because the algorithm will always push out good content that achieves a high click-through rate (CTR) & view-through rate (VTR) . And what increases your chance of a higher CTR & VTR beyond good content? An attitudinally loyal fan base. A fan base that will watch every second of your content, share it around & in turn bring new people into your community.
So am I advocating ditching TV advertising for all brands? Hell no. Am I saying community building via content creation could be useful for smaller brands? Hell yes. The truth is no two brands are the same and they all face different circumstances and challenges. And those that are smaller, like a startup or challenger brand, could benefit from community building via content creation.
Ok now let’s now move on to the final criticism…
1.2 SHORT TERM TACTICS
Hopefully, all of you will know that brands grow through a combination of short-term sales activations and long-term brand building. Further whilst brand building helps to increase short-term sales, the reverse is not always true 
Ref #7: Brands growth through a combination of long & short effects (source: Binet, Field, Tom Roach & Dr Grace Kite)
Don’t worry I am not going to challenge this universal truth. In fact, I think it’s one of the most important (yet sadly often neglected) principles in marketing today. What I do challenge, however, are those people that suggest community building is a short-term static rather than an effort to build a long-term brand.
Look at any of the biggest creators in their relative niches, from Mr Beast to Mark Pollard. Both have built their communities over a period of years, not months. Community building is inherently a long game that requires a lot of time, effort & skill. Community building is also an effective tool for brand building. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at a definition of what a brand is by the main man himself, Byron Sharp.
"A brand is a memory structure in the mind of the consumer, consisting of all the information and experiences that the consumer has had with the brand over time." Byron Sharp, Professor of Marketing Science at the University of South Australia
In short, a brand is a combination of everything that a consumer associates with it in their mind. A brand is made up of a bunch of distinctive brand assets (DABs) including a logo, brand colours, spokespeople, packaging and so on. Community building by this definition definitely aids in brand building. Mr Beast, for example, has a logo (blue tiger), a tone of voice (loud, daring, generous), a spokesperson (Jimmy) & packaging (Beast Burger).
So I think the final criticism held against community building is fairly easy to resolve. Community is definitely a long-term tool that helps with brand building. Now before we move on to the next section let’s recap our new & more hopefully less controversial definition of community building:
Community is a long-term brand-building tool.
Some brands can leverage community building when they are outspent on traditional media.
The focus for a community should be to build an army of attitudinally loyal fans that will advocate for their brand.
PART TWO: COMPLEMENTARY ELEMENTS
Now we have reconciled the three main criticisms put toward community building we can move on. We can move on to show how community building in fact complements many other aspects of marketing science. Let’s run through these fairly quickly below.
2.1 MAKE THE BRAND EASY TO BUY
Brands need to be easy to buy by growing their physical availability (distribution) and mental availability (saliency) . Community building, via content, helps brands do the latter and helps them to improve the former. Great content that is supported by fans and pushed out by the algorithm, can likely achieve tens of millions of views. This helps any brand to increase its mental availability and remain top of mind. When it comes to selling, physical availability has never been easier. The Internet has made distribution more democratic than ever before. Anyone with an audience today can set up a Shopify store or sell a course online via the likes of Mighty Networks. But that’s not the best bit. Having a big community/fanbase actually helps many brands & creators unlock greater distribution in the physical world. Mr Beast’s ‘Beast Burger’, Dylan Lemary’s ‘Catch N’, Mid Day Squares and Supreme are all great examples of this.
2.2 DOUBLE JEOPARDY LAW
Brands with higher market share have more buyers than brands with lower market share. They also have buyers who are slightly more loyal . This again aligns with community building. The biggest creators & brands have the biggest communities and over index on loyal fans. Further said fans will very likely be part of other communities founded by other creators or brands.
2.3 BE CONSISTENT AND FRESH
Brands should be consistent and fresh. They should have a consistent identity over time (ie logo, colours) whilst adapting to consumer trends and preferences . At its very core this is what community building allows you to do. You can establish your consistent assets from day one (logo, colour) but adapt the content you create over time to meet the needs of your audience.
Fame is the single biggest driver of brand growth . What is fame? Well as Les Binet states it is related to but distinct from awareness. While awareness refers to the extent to which a brand is known or recognized by consumers, fame refers to the extent to which a brand is talked about or shared among consumers. Now, look again at the last part of that definition ‘fame refers to the extent to which a brand is talked about or shared among consumers’. This is exactly aligned with our new definition of community building in part one:
“Community building should focus on building an army of attitudinally loyal fans that will advocate for your brand”
So does community building align with the single biggest driver of brand growth fame? Yes. In fact, it’s at the very core of what community building should really be about.
Now we have shown how community building can live alongside marketing science, we can turn our attention to one final question. What is the best way for a brand to build a community?
PART THREE: A NEW MODEL OF COMMUNITY BUILDING
Do I believe every brand should rush into community building? No. If you are the market leader who can win on TV spend or if you operate in a low-interest category such as kitchen cleaning products then probably not. Although as Scrubby Daddy shows even low-interest products/brands can build an audience if you follow the right steps. What I do believe, however, is that if you are a smaller brand like Mid Day Squares or fortunate enough to work in a high-interest category like gaming then there might be merit in pursuing community building. But how do you best go about building a brand community? Well, while I don’t have all the answers…I do offer some first thoughts below.
Some suggest that community building flips brand building on its head. That you should focus on building an audience first, a product second and a brand last. Personally, I take a different point of view. I think the reason the vast majority of creators & brands fail at community building is that they dive straight in without doing groundwork upfront. I believe if you want to build a successful community you first need to take time to understand three things very well.
First, you need to identify the niche audience you are going after and what they value. Mid Day Squares identified an audience that wanted the benefits of a low-carb protein bar with the great taste of a chocolate bar. Mark Pollard identified that strategists wanted a safe space where they could share ideas and thoughts. Mr Beast identified an audience that preferred stunt-based videos over lifestyle vlogs. Mark Ritson identified there was an audience that was crying out for some formal marketing training.
Second, you need to identify a gap in the market when it comes to content creation. The biggest problem you face today is that more people are creating more content than ever before. The single-to-noise ratio is incredibly difficult to compete with. In light of this, if you want to grow a community you need to create content that is both distinctive & different. Mr Beast spent years stuttering along with little to no growth because he originally created, by his own admission, fairly generic gaming content. It was only when he pivoted to giveaways & stunts, something that was distinctive & different at the time, that his channel began to blow up. Go look at nearly any successful creator or brand that has built a community. At one point they will have carved out growth by providing a unique form of content.
Finally, once you have identified what your audience wants & a content gap you need to tie back to what makes your company unique. What are the unique attributes of the product you sell or the history of the brand you can hand your hat on? Duo Lingo double downed on its mascot Duo. Mark Ritson focused on his decades of experience as a Marketing leader and his candid no BS takes. And Mid-Day Squares focused on the fact they are relatively inexperienced yet authentic founders. An authenticity that is in stark contrast to the big corporate culture of Hersheys one of its biggest rivals.
Putting these three elements together we can build a simple yet effective approach to community building.
Ref #8: A new model for community building
Before we move on I want to make a caveat here. When it comes to mapping out your brand & a roadmap for community building avoid the vast majority of ‘personal branding’ experts. Whilst they may have mastered how the Linkedin or Twitter algorithms work, they have little to no experience in actually building a distinctive brand. There is a reason why all their profile pictures and content look the same. And don’t forget the vast majority of them make more money selling guides on Gumorad than actual strategy work.
Over the last few years community building has become a bit of a buzzword within marketing. Many have dismissed it as a passing fad that goes against the laws of marketing science. I prefer to take a more balanced approach. As shown community building can live alongside marketing science if defined properly. I also think it’s unwise for any brand to ignore a rapidly changing media landscape. One where any brand (or creator) with enough time, effort and talent can use new channels to build their own community. One where some creators are already building multi-million-dollar brands such as Prime & Beast Burger. Do I think every brand should attempt community building? Definitely not. Do I believe brands with smaller adspend or those in high-interest categories should? Yes. Throughout history, the best brands have always been ‘consistent and flexible’ in their approach. They have adapted their approach to marketing in response to changing consumer needs and external environments. As Charles Ebdy explains in Adapt or Die…
‘The need to adapt your brand to the characteristics of your market, to your external environment, and to your business advantage is critical’ Adapt or Die, Charles Ebdy.
So as our external environment begins to shift rapidly perhaps some should turn to community building as a means of brand growth.
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Please excuse the typ0s i’m proudly dyslexic
 Geek Reporter “Wealthiest YouTuber MrBeast Aims for $1.5 Billion Valuation”
 How Brands Grow | Byron Sharp
 Marketing in the Era of Accountability | Binet & Field
 The IPA effectiveness awards
 Media in Focus | Binet & Field
 A Year in TV 2022 | ThinkBox
 People spent on average 3hrs and 59mins on computers, tablets and smartphones (Ofcom: digital nation 2022)
 Ofcom Media Nations report
 The YouTube algrohtim promotes content that achieves two simple things - a high click through (CTR) and view-through rate (VTR).
 The Long & Short of it | Binet & Field
 How Brands Grow | Byron Sharp
 The Long & Short of it | Binet & Field