The psychology of brand loyalty and online communities.

The psychology of brand loyalty and online communities.

77% of brands could disappear without a trace, and no one would even care. So, how do successful brands build loyalty in today’s increasingly competitive market? The link between brand loyalty and connected customer experiences has never been clearer. It’s what inbound marketing is all about- nurturing prospective and existing customers through the entirety of the buyer journey from consideration to post-purchase support. It’s now time for businesses to stop thinking of their customers in terms of transactions alone. But as real and meaningful relationships that add value both directly and indirectly to the brand at large. But if we look at the way most businesses go about their marketing strategies, we’re still seeing most efforts being channeled into the top of the funnel - visibility, acquisition, and conversion. Many brands depend on online communities for finding and nurturing would-be customers at these stages too. Unfortunately, the other end of the customer lifecycle often doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. It’s time for retention and loyalty to get some more love. Many businesses, particularly in the retail sector, already have well-established customer loyalty programs. But that’s usually where things end. Plus, customer and brand loyalty aren’t the same thing, which we’ll discuss below. While offering a financial incentive is just as powerful as it always has been, the internet and social media have given brands many more ways to achieve loyalty. Particularly when it comes to how people perceive your organisation. These largely revolve around online communities, such as those found on mainstream social media.

What is brand loyalty?

Brand loyalty differs from customer loyalty in that it’s all about how people perceive your brand. Whereas customer loyalty primarily relates to the spending power your customers have. Brand loyalty, by contrast, has very little to do with things like prices or discounts. Although, it does have a major indirect impact on your bottom line. Unlike customer loyalty, which is driven by things like repeat purchases and receptiveness to up-selling and cross-selling, brand loyalty is entirely determined by social engagements. In today’s information-driven world, these online social interactions are more varied and widespread than ever before to the extent that they have a knock-on effect on the success of any modern organisation.

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Establishing a sense of belonging through community identification 

Brands that establish a strong sense of belonging among their customers enjoy, on average, a three-fold increase in revenue over six years The feeling of belonging isn’t just something that’s nice to have. It’s a fundamental human need and a major influencer on mental health. It’s part of what defines the notion of humanness and sets us apart from the machines we’ve come to rely on so heavily. Without a community that’s driven by real relationships and meaningful person-to-person interactions, there’s nothing to belong to. And without that sense of belonging, there’s no emotional connection.

Relationship between a sense of belonging and brand loyalty  

The above might seem obvious, but the psychology of belonging isn’t something that concerns our personal lives alone. It also concerns our relationships with brands. Think for a moment of your favourite brand. It’s probably not your favourite because it has billboards plastered all over town or constantly interrupts your web browsing experiences with annoying popup ads. In fact, chances are it’s your favourite brand because it made you feel something. Organisations that build and nurture brand loyalty do so by humanising themselves. In a time when our ties to technology have made it easier than ever to access information, there’s more talk of things like marketing automation and data analytics. The importance of these is indisputable, increasing reliance on technology is also making us crave a human connection above all else. That’s the secret sauce of brand loyalty. The role of online communities in brand loyalty steps from the basic human need and right. It starts with the psychological bases of relationships. By identifying with a brand community, a customer develops loyalty to that community. Similarly, satisfaction with the community leads to word-of-mouth influence through interactions with others. Now, these factors also apply to the subsequent construct that is the brand behind the community. Community loyalty leads to brand loyalty, while community satisfaction leads to customer satisfaction. It all begins with a sense of belonging that’s enabled by real human relationships.

Understanding the psychology of online social engagements

Only one percent of people who like a brand page actually visit the brand page, making ‘likes’ one of the most useless metrics of all for tracking social marketing performance Although the whole concept of brand loyalty might sound somewhat abstract, it’s actually far more measurable than you might think. That’s because every digital activity generates data. Whether it’s something as simple as someone clicking the ‘like’ button on Facebook or leaving feedback on a consumer review website. This data provides insights into the effectiveness of your online social engagements, thus helping you build a broader picture of how people perceive your brand. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most poorly understood areas of branding. 

Why does social engagement have an impact on brand loyalty?

Before you can effectively qualify and quantify brand loyalty, you need to know which online social engagements are important. To do that, you need to understand why they’re important and how they impact brand loyalty. And no, it’s not always the engagements that directly lead to revenue. Those are the ones you want to pay attention to when you’re evaluating customer loyalty as opposed to brand loyalty. 

Do 'likes' count as social engagement?

The most basic online social engagement is the humble like on a page or post on Facebook or almost any other social network. Similar to the upvote feature found on many community forums, the ‘like’ serves as a small endorsement. Content with more likes typically enjoy more visibility on the platform and, in some cases, in the search engines. To some, likes are the holy grail of social media marketing. Unfortunately, at least in the case of mainstream social media, they’re anything but. The problem is that few people ‘like’ posts because they actually like them. Sometimes they tap ‘like’ even when they hate the post, perhaps because Facebook et al have yet to bless us with a dislike button. The problem with likes is that they’re too easy. It’s an illusion of popularity that triggers a false sense of achievement – a largely synthetic act that means nothing. You can easily test this yourself if you have a large follower count. Try sharing a link to a popular webpage. You’ll almost invariably see that, out of the number of likes the post receives, only a tiny fraction will bother to click on the link. The only exception is with some online forums, where likes take the form of upvotes and are used for peer-to-peer moderation. Fortunately, most of these platforms also have a downvote button.

Sign that says stick with me


What can you use to measure social engagement?

So, if likes don’t matter, then what constitutes meaningful social engagement? Much like in real life, the answer is conversation. That’s something that seems to happen less and less on mainstream social channels, something that’s largely down to the fact they’ve become highly overcrowded. Many interactions on Facebook or Instagram, for example, are driven solely by the fear of missing out as people try to make themselves heard among all the digital noise. It’s why social media is arguably making us less social and, at worst, feel lonely and depressed. Add all the spamming, trolling, and bullying into the equation, and you’ve got an increasingly toxic community that’s completely lost control of itself. The more people wake up to that fact, the more will leave social media in search for friendlier and close-knit social environments. The more extraverted among us crave attention and treasure fame, which is why so many still hang around on the major social channels. Brands, given that their success hinges on fame, are doing the same. Unfortunately, numbers mean nothing if they don’t lead to desired results. Sure, social media can still be very useful for increasing visibility, but visibility alone has little relation to brand loyalty. Today’s overcrowded digital world is, in many ways, analogous to a big and unfamiliar city. Imagine being a newcomer in a sprawling metropolis where you don’t know a single soul. It’s a lonely experience, largely because it’s near impossible to know where to start. You might be able to find a place to mingle with people of like mind if you’re willing to persevere, but in the digital world, it’s even harder. The anonymity of people hiding behind their monitors on social channels is often little more than a shadow of the real person. Add the countless fake profiles into the mix, and you’ve also got a whole world of fakery to contend with as well. If that sounds to you like something out of the dystopian world of Blade Runner, then you’re on the right track towards understanding the main problem with these excessively large online communities.  Again, this all comes down to psychology. Evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar even came up with a number of the maximum amount of meaningful relationships our brains are capable of. It’s around 150. The average number of ‘friends’ people have on Facebook is 338. Given that our social behaviour is deeply rooted in our biology, we can hardly expect the rise of Facebook et al to truly change the way we view relationships, at least not in the foreseeable future. Chances are, the majority of those 338 friends on Facebook aren’t even people you know or probably even want to know.

Hands on IPad


How mainstream social channels lead to an unhealthy fear of missing out

The fear of missing out is a driving force behind social media addiction, and all the meaningless ‘social’ interactions that come with it.  Most of us are driven by peer pressure to some degree, whether we admit it or not. It’s this natural human instinct that generates the fear of missing out. And social media creates FOMO to an unprecedented degree. The most active people on social media often have a habit of joining as many groups and liking as many posts as they possibly can. Even networks which centre around in-person events, such as Meetup, are heavily influenced by FOMO – there’s a huge disparity between the numbers of people in each group and those who actually go to any of the events organised by the group. Groups on Facebook and LinkedIn are perhaps even more pitiful – the Digital Marketing group on LinkedIn, for example, has 1.2 million members, yet there are very few actual conversations. From a brand loyalty perspective, FOMO is the source of many misconceptions. Many brands seem to think they’re popular just because they have thousands of followers on Facebook, yet most of those followers liked their brand pages purely out of the FOMO. Some will even go so far as to buy followers, as though having a multitude of fake profiles is actually of any value! In conclusion, both brands and consumers are driven by the dreaded FOMO when it comes to social media, and it’s not doing anyone any favours. FOMO itself is a common marketing strategy whereby brands attempt to make an impact by triggering negative emotions. Unsurprisingly, this is almost universal among social engineering scammers and spammers who often depend heavily on instilling a sense of urgency, jealousy, or disappointment. If you’re going to use the FOMO for your own marketing strategy, you must have the right intention and never try to deceive your customers. If you do, it won’t be long before they start sensing it.

phone with Facebook open next to laptop

Less is more in the world of social interaction

Brands with their own communities outside the major social channels enjoy around 16 times higher engagement rates and 30 times the return on investment.  Since our brains are hardwired into having a limited number of meaningful relationships, it stands to reason that we should be encouraging the creation of smaller online communities. When it comes to brand loyalty, it’s far more valuable to have a hundred brand advocates who proactively spread the word about your products and services than having any number of so-called fans on Facebook. It all comes down to proper targeting and understanding who makes the best fit for your value proposition. That’s one of the reasons why more brands are building their own communities, either in the form of website forums of private social networks.

Are followers the same as engagement?  

It’s very tempting for brands to follow the handbook approach of setting up profiles on as many social networks as possible and then trying to build up their follower counts as quickly as they can. That’s a mistake for many reasons, but the overarching one is that it’s far less likely to lead to meaningful engagement. If you’re spreading yourself thin over every social network you can find, you’ll end up either with the same blanket approach to your whole social strategy or investing far too many resources on efforts that have a minimal return on investment. It’s much better instead to focus the majority of your efforts on one network, preferably one over which you have complete control.  For any niche business, there’s a small but clearly defined audience of enthusiasts, and they all have similar needs and desires. That means they’ll also have a harder time trying to find a place they can call home. With so many Facebook groups being either infested with spam or digital ghost towns, they’re not likely to find what they want there. Instead, they crave quality and relevance, meaningful connections with people they have something in common with. But that can’t happen if there’s an excess of digital noise in a crowded community where no one can get a word in edgeways.

How can you encourage meaningful engagement?

To encourage meaningful engagement, brands need to start small and think holistically. Their intentions need to be clear and honest and their marketing efforts ethical in a time when people are less trusting than ever. Because they’re much smaller, holistic, and more closely controlled, brand communities can become a core part of your value proposition. They create belonging without manipulation, and when members start to feel a sense of loyalty to one another, this will generate brand loyalty too.  Now that might sound great for small niche businesses, but brand communities are every bit as important for larger organisations too. To maintain a holistic approach, larger communities simply need to be deviated a bit to accommodate different social groups. For example, a forum or private social network might have multiple interest groups or membership tiers, with some locked behind a paywall. Disciple helps brands build unique social spaces that they own and control. In fact, our customers are seeing an average return on investment of 3,000% and 16 times more engagement.