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Why brands need to act like membership organizations

An engagement model built for the era of branded communities

Merrill Wasser is senior vice president of strategic growth at Long Dash. She is a business and brand experience consultant, previously holding roles at Razorfish and Digitas.

In 1962, Candid Camera, the ultimate pioneer of reality television, filmed an amusing experiment to test the power of social influence. An unsuspecting subject stepped into an elevator with several hired actors. The actors all turned to face the back of the elevator, and in a matter of seconds, the subject turned around to imitate them—despite the unconventional pose for an elevator ride. 

This is a classic example of social proof—a mental shortcut where people make decisions based on what they observe others doing. When we face a cascade of daily information and choices, it’s easier to embrace what’s popular in the hopes that the choices of others are good choices for us, too. Marketers have liberally used this concept to drive sales through slick product testimonials and influencer campaigns. 

But our need for belonging goes deeper than these surface-level ploys. We are entering an age in which people are demanding substance over sales tactics, and that means real connection with like-minded individuals. Companies that understand this stand to gain the attention and loyalty of entire communities. This shift means brands must take a fresh look at the power of social belonging and the nuanced and sophisticated ways they can harness it. 

Creating a sense of belonging has become a business imperative

For too long, companies have relied heavily on advertising campaigns and special deals to drive sales. There’s a reason they do this: It creates short-term results. But these tactics don’t build long-term equity in a brand’s relationship with customers. They’re simply a way to “rent” people’s attention and dollars. The accuracy and impact of ad targeting have also been called into question, and according to one study, ad tech middlemen take up to a 50 percent cut of online ad spending.

People are hungry for a sense of belonging and connection that goes beyond transactions, and they’ve made it clear they want brands to provide it.

The reality is people are hungry for a sense of belonging and connection that goes beyond transactions, and they’ve made it clear they want brands to provide it. A recent Long Dash study found more than half of consumers want their favorite brands to provide them with a sense of community. The top reason for people wanting access to such a community is to connect with other people who share their interests. This mattered to respondents even more than getting special access to member deals and benefits (a close second). The ability to connect people to one another is particularly compelling in an era when a proliferation of digital technology and social distancing have made isolation and loneliness rampant—especially among young people. Almost 70 percent of Gen Z and millennials said brands have the power to create communities based on common interests and passions. 

There’s an upside for brands who can do this well: The majority of consumers spend more with brands they feel connected to, and three quarters purchase from a brand they feel connected to instead of a competitor. The bottom line is that people don’t want to be sold to—they want a real relationship with brands and real relationships with each other based on shared interests and values.

Membership: A model for cultivating belonging

Fortunately, there is a well-trodden model for brands to emulate and harness the human drive for belonging. Membership organizations have been cultivating belonging within their communities for decades. Instead of focusing on short-term transactions, membership organizations flip the script and focus on building long-term relationships. According to Uzra Khan, director of editorial strategy at Long Dash, “Membership is about being part of a community, being invited into a circle of people, and having a two-way relationship with the organization that sponsors it. Subscriptions can be transactional, but when they open the doors to community that subscription model feels more like a membership.” Content publishers with high-value subscription programs, brands with engaging loyalty programs, and professional network associations can all be thought of as member organizations—for example, The New York Times, American Express, and Chief, the exclusive network for women executives.

The big insight for brands is that member organizations go beyond products and transactions to create long-term, high-value relationships. They bring together people with a shared identity to feel a sense of belonging and exchange value with one another. 

The cornerstone to creating long-term relationships is to tap into shared identities that draw people to one another. One business that has created a thriving community around shared identities is Peloton, an at-home stationary bike and exercise class membership with fitness devotees who view it as a form of secular religion. Centered around inclusion, goodwill, and belief, Peloton encourages its members to enrich their lives by enriching others—a message similar to that of traditional religions. This emotional encouragement and a passion for cycling has become a shared identity for members and a source of community they can enjoy from their homes, especially during the pandemic when in-person meet-ups have been difficult, if not impossible. As one Peloton fan said, “Peloton is building community, helping to fill the gaps created by the current crisis—and, yes, the gaps left by organized religion’s failures.”  

Peloton Homecoming, for example, is an annual convention for the brand’s most loyal fans, where thousands of attendees can take photos with their favorite instructors and meet friends they’d made online through their membership. Peloton has also given rise to numerous sub-communities that connect with each other through spin classes and social media: Christians who spin, moms, theater fans, the list goes on. With millions of social media followers and even an Instagram channel dedicated to Peloton memes, Peloton is not just selling an exercise program—it’s selling access to a community built around shared identity. The proof is in the bottom line: Despite recent financial troubles and leadership churn, membership retention rates remain above 90 percent. That’s proof of the power of a loyal brand community.

“But our audience doesn’t have a single shared identity.”

This is a common objection from brands. Some identities are fairly powerful, which makes for a strong sense of belonging. But most brands seek to have a broader appeal, and struggle to identify a shared interest or identity to tap into. If they pick an identity that is too narrow, they exclude a huge portion of their audience. Pick one that’s too broad, and it feels weak and diluted without the power to bring people together. Many brands also live in fear that if they appeal to new audiences, they’ll alienate others who don’t share their identity or values. 

However, community-building isn’t a zero-sum game. It is possible to build multiple communities and memberships that serve more than one audience. The key is to think of member communities like a set of nesting dolls, where the largest doll—or broadest community—appeals to the broadest possible shared identity and serves as a kind of container for the rest. A brand may have sub-communities that appeal to a more niche and powerful shared identity, but they should still be centered around a broader shared idea or purpose that all members identify with. This is what keeps a brand experience cohesive even as it appeals to people’s different interests.

The New York Times, for example, established its NYT Cooking subscription several years ago and amassed 120,000 subscribers in just its first year and a half. As of 2021, NYT Cooking attracts over a hundred million annual users to its content, recipes, and community conversation. The cooking subscription hasn’t cannibalized readers from The New York Times, however. On the contrary, it’s amplified the brand’s ability to connect with more people based on their passions and interests. NYT Cooking general manager Amanda Rottier says, “There’s a high overlap with readers from The New York Times, because its readers are curious people, and our readers are curious about food.”

Membership means giving up (some) control

The best membership organizations are vibrant and self-perpetuating because they intuitively tap into shared identities. This inherently means organizations need to hand over some control of their organization to their members, something most organizations find deeply uncomfortable. It is, after all, their collective identity and experiences that make the community tick. At a macro level, the world is experiencing a broader trend towards decentralized, consensus-driven organizations. One classic example is REI, which is a co-op owned by its members. This model is gaining popularity, as data show member-owned businesses can boost profits by 14 percent and are five percent more productive than traditional ownership models. The trend towards member governance is being accelerated by blockchain-powered technology, which can put power into the hands of the many rather than the few. Decentralized autonomous organizations, or DAOs, for example, use blockchain technology to enable governance by their members rather than a central authority.

Organizations need to hand over some control of their organization to their members.

According to a recent Long Dash survey, nearly half of consumers want their favorite brands to give them more influence into how those companies make decisions. They don’t only want to influence the company’s products and investments—the second most popular reason people want to influence a brand’s decisions is to just have their voices be heard. Simply put, people are seeking acknowledgement from and a deeper connection to the brands they love. 

But there is a disconnect between how much control members want in their communities and how much control brands have given them to date. Research found that 63 percent of consumers say they want control over the content they receive, but only 24 percent of marketers say they are meeting this need well. 

Vicki Deal-Williams, CEO of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), is responsible for supporting and empowering a member network of the nation’s audiologists and speech-language pathologists. ASHA offers an example of what member influence can look like for brands (for transparency, ASHA is a Long Dash client). “ASHA is its members,” Deal-Williams says. “Our strategic planning process includes members as stakeholders. Our board of directors is comprised of members—so members are my boss. I am a member, so I can see things from a leadership perspective but I can also recognize very clearly how decisions will influence and impact members. Having that member-centered approach is essential, otherwise we can’t serve our members and that’s why we exist.” 

This approach of including members in an organizations’ governance and decision-making is what Long Dash CEO Kate Watts has coined “consensus commerce.” Watts says, “Consensus commerce is a model of business that reimagines the most engaged consumer and brand ambassador as owner and partner. Companies will relinquish some control and profit in exchange for its audience’s insights and participation in product development and ambassadorship as a growth strategy.” This collaboration between brands and their most loyal audiences is what will drive a sense of belonging and ongoing engagement that perpetuates brand health and growth.

The need to belong is a basic human instinct—it is as fundamental to our health as our need for food, water, and shelter. We want to be accepted, valued, and heard by others. We want to be members. Our evolutionary success depends on this social belonging. It motivates us to learn, catalyzes innovation, and gives us a sense of safety and security. Yet, even with all of today’s technology and social media at our disposal, people’s sense of connection and community is eroding. There is an urgent gap to be filled, and people want brands to fill it. Brands that can act as genuine conveners will be rewarded with an engaged community for years to come. All it will take is for them to act more like membership organizations.

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