Getting the most out of online communities

Digital communities are a boon for brands looking to foster authentic connection on a consumer's terms, as we discover

Engaging with the inner circle

The power of communities has become very clear to apparel retailer, PAS Group, and especially for its women’s clothing line, Review. The brand’s Dress Circle community represents the highest level of its loyalty program, with invitations extended only to Review Loyalty Members who spend $5000 or more in any rolling 12-month period.

According to PAS Group group general manager for digital, Anna Samkova, the Dress Circle group has taken on a life of its own outside of official events and communication from the brand, with many of its 1200 members creating a Facebook group where they communicate with each other multiple times a day.

“Then they set up their own events, not supported by Review in any shape or form,” Samkova says. “Sometimes they fly between states to meet each other. They go out to restaurants and high teas, and the only prerequisite is you have to be part of that Facebook group and you have to wear Review.

“They approach us and tell us when and where they are thinking of running events and ask if we would we like to be a part of it and give them gift bags. But Review does not finance any of the events.”

In recognition of this, PAS Group serves different content to the Facebook group, such as alerting them to upcoming collaborations in advance of the general public.

“It is not a big community, but they are special because they shop with us every second week and spend three times more, so we treat them differently,” Samkova says. “There is a promise to them, as very valuable customers, that this is what we are going to do. And then when they reach out to us, we are very supportive.”

The Dress Circle has also proven helpful for providing feedback to the brand, including when it updated its mobile app.

“To build a community you need to have an in-depth understanding of who they are, how they shop with you and how they engage with the brand,” Samkova advises. “These are the basics. But it is very difficult to get it right because you do have to have a team of people that focuses on it.

“You have to create that feedback loop, where you find a way to listen to customers, and respond, and accommodate.”

Read more: How the ABC used an online community to help build a movement

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Communities for a cause

For fabric and sewing supplies retailer, Spotlight Retail Group, digital communities have provided a way to tap into a social group that has always been incredibly important to the company – makers.

“We have always known the maker community is very engaged, and you can see that through various digital channels where the makers will often want to show what they have done,” says Spotlight business development manager, Brendan How.

This spirit of engagement came to life in 2020 in the wake of Australia’s devastating bushfires through the creation of the Craft for a Cause group on Facebook, which encouraged sewers to make pouches and knit blankets for injured wildlife.

“The makers responded quite passionately about that and were very keen to do something for the community, but also have a channel where they can actually coordinate with and engage with others who had similar passions and interests,” How says. “We saw it as an opportunity to group those customers together and give them a channel where they can focus their efforts on particular causes.”

As the bushfire response gave way to the pandemic, the focus of the Craft for a Cause group quickly expanded to supporting frontline workers, with Spotlight engaging with not-for-profit, Rona Scrubs, to supply protective garments. Spotlight worked with Rona Scrubs to provide patterns and material to Craft for a Cause members and used its stores as drop-off points for finished garments. How says the size of the group quickly grew to 6000 at the beginning of the pandemic, with another 2000 joining as word spread among the maker community.

“We were able to provide the templates for facemasks and some guidelines in terms of making a safe and appropriate facemask,” How says.

Today, the group numbers 10,500 members, supplying items as diverse as fidget quilts for dementia sufferers and pet leads for animal charities.

Spotlight head of marketing, Padma Palani, says that while Spotlight is the moderator of the group, the company lets the members manage and support the community. Spotlight has made a clear distinction between this community and its mainstream Facebook community.

“The primary difference between this and our Facebook channel is we try our hardest not to use this as a promo channel, because this is not a sales platform,” Palani says. “This is not something where we go in and talk about having a sale. There is very little in the way up updates from us. It is definitely not a sales channel and we have been very clear about that.”

However, there are clear crossovers between the interests of the community members and Spotlight’s brand values and treating these shared interests with respect is what makes the model work.

“The two key words are respect and listening,” Palani says. “Because often in these big retail groups we can be perceived as telling or selling.

“We have been very clear from the start it has always been a community group. And that has helped us stay true to us as a brand as well. Customers are perceptive. They will know if you are trying to do something different. And the fact we have grown the numbers tells you it is an authentic conversation and an authentic community.”

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