Technology has been driving the evolution of marketing for as long as the field has existed, but the intertwined relationship between the two has never been more apparent. Social media is a prime example: online communities have opened new avenues for brands to reach consumers directly, and everyone from legacy brands to budding start-ups are aware of the need to cultivate a strong social media presence in order to stay visible and appear current.

And there is obvious financial gain to be had: RetailDive reports that consumers who engage with a brand online are likely to spend 19% more than the average shopper, and over the course of a lifetime active social media users may spend as much as 51% more. Aside from the immediate business incentives, there may be another big reason to pay attention to the changes: according to Eric Toda, Director of Marketing for Gap, social media may be the largest force behind an entire paradigm shift in the relationship between brands and consumers.

Eric would know: he has built his career around helping brands understand how to position themselves in the social marketplace. We hosted him for a conversation on the most recent episode of our podcast The Marketing Executive and learned all about “community driven marketing,” the new approach that many top brands—both established and fresh to the field—are using to rethink their relationships with their consumers. Eric helped us answer the following questions, among others:

  1. What is community driven marketing?
  2. Who’s doing it well?
  3. How is it different from traditional marketing?
  4. How does it fit in with customer experience as a whole?

You can listen to the episode here or download here. Or, if you can’t wait to dive in, read on to learn all about community driven marketing and why brands should be thinking in new ways about how they speak to their customers.

1. What is community driven marketing?

Community driven marketing might sound like a new concept, but it’s really just about looking at the marketing you already do through a new lens. Eric defines it as a collection of practices that includes: leveraging user-generated content; letting the community inform the development of new products or product iterations; and featuring real members of the community in your marketing and advertising.

“Previous generations of marketing have always been brands talking at you, talking to you,” Eric observes. “We live in an era in which social has enabled the consumer and the brand to have a two-way dialogue.” Community driven marketing, therefore, is cultivating that two-way dialogue so that you can “allow the community to carry your brand messages for you.” Invite your shoppers to talk to you, give you feedback (including negative feedback), ask questions, and advocate for you on social platforms and in all public spaces. If they feel respected and connected, that sense of community can become the backbone of your marketing efforts and help boost your brand identity.

2. Who’s doing it well?

So, what does this look like in practice? Eric highlights technical apparel company Outdoor Voices as an example of a business that has mastered the approach. They not only encourage the audience to give positive feedback, “they say ‘what don’t you like about the tights,’ or ‘what else can you tell me about the tights,’ and ‘I’m going to take this feedback and bring it to our product team so our next product iteration will have your feedback on it, will have your fingerprints on it.’” That’s how you build the sense in consumers that “this brand is listening to me, this brand is creating for me.”

3. How is it different from traditional marketing?

At its core, community driven marketing is about thinking beyond individual transactions as the end goal. “A modern brand builds a community of their consumers,” Eric says. “A traditional brand just builds a transaction.”

In traditional marketing, the buying journey is mapped as the sequence

1) awareness

2) consideration

3) purchase

Too often brands make the mistake of conflating their consumers with a market or a demographic. But customers can tell when they’re not being treated like real people. When marketing is truly centered on community, the relationship—and the business impact—extend far beyond purchase. If the effort to engage customers ends at the transaction, the brand misses the opportunity to reach three subsequent (and arguably, much more valuable) stages of the consumer relationship:

4) feedback

5) advocacy

6) evangelism

Counterintuitively, it’s the three stages that happen after purchase that build the most value momentum. Many brands used to, and unfortunately still do, approach feedback reactively: they don’t solicit feedback, and when they get a public piece of negative feedback they respond only to placate that individual. By doing so, they’re missing out on the value that their customers are offering them: free insights into how to make the product better, offered by the people who are arguably most invested in it. If a brand handles that interaction well and makes customers feel listened to, those same customers become the brand’s best advocates. And when advocates fully embrace the product and what the brand stands for, they become evangelists who can bring even more customers into the community and help grow the brand.

4. How does it fit in with customer experience as a whole?

Community isn’t just an aspect of customer experience—it should be “the umbrella for customer experience” says Eric. Brands need to learn to see “the entire 360 journey for the consumer,” by engaging and investing in relationships for the entire customer lifespan.

This isn’t necessarily easy to do. “The consumer expects you to be wherever they are,” Eric says. That means that brands are more accountable than ever: marketers need to pay attention to their customers’ patterns, monitor the channels where they’re most engaged, and be as responsive as possible. But they can’t do that if they’re treating all of their customers the same.

While our conversation with Eric focused mostly on the application of social media in community driven marketing, we think the core ideas apply perfectly to personalization more broadly. In order to ensure a customer experience in which each consumer feels recognized and respected, brands should make sure they are applying these same principles across every touchpoint. The “360 journey” spans from the first interaction, whichever channel it’s on, through to purchase and the relationship that follows. This is only possible if brands commit using all the data available to offer the best possible customer experience to each shopper, on every channel. Strong community starts with treating customers as the individuals they are.

Check out the podcast for more insights from Eric, including how brands can measure whether their efforts are really helping to grow business, how newer brands can build community, and the pitfalls of trying to force a message that may not resonate. Personalization still matters: customers want to be recognized as individuals and know brands understand them.