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Part 1 of 3: Cultivating an Online Community & Engaging IRL by Valentina Lara

In today’s digital age, community engagement has become a cornerstone of successful marketing strategies. From online engagement to in-real-life (IRL) interactions, fostering connections with your audience is essential for building brand loyalty and driving sales. 

Hi, I’m Valentina and I’m a marketer with over 8 years of experience. I’m an insight-driven strategist, storyteller and community-builder. Just a bunch of fancy ways to say I’m curious, and I love ideating brand-centric plans that center around the customer or community that the brand serves.

Early in my career, I discovered my passion as a community manager for various entertainment clients at an agency. In this role, I collaborated with talented individuals to enhance the online presence of streaming titles through fan-focused content and community engagement. I crafted brand voices, curated content, and maximized the impact of social media by creating memes, GIF libraries, and fostering spontaneous engagement. I quickly learned the power of social media as part of a greater marketing strategy to help fuel fandom and cultivate an online community. At that moment, while managing the community of these entertainment accounts, it felt like that low-hanging fruit of engagement outside the pre-planned content calendar was pushing the needle for us. That secret sauce was one that I was able to make my own by drawing insights from seasoned entertainment creatives who excelled in launching shows or seasons with timely, culturally relevant content.

This article is the first of a three part series where I’ll share my insights from my journey of community manager and social media strategist, to integrated sales marketing lead and highlight the various facets of community engagement and how marketers can leverage them to inform their strategies and drive meaningful results.

The Evolution of the Marketing Funnel in the Gen Z Era

Before we jump in, it’s important to talk about the evolution of the marketing funnel in the age of Gen Z consumers. Gen Z has fundamentally reshaped the traditional marketing funnel, transforming it into a loyalty loop that prioritizes community and engagement over linear conversion stages. Today’s consumers are inspired by brands that share their values and foster a sense of belonging, leading to a more fluid and dynamic customer journey. This leaves marketers with the need to adapt their strategies to meet these evolving expectations. 

The Role of Consumer Experience in Building Brand Loyalty

While the traditional marketing funnel is still useful in identifying content and channel tactics, it’s important that marketers focus on building relationships rather than simply driving transactions. At the heart of brand loyalty lies the consumer experience journey, from initial awareness to repeat purchase and beyond. Positive experiences, community engagement, and compelling content all play a crucial role in shaping consumers’ perceptions of a brand and influencing their purchasing decisions. By using the marketing funnel, with insight on Gen Z’s preference to be inspired and to be part of a community, marketers can create a seamless experience that resonates with today’s consumers and drives long-term loyalty online and in their sales pipeline. 

Mobilizing Online Audiences for In-Person Engagement

Now, cultivating an online community is just the beginning. While your ultimate goal may be to move people into action (aka purchasing your product or service), there’s a hidden power in being able to move people into action outside of their screen. We’ve seen this be successful in the “fandom” pillar where celebrities or influencers have mobilized online audiences to attend in-person events. 

For example, at SXSW 2024, we saw the Unwell Network bring to life a brand activation, Unwell House, that was hosted by Alex Cooper and her illustrious circle of Unwell friends, including Harry Jowsey, Alix Earle, and Madeline Argy among others. The Unwell House showed the power of bringing together not just conference attendees – but a majority of non-industry professionals made up of local and national network fans who flew in to be part of the experience – Carbone Spicy Rigatoni and all – and shared real-time videos that created a sense of FOMO to other fans online. 

By leveraging their influence and creating compelling content, influencers are able to drive attendance mobilize their followers. Marketers can learn from these strategies and apply them to their own campaigns, leveraging the power of online communities to drive buzz around real-world brand activations that can build brand loyalty.

Leveraging IRL Community Programming for Informed Marketing Strategies

In an increasingly digital world, the value of in-person interactions cannot be overstated. Millennials and Gen Z want to do things, not buy things. In fact, a recent study by Eventbrite shows ower 78% of Millennials prefer experiences over products.

While we might not all have the budget to bring together a brand activation, there are ways that brands can activate IRL community programming. This programming can come to life in a variety of formats, from workshops, panels, community-building, networking or partnership pop-ups, IRL community programming allows marketers to connect with their audience on a deeper level. By hosting events, brands can gather invaluable insights into their customers’ preferences, pain points, and purchasing behaviors. These interactions not only strengthen brand-customer relationships but also provide actionable data to inform marketing and programming strategies across all stages of the funnel.

Maximizing Value from Customer Touchpoints through IRL Interactions

In my current role at Ampersand Studios, a creative coworking and content studio, we’ve seen firsthand the power of IRL interactions in strengthening member relationships and driving brand loyalty. By engaging with our community through events, pop-ups, and experiential activations, we’ve been able to create memorable experiences that resonate with our audience long after the event ends. These interactions not only foster a sense of belonging but also provide valuable feedback and insights that shape our marketing strategies and product offerings. 

My role at Ampersand Studios has allowed me, for the first time ever, to meet the target audiences from our marketing strategy in person! I’ve learned from our Members and re-adapted our marketing strategy in real-time to fit the needs of our growing and evolving community. What once was a distant relationship with fans via Tweets or Instagram replies on screen, became quick pivots or implementation of content and event programming to make sure our community’s experience was at the forefront.

The Power of Community Engagement

Community engagement is a powerful tool for modern marketers looking to drive meaningful results and build lasting relationships with their audience. By leveraging IRL interactions, maximizing customer touchpoints, and adapting to the evolving needs of consumers, marketers can unlock the full potential of community engagement and drive business growth in the digital age.

Join me next time as I share more about measuring success in community engagement and how you can get buy-in from your team to mobilize your community IRL. Part 2 of this series will be posted in July 2024. Stay tuned!

Related: &Guide: Unveiling The Top Social Media Trends For Creators In 2024



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