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Community Engagement: How to Get Your Market to Say Yes (For Free)

Insights June 4, 2014


It’s popularly thought that the barter system is an archaic, dead practice, but it’s a prime example of a valuable exchange sans money. That, and the shrewd negotiations that occur around grade school lunch tables. Peanut butter and jelly for a pizza Lunchable, anyone? But in the adult, corporatized world, can it still be done? Can a good, mutually beneficial deal be dealt without a unit of cash?

As it so happens, endless retail and corporate barter-type transactions are made on a daily basis in order to accommodate various business and budget-related constraints. PepsiCo’s initial marketing of Pepsi-Cola in the USSR in 1972 in exchange for Russian vodka (a step up from PBJs and pre-packaged pie), is a historical, international example and certainly not a bad deal given that it catalyzed a long-standing lucrative relationship. For a more familiar illustration that brings us back to the realm of Internet marketing, we can look to various online “buyback” programs such as Amazon’s Textbook Buyback, where you receive Amazon credit when you sell them your used goods. Still, these “credit” and “product exchanges” call upon the consideration of transferring relatively equal amounts of currency in sheep’s clothing.

When it comes to the working relationship between a brand and the audience of consumers it relies on to build its name, specifically online, is there an authentic way to motivate and incentivize their loyalty and participation without offering them something immediately tangible? If so, what does this look like in a modern marketing landscape?

Idea Traffic — What’s the Value?

The Internet has evolved to become, at the very least, an idea-exchange Interstate populated with sidebar ads in lieu of billboards vying to be exit destinations. The problem becomes, as with any superhighway, eventual congestion and toll increases. If you want to get to where you’re going, you’ve got to pay the price. In the midst of all this “idea traffic,” it’s no secret that it becomes increasingly difficult to pitch your ideas or brand without a discussion regarding compensation, which is understandable to an extent. Websites and their owners understand that they are often looked at as prime advertorial real estate. The value of online exposure has become, for the most part, common sense. Some are motivated to leverage this to their financial advantage, while others decline to take part in any project not solely their own; their online presence is purely for the intrinsic fun of it. Neither avenue is inherently right nor wrong, just preferential.

Tapping into the various forms of intrinsic motivation becomes an essential area of focus for brands looking to become the center of conversation. Once you identify who you want to connect with, you need to take the time to understand what it is they value most. It’s not only possible, but arguably more valuable to form a beneficial business relationship that avoids a tangible transfer. No paycheck, no giveaways, no free product reviews — just intrinsically motivated conversation. If you’re able to accomplish this, then you’ve got something worth talking about.

Give Away Without a Giveaway

The value of a good idea should not be underestimated, especially online. The food for anyone trying to survive on the Internet is good ideas. To get on your intended audience’s radar, position your brand as an idea-generator. Be a fellow thought-leader for them. Bloggers, for instance, constantly need new and original ideas to keep their own sites fresh. Not only that, but they want it to come from their own voice and aesthetic perspective as often as possible, so simply inviting them to re-share content that you’ve pre-made or posted won’t always cut it.

Here is where a bit of selflessness comes into play. Remember that PBJ from grade school? What if you offered it up for nothing in return? Sure, you’d be a little hungry, but you’d get a whole lot of “aw, thanks man’s” and maybe even a piece of cake next week. So, when you have that eventual epiphany, consider giving your idea away to someone who’d wish they thought of it first, before staking claim on it on your own company’s blog. A good idea is enough of an incentive to share and/or link more often than you might think.

Before you can be a thought-leader for someone else, you need to understand your own brand’s identity as it exists outside of its sales-related mission. In other words, what does its spirit look like? This is where understanding how far you can extend your brand’s reach becomes key, because at the crux of commerce is human connection. It takes people to make a transaction, so it’s possible to make yourself relevant in previously ignored communities. To properly prepare for doing this successfully and naturally, make your company look itself in the mirror and describe its character and values as if it were a human being. Would it be generous? Would it be blessed with a funny bone? Would it value literacy and education? What would it be good at? As people, who we are encompasses so much more than the way we make a living. The same should hold true for your company.

Become a member of the community you want to reach and carry yourself in a way that earns respect and admiration. Be a source of inspiration for ideas other than advertising your product and earn “thank you” mentions and shout outs. Most of all, recognize the value of them. Tap into timely events and innovate ideas based on those events that in some way encapsulate your brand’s spirit. It may sound like common sense, but if you want to find your company listed as a resource, be explicitly resourceful. For example, it’s often the case that a company that outperforms its competitors online does so through their blog or resource pages with evergreen, thoroughly researched content. And again, be prepared to offer it all up in exchange for nothing more than the potential of a new relationship. A company whose website and blog exist solely to sell its product will undoubtedly have a difficult time being welcomed into a community of influencers.

In the modern search marketing landscape, put brand awareness first. Let the effects of those pure efforts unfold naturally. Don’t ask for what you haven’t yet earned or deserve, and don’t let the anonymity of computer screens let you forget that people are behind the blogs you may be targeting. Your ideas will lead to their inspired, original content which will lead to a more sustainable kind of relationship of opportunity and mutual benefit.

For the Love of it

Now, you may be thinking, “would anyone really work for free?” First, whatever form your initial attempt at connection takes, it shouldn’t come off as a request for free labor or advertising. It should be a genuine proposition to share something you know they would value — something they would have created, posted, or shared themselves had they thought of it first, and it shouldn’t necessarily be directly about your brand. In times like these, your company should learn where and when it’s best to live in between the lines. Modern-day “sponsored posts” and “product reviews” are, more often than not, aggressive and blatant interruptions to the flow of an authentic blog and its voice; they become as intrusive and untrustworthy as a commercial on a radio station. The efforts and entities that are natural and organic, whether it be the peanut butter in your sandwich, a new post on your favorite blog, or the results of your Google search, are what’s most trusted, eaten, clicked, and above all — priceless.

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