Communications & Marketing

Tapping into the power of communities

By Erika Clegg (pictured), co-founder at Spring, a strategic communications design agency known as ‘the Agency for Change’

Power to the people! Because whether you run a business or a regeneration project, it’s people who will bring about success. So, how well do you know them? Democracy has brought about a

few political surprises in the last few years. And what this makes abundantly clear is that the established means of gauging people’s thinking aren’t working. The good news is that we can

harness this new people power to grow our businesses. Social media and the sharing economy have democratised communications. It’s people, not brands, which influence people. And the closer you can get into real social groups, the more

influence you’re likely to grasp. To deliver what

people want, you need to really understand them and their circles, and then talk to them in ways that will appeal to them, in their territory. Deep understanding of your audience will even lead to reduced campaigning costs and lower risk product development. One challenge is that there is now

a groundswell of privacy and selective engagement. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day, there’s a lot of competition to interest them, so you’ve got to focus to help them focus. You need to be

rigorous in how you target, craft and connect your content with community influencers. Seventy per cent of online

sharing happens in what’s termed ‘dark social’ and there’s a rise in small, niche networks and micro- influencers. So it’s worth putting budget into a nimble, research- and response-led social media process with new channels, new bloggers, and using new messages as well as the traditional large networks. But what about the real world?

My advice is that you’re going to have to find some rather old- fashioned ways to engage with your community. You’ll need a deeper and more personalised understanding of people’s lives, allowing you to meet them on their own turf, in their own language with a good handle on their needs, motivations and concerns. Research increasingly

demonstrates that both understanding and influence happen more effectively the closer to someone’s comfort zone you get. The other advantages of community-based interaction include risk limitation, with projects’ and products’ chances of hitting target – and not launching with a misfire – being increased by well targeted research within a focused community. With that comes effective use of

budget, efficient use of resource, and the opportunity for great return on investment. What’s more, many of the most transformative actions take place within hard-to- reach groups, which are far more accessible through genuine community understanding than any other means.


The truth is that influence in

communities, whether geographic or demographic, comes not just from the elected and high-ranking, but also from the people who, through character and connections, are the lodestars of their own groups. These are what might be called early adopters or thought leaders – and they are as likely to be bar staff, nursery assistants and bus drivers as they are priests and politicians. Communities trust these people, valuing their opinions and so they present brands with an unprecedented opportunity to gather understanding and disseminate messages with maximum impact. What’s also clear is that from

one community to another, hopes and fears may be completely different. In order to understand and tap into what influences consumers at a hyper local level, you need to uncover the needs and motivations of a small community, the language in which it speaks and the platforms through which it communicates. This cannot be achieved through

just desk-based research – by necessity the data must be on the ground, face-to-face and personable. In fact, it is a pleasantly old-fashioned solution to a rather modern shift. Whether you deploy this or more

traditional research methods, now is undoubtedly the time to put your energies into unearthing this level of insight. People power is here to stay, and the better you understand communities and demonstrate respect for their behaviours, the more relevant and successful you will be.

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