Bring The Outside In: Let Superfans Shape Your Brand

TheSkimm, littleBits, Salesforce. What do these disparate brands have in common? Each has successfully grown its business by actively engaging the help of communities outside its organization. 

“People influence people. A trusted referral influences people more than the best broadcast message.”—Mark Zuckerberg

Word of mouth has long been the Holy Grail of marketing; there’s no better way to win new customers than to have current ones recommend your brand. Google famously capitalized on word of mouth during the 1990s, blossoming from a campus research project with a cultlike following into the world’s preeminent search engine, surpassing contenders like AltaVista, Excite, and Yahoo—all without any advertising.

Social media and the internet exponentially increase the reach and power of word of mouth, broadcasting customer reviews and recommendations far and wide. More important, social platforms have enabled interest groups and fan communities to come together. Some platforms attract fans while others cater to haters. Either way, these grassroots communities leave brands in a tenuous position—on the outside of their own brand conversations.



In light of this, marketers would be wise to rethink the role customers and fans play in shaping brand image. Communities are powerful forces. They can be market makers, product developers, problem solvers, help desk staffers, and content creators. 

Our challenge as marketers is to provide the right level of guidance and freedom to maximize their contributions to the brand. 

Walking the talk

To many marketers, this approach sounds crazy. It’s not written about in textbooks, nor does it come to mind when you’re putting together a strategic plan. But a few brands have figured it out—and are making waves as a result.

Here are three of my favorites:

1. theSkimm: Skimm’bassadors

The brainchild of two newspaper reporters, theSkimm is a curated daily news digest. Its founders realized that many women grab their phones as soon as their alarms go off, reading emails and texts as they’re waking up. So theSkimm not only sends its messages early in the morning, it does so in a persona tailored for its core demographic: millennial women. TheSkimm doesn’t just tell its readers what’s going on in the world, it delivers the news in a hip voice alive with humor and pop culture references. 

Early readers liked theSkimm so much that they dubbed themselves Skimm’bassadors and asked how they could promote the brand. TheSkimm listened and quickly built a formal program to harness their input. Today, the brand rewards loyalists with everything from prizes, event tickets, and birthday celebrations to internships and daily name callouts. 

In just five years, this zealous community has grown the brand from a startup to a thriving e-newsletter with over five million subscribers. The Skimm’bassador program has followed a similar trajectory, increasing from 200 superfans in 2014 to more than 20,000 today. And last year, with contributions and insights from these enthusiasts, theSkimm branched into video and launched Skimm Ahead, a calendar app to keep readers abreast of appointments and events. 

2. littleBits: There’s a bit for that

From its inception in 2011 electronics company littleBits has embraced an open model. Think of its product as a modular electronics kit mashed up with Legos. Each “bit” is an individual electronic component such as a motor, fan, or LED bulb. Bits snap together to create circuits that move and do things—no engineering expertise required—and allow non-engineers to invent, prototype, or just play. While this open-source strategy may not be new in the software industry, it’s a radical change for the hardware category, proving that a community-based approach can succeed within the sector.

LittleBits founder Ayah Bdeir explains the thinking behind the brand: “We want people to say, ‘There’s a bit for that,’ and if there isn’t one, they will make one.” With this as its guiding philosophy, littleBits has grown from a local, New York-based company into a global movement. Makers share their inventions through videos and stories and nominate bits to be manufactured next. 

LittleBits has resonated with designers, engineers, coders, educators, STEM champions, school kids, and tech advocates. Through its engaged community, the brand has seen the complexity and variety of bits explode. Forums and blogs are prolific, and a network of over 300 self-starting chapters has sprung up in 56 countries around the world. 

3. Salesforce: Trailblazers

Salesforce, a well-established cloud-based customer-relationship-management specialist with deep coffers, could easily spend hundreds of millions on advertising. What has it chosen to focus on instead? A program empowering its customers—Trailblazers—to evangelize its brand.

Like theSkimm, Salesforce is tapping into an existing behavior. Customers whose careers or businesses were jump-started by Salesforce are often happy to share their knowledge with others. The company brings them together on- and offline, encouraging friendships, skills sharing, mentoring, and giving back, a core Salesforce value. Embracing this community, Salesforce even helps them host Trailblazer events to demonstrate their tools more widely. 

In the Minneapolis area, Shonnah Hughes runs a Trailhead Ranger Boot Camp giving young women of color the opportunity to hone their Salesforce and STEM skills. Other Trailblazers have shared their passion for Salesforce in businesses throughout Australia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Japan. Jennifer Lee explains how much it means to be a Trailblazer: “It’s touching when people say something I’ve shared has truly helped them. I never thought of myself as being an inspiration to others.”

The new Holy Grail

Surprising as it may seem, these successful businesses aren’t tightly controlling their brands. Instead, they’re letting growth come organically from within their communities. And they aren’t passively standing by while it happens—they’ve made these groups active participants in brand evolution. Take Salesforce. It places tremendous value in “Ohana,” its family of partners, customers, employees, and local communities, and encourages this family to collaborate and care for one another.

Managing by community isn’t merely an add-on tool or a new social channel to push out messaging. It’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about brand management. As with any major shift, it’s crucial to determine the right approach, and  we’ve given that a lot of thought this past year. In fact, we’ve worked with our own clients to co-create a framework for managing brands by community.

TheSkimm, littleBits, and Salesforce have all found ways to embrace and nurture communities—and it’s working for them. They haven’t just asked people to wear a sweatshirt, write a review, or promote their brand on Facebook. They’ve welcomed their fans into the brand family, and they stand to reap the rewards of loyalty, passionate involvement, and far-reaching word of mouth. The new Holy Grail of marketing? Brand community.

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