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Why companies need to network more in their markets


Elina Närvänen

Researcher, School of Management at University of Tampere


Communities play an important role in today’s consumer market. Through products and services, consumers are seeking meaning and experiences, particularly shared ones. The role of a brand is to serve as a link between consumers and consumer communities, creating social value and diverse community networks. For companies, the challenge is to assume a new role in networks, which are increasingly difficult to manage in traditional ways. Diverse communities The types of consumer communities and participation vary. Finnish examples include meets of Jopo bicycle enthusiasts, the fan club of the hockey team Tappara, the veteran Tunturi moped club, local organic food circles and online communities such as for people on a low-carb diet. The new types of communities are independent of time and place, but more traditional communities – such as groups of friends, workplace communities and families – can also assume a brand as a sign of togetherness. For example, a pile of old Reino & Aino slippers on the terrace of a summer cottage, free for everyone to use, can create a sense of community. A sense of togetherness can also be momentary and based on shared experiences, such as taking part in the Restaurant Day event in Helsinki, during which anyone can open a restaurant for a day, or a climate protection campaign organised by the Carrotmob Finland collective consumer initiative at a local shop. Consumers create links between communities by participating in different ways and at different times. This results in streams of resources, information and social relationships between communities. Companies gain momentum through products and services that serve as links between consumers. Moreover, communities are superior communication channels and can help companies create new markets. Communities also create new practices, such as consumer modification and customisation of products as well as new usage contexts, generating new demand. For this reason, companies should see their customers as members of communities, as part of a broader context. Weak ties are important Communities are founded on both strong and weak ties. Strong ties reinforce a sense of togetherness within the group, while weak ties link two groups together. The Reino & Aino slippers is a good example of the power of weak links. An old brand, Reino & Aino was revived and became a phenomenon after consumer communities had assumed it as their symbol. This diverse network of communities ranges from ice hockey fans to fans of the rock band Negative to residents of the Pyterlahti village in eastern Finland, who regard Reino slippers as their official shoe. This shows how a brand can serve as a link between communities and create surprising ties. In networks, influence gravitates towards junctions, also known as hubs. In other words, companies should seek to become hubs in networks of communities. This role, however, requires networking skills. Hubs provide information and resources and create relationships without trying to control the network too much. A company can, for example, sponsor communities or take them into account in corporate communications. Networks serve as part-time marketers, attracting interest in the company. Reciprocity and trust are important in networks, enabling all players to benefit. Companies can reciprocate through social responsibility or charitable work, for example. How to improve networking skills: 1. Identify communities and contexts in which people talk about your brand or company, online and offline. 2. Familiarise yourself with the network: what type of communities and groups does it include? What are the members interested in? Where do they like to spend time? 3. Take a positive and open approach to communities. Do not show hostility or try to control. 4. Foster the network of communities through continuous dialogue. 5. Enable communities to participate by providing them with resources, tools and influence. 6. Remember reciprocity: compensate communities for their creative work!

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