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Inside the Walled Garden

Inside the Walled Garden

Sarah Steimer

green hedge

How online communities give marketers a uniquely personal perspective on customer language, behavior and motivations

Across the world, at all hours, people are seeking support.

But they’re not calling their psychiatrist, a trusted confidant or family member. They’re tapping into a network of near-strangers going through similar trials and tribulations. In social media groups and other web communities, people share recipes, discuss workouts and seek advice for side effects of medication. They comment, lament and sometimes just passively observe.

Support networks have long existed to help people reach their goals or grapple with hardship. Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers are familiar examples. Their members are drawn to the camaraderie, accountability and outlet the groups provide for sharing stories, soliciting encouragement and celebrating accomplishments. As with so many other forms of communication, many of these groups have moved online, where they’re sometimes visible to marketers.


Virtual accountability and support communities may be used in addition to or in lieu of in-person meetings. When members open up about their experiences, marketers have an opportunity to peer into their hopes, challenges and triumphs. In health-related groups, people undergoing personal transformation share sensitive details with the group. Weight-loss accountability groups on Facebook are full of before-and-after photos. Members of an infertility community may ask for encouragement to handle treatment and the ensuing emotions they experience. In nearly every virtual support community, members use vernacular unique to their group, and many ask for or offer advice typically provided by professionals.

Though communities often live on brands’ websites or social media pages, the conversation is guided by the members. These users are mapping their own journeys, and they can often guide marketers. Marketers who listen can pick up on the pain points, stories and voices that feel comfortable rising in a user-moderated environment.


What Attracts Consumers

People are drawn to online communities for their accessibility, identity-based motivation and shared intimacy.

Accessibility is a core difference between in-person and online meetings. Participants in virtual support communities (VSCs) are not held to meeting parameters, such as specific locations or designated hours. They can access their forums at any time of the day on any device.

In addition to logistical flexibility, online groups provide members an opportunity to define their own identities. This is crucial for those in a state of transition. A 2017 article published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing explores weight loss through VSCs. The authors saw the role that identity-based motivation plays in public commitment and interaction.

“There’s so much research that says people assess who you are within a few seconds of seeing you,” says Tonya Williams Bradford, co-author of the study and a marketing professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Online, if I can control what you see of me in those first few seconds, … then I can control how we interact in that way.”

VSCs allow participants to be comfortable with vulnerability in a way that’s not always possible in person. Many face-to-face meetings have a certain structure, time limit or defined leadership roles. This isn’t the case online, where members craft their own identities and deepen their intimacy with others in the group.

Marketers would be keen to analyze the terms leading people to their support groups or those of competitors, and organize their content around this lexicon.

“One of the things that was key to the success of these forums is that people provided very intimate and vulnerable glimpses of who they are and what they’re struggling with en route to striving for their goals,” Bradford says. “They would not be able to or have the opportunity to do so in a person-to-person setting.”

Bradford’s study looked at VSCs hosted by and Weight Watchers. The online spaces grant the option of anonymity; however, the authors found that many members exchange personal details to generate intimacy. Posting in the forums helps individuals commit to their goals with the rest of the group holding them accountable. Even failures help people publicly recommit.

Perhaps the biggest draw to online communities is camaraderie, which can be especially sought-after by those battling health concerns. The website Inspire was built to connect patients and caretakers with similar health experiences. Inspire Vice President of Marketing Richard Tsai says the site provides users valuable feedback that members can’t get from friends and family who have no experience to draw upon.

Folk magazine captured one such experience with Renata Louwers, whose husband was diagnosed with metastatic bladder cancer. A search online for the diagnosis sent Louwers to Inspire. Tsai calls the phenomenon of patients or caregivers finding one another an “organic community clustering effect.” Words used in the forums become keywords that lead others from Google to Inspire forums, creating a self-aggregating effect. Marketers would be keen to analyze the terms leading people to their support groups or those of competitors, and organize their content around this lexicon.

According to Tsai, Inspire members have helped one another avoid unnecessary surgery and speak up to their care team at the advice of fellow community members, directing their care decisions on the advice of the group.

ivy leaves covering top of white wall

Letting the Members Do the Legwork

On occasion, the super user becomes the marketer, and organizations can step back, letting VSC members tout program or product benefits and answer customer questions. These users become brand promoters.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than with Beachbody, the company behind home fitness and nutrition systems such as P90X, Insanity and Shakeology. The multilevel marketing company relies on its super users, who become so-called coaches, to sell its products. The motivation is clear for becoming a brand promoter: Coaches earn a cut of every sale they make. The company recommends that its coaches create and define their own personal brands, relying on the idea that coaches are the unique selling point, perhaps more so than the products.

The greatest tool for Beachbody coaches is social media, through which they develop their personal brand and design user communities called Challenge Groups. Beachbody provides some guidance for its coaches about post frequency and topic, and it designs some templated content. Coaches also frequently share their sales strategies through personal blogs that offer marketing tips and tricks.

Paul Francisco has been a Beachbody coach for seven years. He was drawn to the products for the same reason people are often drawn to VSCs: flexibility. Francisco works for United Airlines and is constantly on the go. He shares tips via social media on eating well and exercising while traveling, posting photos of his prepared meals tucked away in his travel cooler. Imparting this level of intimacy endears him to his followers.

“People aren’t buying Beachbody products from me,” Francisco says. “They’re buying me.”

Francisco didn’t have a social media presence until he got involved in Beachbody. Now he pulls out his phone and deftly flips through one of his Facebook Challenge Groups, pausing to react to members’ post-workout “sweaty selfies.” He’s taken cues from other coaches’ social media tactics and has honed some of his own. For example, he’s learned that teaming people up in groups of three helps them stick to their commitment by giving them a reliable group with which to interact. He also knows when to recommend products. Sometimes those new to the Beachbody community choose a workout video that’s too difficult for their fitness level, so Francisco will suggest something with more modifications. He may promote an add-on Beachbody product, such as a nutrition plan or Shakeology superfood drink, if the workout videos aren’t enough for a member to reach their goals.

“[Beachbody] is leveraging this position of group engagement and peer coaching to help build their business in a crazy way,” Bradford says. A VSC that is “sticky,” she says, keeps participants involved and interested. The stickiness for Inspire members may be empathy, and some may remain in the group their entire lives. Weight-loss communities are considered less sticky because the journey theoretically has an end.

Weight Watchers has found a way to maintain brand promoters after the personal journey ends. Bradford says Weight Watchers members stick around because they believe in the product, whereas Beachbody coaches have financial incentive to stay involved.

“You end up with these individuals who become advocates for the brand,” Bradford says. “They can sell your brand better than you can because they’re empathetic to the customer. It’s key that institutions figure out how to develop these advocates and create the stickiness so that it matters to [advocates] that they stay.”

Forum members, especially brand promoters, can be a proxy for corporate customer service. Bradford and her co-authors give one example in their paper, in which a Weight Watchers participant complained on the forum about a poor experience at an in-person meeting. Another forum member reached out with a note saying, “We get you, and we think you rock.” As the authors explain, the respondent provided service recovery in the online channel for an experience that someone wouldn’t necessarily approach the company to rectify.

“Joining a VSC provides opportunities to act as both a member seeking guidance and a leader sharing knowledge, fluidity and expressiveness neither welcome nor possible in the face-to-face channel,” the authors write. When members offer one another guidance, Bradford says they don’t see themselves as advocating for the brand, but rather, “they’re advocating for you and your goal.”

Previous research noted in Bradford’s study shows online communities rely on their members to generate content. Co-creation and sharing in VSCs allow members to influence one another’s decisions, impacting consumer behaviors. Members of an online weight-loss community can drive decisions on where to purchase new clothes, which video program works best for cardio-lovers and which meals have the best sources of protein.

Indirectly, conversations in specialized VSC groups can guide the voice of marketing materials. Just as people find Inspire groups because of specific keywords, marketers can tap into the jargon unique to a particular population. Inspire gives members the option to make their posts public or private, but most of the data the company generates for its health care clients come from anonymous insights and surveys.

“We focus on permission-based engagement,” Tsai says. “Our members can opt out of anything they don’t want to be contacted with. We make that very specific. They can opt out for sponsor research projects like market research, surveys and interviews.”

Inspire runs the surveys for its clients, which include pharmaceutical powerhouses Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Shire, then analyzes the results and provides recommendations. Details, such as keywords that unique patient groups use, go in the results section. Its insights team—which Inspire refers to as its linguists—searches for public, thematic posts and discovers trending concepts or words.

A health care brand could ask Inspire to gauge the public response to a drug in market, public perceptions, the financial burden it imposes and the major challenges to the brand. Inspire will analyze user-generated content and use ethnographic analysis to understand the unstructured data of the community chatter.

Tsai estimates that Inspire’s roughly 1 million members are split in half on public versus private accounts. With that many public members and 2 million reported medical conditions on the website, the opportunity to get significant, specialized consumer insight is rather good.

ivy growing upward against white wall

A Deeper Dive and Future Benefits

There’s room to grow and more benefits for marketers to mine in VSCs, especially in the health care industry. There are gaps in the patient journey that VSCs can fill, which can have resounding effects on patient health.

Inspire partnered with a natural language processing group to identify adverse events called out by members but not yet reported to the FDA. Tsai says commissions or doctors prescribing drugs would find this information invaluable if it meant avoiding putting a patient in unnecessary danger. Bradford sees the potential for support groups to improve patient compliance, a nagging issue in the health care industry. A 2007 report from the New England Healthcare Institute estimated that poor adherence to prescription medications drives up medical spending in the U.S. by almost $300 billion each year. VSC members holding one another accountable could be a victory for compliance, as they can urge patients to commit and participate in their own care.

“Physicians do a lot of work in diagnosis, but nothing truly happens without compliance by the patients or engagement by the patients—and how do you inspire that?” Bradford says. She uses the example of pacemakers. Once a patient has a pacemaker implanted, they may have questions about how to manage life: What type of activity can they do? What does it feel like when the defibrillator kicks in? When is it time to call the doctor? These aren’t questions their regular physician can answer at any time. However, a support group could offer immediate experience-based guidance.

VSCs can help organizations deepen their relationship with consumers, especially as people seek out customized and interactive content. As Bradford and her colleagues explain in their paper, it’s important for firms to understand the nature of the community if they expect to affiliate with it. Consumers interested in building camaraderie for transactional experiences will be drawn to a different type of engagement than those looking to connect over personal transformations. Within these larger groups, there are even more specialized tribes with slightly different drivers or goals. A granular understanding of the audience and its personas allows for clearer segmentation, targeting and positioning.

It may feel counterintuitive for brands to relinquish control of online communities to users, especially for organizations involved in deep brand policing. But trusting consumers to organize on their own can be an illuminating exercise for all parties involved.

Sarah Steimer is a writer, editor, podcast producer, and yoga teacher living in Chicago. She has written for Marketing News, Chicago magazine, Culture magazine, the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, and other outlets.