The following is a guest post by Jonathan Price, CEO of Virtual Incentives.

Have you noticed that people are talking about the power of “community” lately? In a world where people are simultaneously becoming connected and isolated through the use of technology, the concept of community has increased in importance. Brands and marketers are looking for ways to build customer loyalty by leveraging communities, both online and offline.

In a recent discussion with a local real estate agent, I asked her what number one thing people were looking for when buying a home. Her answer surprised me – although given today’s siloed society perhaps it shouldn’t have – she said people are looking for a “sense of community.” This leads me to believe that this basic concept is truly permeating every aspect of our lives, as we strive for connections in a fast paced world.

Loyalty360, a think-tank that focuses on loyalty’s role in marketing, recently came out with a report called “CMO Challenge: Leveraging Internal and External Communities.” The report did a deep dive into what community means through a series of interviews with CMOs at leading companies such as Charles Schwab, GameStop, the Dallas Cowboys and more. The hope was that these interviews would help others understand the efforts companies are putting into loyalty strategies, from new technologies to strategic services. The main question asked of the executives was: “What are the challenges and opportunities to effectively leveraging internal and external communities in your loyalty, customer experience or VOC processes?”

The premise of the paper is the idea that people are looking for authentic relationships, and that brands and marketers can start to build these through the use of different types of communities for their target audiences. Once brands take the leap, keeping a community intact and growing often means some kind of incentive or reward for the participant – whether it be the interaction and engagement the person is looking for (brand responsiveness) or an actual reward that resonates with the user.

The report included detailed direct responses from marketers for leading brands. Kirk Johnson vice president of marketing for IHOP had this to say about rewards, “We’ve found the most effective way to do this [capitalize on existing affection for the brand] is through 1-on-1 engagement… their engagement with us is such an important part of the IHOP community, that we make sure to leverage our social media channels and our Pancake Revolution program where guests can sign up to receive offers from the brand to share their brand love and reward their loyalty.”

Several other respondents also touted the importance of rewards and finding the right incentives to keep customers engaged. As the CMO Challenge report summarizes: “To begin building authentic relationships, it is becoming increasingly important for brands and marketers to establish a thriving community of both employees and customers. And as we begin to evolve beyond outdated transactional interactions and more toward incentive-based relationship building, many brands are wondering how to get consumers to see them as more than just a brand, but as another dimension of their social identity. Those that can successfully generate this strong sense of community can also begin forging the deep emotional connections and offer the kinds of rewards that lead to true customer loyalty.”

The very technology that is driving the need for communities is also allowing the convergence of data and incentives that allows for highly personalized and relevant reward experiences. Using digital rewards can create a more meaningful, personalized experience for the target audiences, as they benefit from relevant messaging and the marketer benefits from greater satisfaction equaling ongoing future engagement. It’s an evolution for brands to not just leverage digital for speed, cost savings and convenience, but for engagement and mass personalization. Time to start building.

To explore the new paper’s findings in depth, please visit this link: