There is a palpable sense that both consumers and marketers are feeling overwhelmed right now. As channels proliferate and the content cycle accelerates, it seems like everyone is permanently playing catch-up, writes Sam Collenette, Senior Strategist at DRUM.

With budget and resources – not to mention consumer attention – all being squeezed, this feeling that we need to be and do everything, everywhere, all at once, is not serving either side.

The resulting tension between community and ubiquity is one that is being felt acutely right now, and, ultimately, there has to be a trade-off between the two. The question is: when there are more channels to communicate through than ever before, how do you go about building more meaningful and lasting relationships?

A question of breadth or depth

Whether it is closed communities like Discord or entertainment platforms like TikTok, new communication channels undoubtedly offer opportunities to connect in ways that haven’t been possible before. But when you are spreading yourself too thin, how can you do that?

A focus on breadth means sacrificing depth. And as much as marketers would like to think otherwise, the reality is that most brands could disappear overnight and would easily be replaced. In fact, more than three quarters of people say they don’t have any relationships with brands at all.

That is because we are dealing with an overabundance of stimuli. It is estimated that we are being bombarded by upwards of 5,000 advertising messages a day, which is significantly more than we are equipped to process. As a result, the competition for attention is playing out on diminishing timeframes.

As our experience of culture becomes increasingly shaped by algorithmic discovery, consumers are not only looking for, but expecting personal meaning and relevance. In this environment, it is more important than ever that brands find ways to enter people’s lives without simply interrupting them. Whilst you can try and speak to everyone about your brand and product, you can’t engage with them or their interests on a deeper, more individual level.

Do you want passivity or participation?

The notions of audiences and communities are often used interchangeably, but they are certainly not the same thing. Whilst audiences are largely passive, communities are not. In communities, communication is not one way. Community is about participation; it is about shared interests and values; it is about reciprocity.

As humans, our exploration of culture is driven by a desire to feel part of a community, so if brands want to find their place in culture – one with meaning and relevance – they need to think community-first and start getting comfortable with the manifold niches in which people live their lives.

Whether it is about gaming or gardening, a reflection of identity or interests, it is these communities and niches that you are competing with for people’s time and attention. So, it follows that becoming a meaningful part of those conversations creates opportunities to become more deeply embedded with those involved.

Community provides focus and specificity, allowing brands to create stronger associations and tell richer stories with more depth and nuance. Importantly, it also creates space and time for dialogue, fuelling the conversation and empowering community members to add to it through their own stories, thus expanding the circle. This exchange is an invaluable tool for gaining a deeper understanding of your audience and what they actually want that can have implications, not just for communications but also for new product development.

However, it is important to realise that creating or embedding in communities is not a short-term act. You cannot parachute in and out. Instead, you need to make sure you are committed in the long-term in order to have a tangible cultural impact.

You need to GIVE

So how do you effectively engage with community? The key is to GIVE.

Grasp: It all starts with a good grasp of the audience, their interests and values. You need to be clear on who you are trying to communicate with and what matters to them, in order to identify the cultural spaces you want to inhabit.

Introduce: Once you know who you are trying to communicate with and why, you can introduce your brand to the community. Where do your interests and values align, and what right does your brand have to belong there?

Value:  Brands and audiences are not on an equal footing in community spaces. In order to justify your presence in that community, you need to provide value. That could be about access or utility as much as it is about funding, but there has to be some kind of worth.

Exchange: Lastly, you need to create a meaningful exchange. If you are there purely to broadcast your message, you are not going to sustain any sense of community. Whether that exchange is feedback, ideas or opportunities, it is that dialogue that is the bedrock of any healthy community.

In the slipstream of seemingly infinite content vying for people’s attention, community provides a cultural anchor that can stop you being swept away. But if brands are going to drop their anchor, they need to be prepared to stay for the long haul.