Christian Polman, Managing Director UK, Looping Group, looks at the growing importance of the ‘middle funnel’ in bridging both brand building and performance marketing using community engagement.

The unveiling of Meta as the new name for Facebook has created much excitement about the future of the metaverse and its potential marketing opportunities.

There is a shared belief that the metaverse signals a move beyond traditional advertising toward creating more engaging and immersive brand experiences through AR, VR, virtual spaces and digital possessions.

While it may seem that the appeal of the metaverse is all about being part of a brave technological future, it is arguably more about the ability for brands to create more meaningful experiences and emotional connections with consumers. This is something that brands have been looking to achieve for a long time and it’s why the real marketing battle ground now and in the future will be the middle funnel.

The middle funnel is where brands drive emotional connections. It’s where brands compete for relevance and consideration. Traditionally, marketers have been good at top-of-funnel marketing, to drive awareness, but this is becoming increasingly expensive – TV advertising inflation is forecast to be 11% for 2022, according to Zenith, double the current UK inflation rate of 5.1%. Marketers have also been driving success at the lower end of the funnel with rational messages and, more recently, performance marketing to increase sales.

But it is the middle funnel that is critical for creating long-lasting relationships with consumers through content and experience-led marketing. While the middle-funnel has traditionally been where consumers explore and evaluate their buying options, it’s now so much more. It’s where consumers spend a lot of their time, and increasingly where they come together as a community.

Importantly, the middle funnel is where brands bridge the gap between brand and performance to drive sustainable relationships and long-term growth. Google recently discovered that you could attribute 16 times more sales to the previously underused channels in the middle funnel.

Unlocking the power of the middle funnel lies in a brand’s ability to create an engaging and sustainable community. By building communities of people who share common interests and experiences, brands can forge emotional connections and drive engagement through the sharing of valuable content.

A successful brand community should have a magnetism that transcends services and products, providing members with the tools to shape its direction and without the brand imposing its will on the community itself. Yet at the same time, a community should be in line with a brand’s ethos, its services and its products. It should be purposeful and about ‘storydoing’ not just storytelling, i.e., community actions that improve the lives of the members or those around them.

In recent years, we’ve seen brand communities that enshrine best practice in the middle funnel and have been so successful that they have had a significant influence on the upper and lower ends of the funnel.

Mastercard embodied the principle of building an authentic community with its True Name campaign, tackling the humiliation felt in the trans community when being forced to show their birth name rather than their chosen name on their bank card.

Sephora is a brand that really understands the importance of value exchange within its community. It has helped to make its customers feel connected with its online community Beauty Talk – a huge forum where users can ask questions, share ideas, and have their beauty issues solved by other enthusiasts. All of the community activity helps to drive sales of Sephora products.

And Lego has excelled in community-based collaboration. Through Lego Ideas, anyone who loves the brand can view proposals, vote on their favourites, provide feedback, and submit their own ideas. The most popular ones go to market.

Interestingly, some of the most recent, exciting community engagement marketing has been done by the direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands. Many categories have been shaken by DTC startups, which have spotted gaps in the market, ignored classic marketing principles and enjoyed high early-stage growth through lower-funnel performance-based marketing. However, it is their success in the middle funnel, through the creation of authentic and purposeful communities that is sustaining the ecommerce success of the leading DTC brands and creating the brand bedrock for their scale-up, top funnel activity. 

DTC brands are digitally native challengers, interacting directly with consumers via social media and building and refining their products through continual customer feedback. By using first-party data gleaned from daily interactions with customers in the middle funnel, these brands have been able to adapt how they serve their customer communities across the journey to purchase. DTC brands have embraced and, in some cases, redefined the principles of community marketing. Social and environmentally conscious values are key for many DTC brands, which have been built into their businesses from the get-go.

There are many great stories of DTCs building and leveraging communities. Formed from a blog called ‘The Gloss’ created by a Condé Nast assistant, Glossier is a DTC beauty products brand that shuns the power of influencers in favour of recommendations and advice from its loyal customer base. Selected Glossier fans share their skincare routine and favourite products on their profile page and a custom link gives new shoppers 10% off their first order. Glossier is now valued at more than $1bn.

Hims is one of the fastest growing men’s wellness brands in the US. It has built a large community focused on ‘empathy first’ and breaking down the barriers of vulnerability and stigma that surround men’s health. Hims uses real people to drive awareness and create better dialogue around men’s health and wellness. It is also using its community to educate a broader consumer audience through its blog, Instagram, and other community platforms.

While successful sales marketing has been about moving consumers through the funnel to purchase, creating meaningful experiences with consumers is the way to drive brand loyalty and sustainable growth. It is the middle funnel where brands need to focus their efforts to achieve this through community engagement, interaction, sharing and true value exchange. The current excitement in the media right now might be about the technological future, but for marketers it’s about the opportunities these changes create for building emotional connections and driving long-term engagement with consumers.