It’s Time to Come to Terms With Online Life Falling Short of Our Real-Life Expectations

Digital living just isn’t the same

people sitting in bricked-in cubicles
The pandemic highlights just how important digital community is—for brands and consumers alike. Getty Images
Headshot of Gastón Tourn

Since lockdown, we’ve been cut off from colleagues and customers alike. While goats have taken over some high streets and dolphins are back in Venice’s canals, brands are dealing with their separation anxiety by focusing on growing online communities.

But how far can this take us? Can we actually build a real community online?

Well, up to a point. It’s a great way to acquire new customers and engage your current base. As long as you focus on both quantity and quality—your followership and your engagement—you should end up with a strong online community.

So, is that it?

Building a virtual community is only the first step. Haven’t we all felt the limitations of screens in the past few months? Digital parties, trivia, virtual yoga classes—we liked them at first, but they feel sterile compared with messy real life. Conversations stutter; moods are less readable. And when things get tough, not being able to give someone a hug just feels wrong. Last month I “celebrated” my birthday on Zoom. Nothing is more tragic than watching one of your friends singing “Happy Birthday” on mute.

Nothing is more tragic than watching one of your friends singing Happy Birthday on mute.

Maybe that’s what’s behind the recent craze for baking and growing your own [insert home project here]. In our locked-down worlds, we’re missing the feel, taste and smell of our lost physical world. We knead dough and plant herbs because we crave using our senses again.

To make a relationship real, you need to take it into the real world. Some brands are doing a brilliant job of showing us how. Take streetwear. Beginning with passionate online fan bases, the sector exploded when brands did activations in real life. For example, apparel brand Daily Paper doubled U.K. sales after a monthlong pop-up in London, while shoe brand Supremes’ one-day store saw over 350 people stand in line to shop its latest product drop.

When you think about it, it’s like online dating. Apps are fine for starting a conversation with your match, but what would be the point of stopping there? It would be like playing virtual simulator Second Life when you could—well, you get it.

Likewise, engaging in real life is the only way to really get to know your customers. There, your customers aren’t personas but live people, with all their quirks and contradictions. You can get a strong sense of who they are, what they’re feeling and why they’re there. Behind every click, there’s an emotion.

Isn’t “bounce rate” a sterile way of saying that a person is frustrated with what you have to say? In the digital world, voices are missing. Is it any surprise that the phrase “You’re on mute” has become the soundtrack of remote working?

In a conversation I had with Gloria Noto, founder of beauty brand NOTO Botanics, she mused that the lockdown reminded her of how great it feels to have a physical space that represents your company in your community. For her, a community space right now means possibly being one of the few human exchanges her customers have that week—or even month.

Of course, real life is less tidy than online. Because what are our metrics? What do we measure when we aren’t counting likes? Well, it could be the time someone spends in-store or a consumer sharing his or her physical experiences online. As always, your metrics will depend on your marketing goals.

But there’s no doubt about it. Relationships can only grow in the fresh air of the real world. We’re social creatures; that’s the way we’re wired. We don’t need Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to know that people love to be with people. It’s our basic human need.

Lockdown has reminded us that marketing isn’t about data or technology; it’s about connecting with people. “Marketing is putting the customer’s voice at the heart of your business.” That definition is more relevant than ever. The customer’s voice isn’t zeros and ones. It has an accent and wants to be heard.

Marketers must advocate for human metrics because they’re now as critical as business KPIs. One of those human metrics⁠—perhaps the most important one—is how strong is your brand’s community?

If you want to find out whether you’ve built a real community, the ultimate test will be when we meet again in real life.


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This story first appeared in the July 27, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Gastón Tourn is CMO of Appear Here.
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