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Affinities ≠ Communities
How Marketers (Accidentally) Destroy Local Communities
Marketers pray on the rise of the global individual and her disconnected life. She knows more about what’s happening halfway across the world than on her own block.
The information age turned many of us into her; a tuning fork humming at the suffering of others in far off lands. We are accustomed now to connect virtually, and empathize with people similar to us wherever they may live.
And we maintain connections long since evaporated in the physical realm by dripping attention on them one drop at a time on the Internet, in text messages, and in video calls.
And as we collectively migrate toward this behavior, we are left with fewer people interested in real-life contact.
In the United States, the millennial generation is the last to live as both virtual and physical children. Gen Z takes the real-world online immediately as par for the course of peer relations, having never known the alternative. The question now is: why should I befriend the people in my backyard when I can be with my people on the Internet?
And when we have no good answer to this question, the easiest thing to do is to remain online. And here is where the marketing dogs pick up a scent.
Marketers did not create the conditions under which people seek community on the marketplace. However, as marketers, we feed on this desire and attempt to satiate people with consumerism.
It should be patently obvious to you, because you are intelligent, that one cannot purchase a sense of community – it is not a consumable good. But much like a drug can trigger the same chemicals derived from joy, a product can trigger feelings of community through artifice.
Consider any recent fitness trend. Peloton, of which I am a customer, sells the promise of a fitter and healthier body. But what has led Peloton to success is the sale of a communal workout experience.
You workout with a trainer that looks directly into your eyes as you exercise. The trainer acts as your friend and they speak to you directly – those behaviors are a simulacrum of true connection. And when referring to Peloton members, trainers use communal terms such as wolf pack, team, and even the word peloton denotes a grouping: the group at the head of a cycling race.
Peloton is not the only fitness player hoping its customers mainline their faux-mmunity drugs. Almost any modern fitness concern takes a stab at achieving this same result. By doing so, these organizations ease the discomfort we feel when we find ourselves disconnected with our immediate environment. And we see faux-mmunities outside the fitness industry as well.
Lifestyle brands teach us that behaving a certain way and buying certain products brings us into an exclusive group. Again, a community of fans and devotees that totally “get each other.” If you’ve kept up with this column long enough, you know where I’m going next.
Communities, These Aren’t
What marketers hawk as communities, which you may now agree are facsimiles of the real thing, are actually affinity groups. An affinity is something you enjoy, and everyone in your affinity group enjoys it as well.
Affinity groups help us build rapport with strangers because we share a preference in common; we like the same thing. And anything that eases the awkwardness of meeting new people is a general net positive.
However, referring to people who enjoy similar things to you as members of your “community” is an error; fans are not friends, your book club is not your ride-or-die squad… well, not always.
Here’s the primary definition from the Oxford dictionary:
a group of people living together in one place, especially one practicing common ownership.
Definitions exist that better resemble the affinity groups I introduced earlier, but this root definition is what I will use as a baseline for community.
By definition, communities co-own a physical space and contribute to the common well-being of the members inhabiting that space. Your neighborhood, town, and even your state or country can be a community. And as far as they are diverse communities, they bind you to people with whom you may not share an affinity.
Shelling out $2,000 for a piece of exercise equipment does not a community make, what does is the mutual responsibility for the conditions under which you live.
Real-life Communities, Real-Life Stakes
People can lose within an affinity group; reputation among members of an affinity can have massive psychological impacts on its members. But in real communities, specifically ones representing real-world locations, the stakes are both high and real.
If you fail your real-world community, the shame can force you to relocate. A mistake in a real-world community can impact homes, incomes, health, and myriad factors concerning everyone in the group.
I fear as a society we are retreating into affinity groups. The kids who grow up on the Internet and lack in-person social skills are slowly replacing actual communities in favor of virtual affinities.
We sometimes know less of our neighbors and our local government than we do those on the Internet and those making global headlines. And as marketers, we are aiding and abetting this trend-turned-sea change. Should we do something about it, and if so, what?
We Can’t Control People – We Can Only Help Them
Markets are designed to meet needs. The organization that satisfies a need best wins the marketplace until a new winner appears or the need dissipates. Right now, this new generation, in which I include myself, needs community.
I’ve preached in this column for marketers to be wary of wielding political opinion as a marketing tactic. I especially referred to the trends in social movements that have unpredictable lifespans and harsh punishments for those who misappropriate their messages.
But I also advocate following your heart: do what you feel is right when operating your business. And here’s one new thing I believe is quite wrong: feeding off of your customer’s desire for genuine community when you cannot supply one is immoral.
That isn’t to say a community cannot exist through affinity, it very well can. A local group of Peloton riders meet up to ride in the real-world, spend time together, and grow together – that’s a community spawned from affinity.
However, you cannot convince everyone in the world to seek community locally where in fact it actually exists. You cannot stop that problem. But I believe you can make a difference, and this is a simple one to make.
Don’t pretend to be an [INSERT-INDUSTRY-HERE] family.
“We’re not just the world’s leading toilet brush, we’re a community of toilet-cleaning fanatics!”
Don’t sell group identity or acceptance – you cannot manufacture those experiences, and promising otherwise is a bold-faced lie. Remember, you’re a business and you solve a problem. Peloton solves the help me stay fit at home problem, not the passing my neighbors fills me with anxiety problem.
Hunker down, focus your marketing on the problems your products can actually solve, and pray that our tech gods spare us from the metaverse. 🙄