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Can Marketers Bring People Together?

Supermarketers to the rescue! There’s a huge public health concern according to the 19th surgeon general of the United States Dr. Vivek Murthy in Together, and you’ll never guess what it is.

OK Sherlock Holmes Jr. maybe you will because the book’s title basically gave it away. If you were thinking it’s loneliness, you’ve won the golden ticket. And this was even before the pandemic and its physical distancing requirements.

As a result, cities and governments had been doing their best to come up with clever ways to bring people together. My favorite example of a solution they developed is chat benches.

In a couple of towns in the UK, the police department marked “Happy to Chat” benches with signs reading: The happy to chat bench: sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello. The idea was to invite connection by giving people permission to admit they would welcome engagement with strangers.

The way I see it, marketers have an opportunity to help with this public health crises, while building goodwill for their companies, by setting up programs to connect customers online. Especially right now!

After all, customers already share something in common: an interest in your product, so it’s likely they’ll have other shared interests.

Marketers can create virtual benches to combat loneliness

Being purposeful about bringing folks together is a way to help them build life-changing connections. And everyone has the tools to connect in their toolkit: they don’t need a fancy house, or a special serving platter, or a certain dress shirt.

Marketers are in a great spot to facilitate that togetherness while building brand awareness and deepening customers’ connection with their brand. Marketers can stand up virtual benches by pairing people such as:

  • their most loyal customers
  • their newest customers
  • their biggest product users
  • their customers with a similar persona or role
  • their own employees
  • specific niche groups such as seniors, artists, veterans, musicians – the sky’s the limit!

Run a campaign, asking for participants to register for the pairing program. Just set up a simple Google survey to collect interest. Or you could proactively reach out to folks and say you think you found someone great to connect them with, and ask if they’d be willing to join.

So after you’ve decided who should participate and provided a bench, ensure they get the most out of the connection.

Encourage chatting on the bench

Once you’ve grouped participants, it’s time foster meaningful connection by providing some structure. According to Priya Parker, the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters:

Even in our offline gatherings, [structure] is one of the things I find people most resist. There seems to be almost an allergy to structure. We find it too controlling or boring or domineering. Who am I to impose structure? What about spontaneity?

However, thoughtful structure is one of the keys to creating transformative gatherings. It just needs to be the right structure. Structure gives form to purpose, and allows a group to actually coordinate in a way that helps them fulfill that purpose. 

I see a few ways interaction could be set up for success:

  1. Virtual coffee dates (2 people)
  2. A competition (4 people)
  3. An activity such as a crossword, trivia sheet, or discussion about a specific topic (2 people)
  4. A bigger activity such as an indoor scavenger hunt (4 people)
  5. A skill-trading lesson (2 people)
  6. Career or life mentorship session (2 people)
  7. Exercise sessions (2-4 people)
  8. Small group happy hours (2-4 people)
  9. A watch party of a specific show or movie for discussion (2-4 people)
  10. A book club (2-4 people)
  11. Bonus: Go offline, as good ol’ fashioned letter pen pals (2 people)

You could also make the experience extra memorable by contributing additional structure and gifts. Add-ons could include:

  • A quick icebreaker sheet of questions to ease the connection
  • Assigning specific roles to each attendee such as who choses the music
  • Email a gift card for coffee to enjoy while they chat
  • Send food via a service such as DoorDash or UberEats
  • Send a sheet of stickers they can “award” each other
  • Send supplies for an activity to each participant (for example companies now deliver a virtual campfire kit and experience)

Explore a few examples of virtual benches

The idea of pairing programs isn’t new. But making a significant investment in them could be. Think about how adding this as a “channel” in your marketing mix could impact brand love and, more importantly, loyalty over time ⁠— and radically differentiate you from competitors. Here are a few examples of ways companies have brought people together, to inspire your program.

Nike’s online mentoring

One example of a company already doing this is Nike. During Military Appreciation Month they pair up Nike veteran teammates with senior executives for virtual mentoring sessions. In their sessions they discuss ideas for using technology to help athletes worldwide.

So they’ve connected pairs of people, and given them a topic to tackle together. You, too, could run virtual lunch mentoring sessions based on relevant months or holidays.

Nike's online mentoring program. A screenshot of an executive meeting with a veteran over video chat.

The New York Times driving online connection

Another example of a company beginning to tackle this problem, albeit for a different reason, is The New York Times. In the Together Apart series Priya Parker guides people in meaningfully gathering, even while we have to be apart.

In the first episode, Priya helps a woman who has been gathering for Passover Seder with over 40 people for 35 years design a meaningful digital gathering.

Priya makes the point that in offline gatherings, having people bring something is a form of preparation of the guest. When you spend time slow roasting brisket or stitching a headpiece or baking peanut butter cookies for a neighborhood bake sale, it’s also a mental preparation of you, on your path to this gathering.

And so, in virtual gatherings an offering becomes something that any guest can bring to offer to the group that enhances everybody else’s experience of that gathering. It could be setting up your screen to have a beautiful background; the playing of a song, etc. So you, too, could encourage your program participants to bring an offering.

Victorian Senior Care’s pen pal program

One assisted care community connected seniors looking for pen pals with folks from all over. They just used a simple post on their Facebook page to spread the word, accompanied by pictures of each senior with their name and signs that grabbed attention. So you could launch your program with a Facebook post, too.

A senior center's Facebook post about wanting pen pals for their residents. This photo shows residents  holding up signs asking for pen pals.

Pick the pairing program structure that feels true to your brand, and that seems do-able to facilitate. And launch and learn!

Bring people together in large groups online, too

Beyond a pairing program, you can also fuel virtual togetherness a variety of ways for larger groups by helping your audience engage with each other:

  1. Through Facebook Groups.
  2. You could create an online chat group such as a Slack Community.
  3. Through an eSports tournament or gaming bracket.
  4. Through a virtual walking or running challenge.
  5. Through Words with Friends competitions.

I’m hopeful that as marketers we can use our creative super powers to help bring the world together⁠ and combat loneliness—even now, especially now.

Up next, explore some fun ways to use Zoom for marketing.

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By Megan Mitzel

I'm the wearer of overalls behind the marketing advice website Marketing Overalls. I'm also a senior marketing director with more than ten years of experience leading acquisition and lifecycle marketing at successful startups. Before that, I got a business degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. Before that, I owned a seashell shop. And that's the tea on me.