I often find myself on group dates with bloggers and brands. In true adolescent spirit, the brands eyeball my blogger friends’ successful audience-building skills, shamelessly lusting over their organic reach and loyal engagement. Then, like breathless stripling counterparts, my blogger buddies gush to me about their favorite brands’ budgets, automation tools, and name recognition.
For a while, it was cute. I know how each party feels, and the courting phase can be fun. Until it starts to drag on.
So I’ll just come right out with it: It’s time for the two to hook up already. They both want what the other one has, and the relationship can be an ongoing one that (given a good strategy) can benefit both beyond any other option.
Many enterprise brands would say they’ve “tried everything” to build an audience. But only a few have considered audience acquisition.
Granted, it can be hairy. And I know even that is an understatement. The concept brings up more questions than answers, and that’s frustrating. But the most fundamental question is whether successful audience acquisition is even a thing.
So that’s where we’ll start. Let’s look at a handful of brands that bought smaller, loyal communities by acquiring the talent that built a following.
I have a personal affection for the Points Guy, a finance blogger who first showed me how to donate points and miles in addition to my rhythmic philanthropic cash contributions. Since that day, I’ve relied on Brian Kelly’s creative analysis to choose the best credit card, join the right hotel loyalty program, and score the smartest airfare combinations.
Image attribution: Michael Chaize
So when Bankrate bought ThePointsGuy.com, I went right along with the follower base into the corporation’s strategy. The community’s editorial team didn’t skip a beat; to this day, they crank out informative, helpful travel and finance advice that’s always worth my website visit.
One of the earliest examples of a brand snatching up a successful digital community was in 2001 when Johnson & Johnson acquired BabyCenter, a site that had been purchased once before. Started by two Stanford University MBA graduates in 1997, BabyCenter was meant to support parents with information, community, and gear. Today, twenty years later, it’s known best for doing exactly that.
Image attribution: Dvidshub
Having bought the content brand, Johnson & Johnson continued to build the community. Eventually, it had collected enough data to predict visitors’ purchases based on common queries. If parents are searching the forums for “sleeping routine,” then the brand has the ability to display suggested lavender-infused products instead of, say, teething remedies or travel gear. Spray-and-pray advertising, by contrast, simply cannot meet consumers exactly where they are in quite the same way.
In 2009, Marcus “Notch” Persson released the first version of Minecraft.
At first, players formed a community out of necessity—they couldn’t figure out how to play it without help from one another. But by 2014, Minecraft became the best-selling PC game of all time, going on to sell over 121 million copies and inspiring both official and unofficial communities. So when the exhausted founder tweeted an exasperated surrender, it made sense that a brand would step in and respond with a bid.
Image attribution: JPSnuffy/Glenn Higgs
In fact, other companies wanted a shot at the audience acquisition as well, but (understandably) couldn’t compete.
What used to be an athletic apparel brand is morphing into a digital community of health-conscious and fitness-minded followers. With the recent acquisition of fitness tracking app MapMyFitness, software developer Endomondo, and caloric nutrient monitoring site MyFitnessPal, Under Armour has positioned itself to advance every conversation that happens naturally in the lifestyles of active people.
And with the intel supplied when over 200 million users open up about what they’re eating, how they’re sleeping, what they’re wearing, which goals they’d like to set and achieve, and much more, the supportive aspect pays off in the ability to build a data sciences operation, as well. Applause, applause.
When Tim Armstrong’s AOL bought popular startup and technology blog TechCrunch in 2010, original founder Michael Arrington wrote this about the site’s true value: “. . . the best comment I ever saw on TechCrunch was years ago in response to when I quipped something like ‘This is my blog and I’ll write what I want’ in response to a troll. The response was ‘No Mike, This is OUR blog. You just work here.'”
Image attribution: Raimund Appel
“In the end that’s true,” he went on. “TechCrunch is a community. A community of great writers, great employees, and great readers. We also have a few trolls, but it wouldn’t be the same without them! All of us are TechCrunch, and I thank all of you for being a part of something really fun and special.” AOL (and eventually, Verizon) have done well keeping the editorial team free to report business news in the only way their readers have come to expect, even when the snark is aimed at the branding efforts of such a large merger.
Imagine a kind and curious community of inspiration-hungry consumers that fit your buyer persona. If you’re a home design company like Houzz, then GardenWeb.com is arguably the smartest audience acquisition on this list, having established a sharp, go-getter community that’s generous enough to answer each other’s calls for advice.
Image attribution: Lisa Cee
Anyone who’s tried to nurture indoor or outdoor greenery knows that an on-call group of gardening friends is worth the occasional weigh-in from a brand advocate. And when that Houzz staffer has been busy keeping the group spam-free, you’re thankful for that gift, and you’re much more open to hearing what he has to say about your gardening needs.
What about the instantaneously famous personality that shies away from the spotlight? Can you nab his audience and keep his followers jazzed about the initially magnetic idea?
In early 2015, Matthew Carpenter launched ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com, a site that was famous within forty-eight hours. His NSFW communication style repulsed the very people he wished would steer clear of his product, and attracted millions of pranksters who were instantly loyal. In a brilliant twist (of either capitalism or cowardice, it’s hard to say), Carpenter quickly sold the site to self-described “Internet entrepreneur” Peter Boychuk just a few days after going live.
The site is still chugging along, and now sells all sorts of gag gifts sent anonymously through the mail.
Make no mistake: Every blogger, every jokester, every musician, every teacher is a small media company. And many of them enjoy a loyal audience. If you—like so many brands today—are considering operating your marketing department more like a media outlet than the typical underfed silo, then start a conversation. Large and small enterprises alike have supplemented audience building with an experimental acquisition that’s paid off in droves. Who will be next?
For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.
Featured image attribution: Yolanda Sun