Millennial Think Tank: Do Committed Communities Shift Brand Responsibility?

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During our Collaborative Economies hangout a month or so ago Kiernan McGuinnis stated that with services like Uber he placed more responsibility on his fellow community members than he did the brand itself to be forthright and help keep him on the right track.

That discussion led us to this deeper dive on exactly what responsibility community members have to each other, what makes a reliable community, and what makes members lose trust.

Joining us for this hangout we had:

  • Samantha Estoesta, a young Millennial working in Public Interest Research and published poet
  • Kiernan McGinnis, a young Millennial, 3rd year student at Lehigh University, English Lit. Majo
  • Albert Qian, a young Millennial working in Tech
  • Kelsey Pollack, a mid-Millennial working in Academia

You can watch or listen to the entire hangout below, or read our blog recap:

What is an Imagined Community?

Imagined Communities are actually very real; you interact with them on Uber, Amazon, Trip Advisor and many other websites where users review and give feedback for the benefit of fellow members. Kiernan McGinniss, one of our regular panelists, brought Benedict Anderson and his theory of Imagined Communities to our attention, explaining that the idea of nationality and being part of a group that identified as one, separate and different from others, is one of the first types of imagined communities. An imagined community is a group of people who acknowledge commonality with each other even though they may never interact in person.

Some Stats to Frame the Discussion

Looking to understand how the consumer mind is impacted by reviews and the online community, I found these statistics in an SearchEngineLand 2013 Study:

  • Consumers are reading fewer reviews, reading them faster and feeling more confident without them
  • Consumers are reading 7 or fewer reviews before purchase – a shrinking number
  • By the time a consumer has started reading reviews, they have identified an issue/need they have, worked out what service or product satisfies this need and now want to select a business to use.

What are your most trusted Communities?

Samantha is a highly engaged member of the Sephora community, but made it clear that it was the COMMUNITY, not the company, that she was dedicated to. Sephora has an active online community with a reward/status system for the most active purchasers. Samantha relied on them when she moved to Edmonton to instruct her on the best Sephora stores locally.

I asked if there were people in the community that she didn’t trust. Samantha answered that there are class differences – some may suggest outrageously high cost regimens, that make her suspect. If someone is in a thread who shouldn’t be there, other members will steer them to other threads that are more appropriate. There is also a ‘heart’ rating system so that members can see if others have a low (less reliable) rating.

I asked Albert, a regular Uber/Lyft user, if he leaned on the community for reviews to ensure that he had a better user experience. He responded that he just used whoever showed up, and recognized that THAT in itself reflected the male privilege that he enjoys because he is not so concerned about personal safety. He does rate all of his drivers, taking time to get to know them. He once discovered that his driver was working as an Uber to pay off his engagement ring, and it highlighted the personal stories within the community. He doesn’t feel like he’s part of an Uber community per se. Kiernan disagreed, and said just by using Uber and giving reviews he is part of the community.

Kelsey is very passionate about the REI Advisors Community; REI is an outdoor recreational equipment supply store. She and her husband were selected to be advisers in their closed community where the company gets feedback from these power users. They both feel a responsibility to put out good, thorough reviews because they rely on others to do so as well. As an adviser Kelsey and her husband get free products to review.

I asked how the free swag altered their review. Kelsey doesn’t think it does, stating that of course the writer has to disclose that they were gifted the products. Samantha said that this happens all of the time in the Sephora community – the company gives away their product to users. However, the non Sephora products are not given away, so she knows that people bought product with their own money, and their reviews are authentic.

Kelsey returned to free products gifted to a reviewer versus those who are paid influencers; she noted Warby Parker’s commissioned sales program for influencers, and saw the two roles as very different. Free product alone does not impact the reviewer’s opinion.

Has the responsibility shifted from the brand to the community?

I turned to Kiernan, who first said that he holds his community accountable for transparency in reviews far more than he does the brand. Many of these communities arose on their own without the company’s awareness. He sees many brands as late adopters trying to regulate and control these communities in an ad hoc way. He spoke about the lack of regulation in Amazon reviews, where the comedians and disingenuous reviews dilute how readers value the reviews overall.

I asked if it was possible for a brand to build a community that members are vested in; Kiernan thought the best thing brands could do is model their communities after the ones that developed organically. The challenge, of course, is that members of most communities came together to be able to talk honestly, and probably with skepticism, about the product and brand.

Destroying Trust within a Community

I asked how brands can hurt or weaken the trust of a community; Samantha had a ready example of a different beauty community she belonged to where product reps. from the company were posing as users and given reviews. She summed it up with:

It baffles me the level of stupidity that these companies think their customers have.

Anonymity is definitely something that effects the level of trust within communities, and Kiernan used YikYak as the perfect example of a world of anonymous trolls… not really a community. Kelsey told of trying to sign up for Yelp without her own name and being immediately shut down. It made her trust Yelp even more, and she described Yelp as incredibly reliable.

Kiernan absolutely agreed, saying that we need to see a profile picture, and a name, to trust that these are real people giving real reviews.

When I dug deeper into what makes a community not trustworthy, Kiernan named Amazon, saying that he doesn’t trust any company that is selling products to provide a platform with truly honest reviews. Why would they when they make money off of those very products?

That brought us back to Amazon’s humorously, hysterical reviews that may provide us all with laughter, but actually impact the value we place on Amazon reviews over all; we just don’t take them as seriously.

How to build deeper trust

Kelsey is an avid Airbnb user, and told of a recent stay when she had a small issue with a wobbly toilet in an otherwise great place. Airbnb gave her the ability to review privately and directly with the host, giving the host a chance to fix the problem and not outing them to the entire Airbnb community. Monitoring and responding privately to these reviews is key so that the user feels that they’ve been heard, but the owner doesn’t feel exposed. Kiernan suggests a balance; input can’t be censored, but a community cannot devolve into a bunch of trolls putting up goofy reviews.

Understanding that the commitment of community members is to one another and NOT to the brand is key. A user may speak passionately about a product, but not directly to a brand because he has no need or desire to. Samantha agreed wholeheartedly; she doesn’t actually like Sephora as a company – she likes products that are not made by Sephora, they are simply a conduit for her to get her products. She cares about the community and the value it brings, yet actively dislikes the company itself.

Kelsey feels differently about REI, and speaks directly to the brand within the exclusive community that they created for that purpose. Polyvore is another community that she speaks directly to within their private community. She will give feedback, just not publicly.

What you don’t hear

Besides highly engaged community members like Kelsey and Samantha, there are people like Albert and Keirnan who would never give feedback to a company. Kiernan would never want to help a brand – thinking it’s their responsibility to find and listen to him on any forum he chooses to discuss them. He thinks that ‘we,’ as in a group of consumers, are thoroughly skeptical of all corporations. The ability for companies to listen and track our behaviors means that we expect them to find out whatever it is they need to know on their own. (And THAT, dear readers, is what ArCompany specializes in.)

Albert just can’t be bothered – saying

It’s easier to just take my money and go elsewhere.


  • There has been a massive shift; many of our Millennials’ parents do not use reviews regularly and instead depend upon sales people at the point of purchase – something none of our panelists would ever do.
  • It is a very difficult thing for a brand to set out to build a trusted community; there is a fine balance between moderating trolls and crushing openness that must be walked.
  • Many consumers feel little to no loyalty to a brand, but will still purchase products from it based on trust of community members and their opinions.
  • Anonymity within a review community is the death knell for trust.
  • Brands are expected to find and listen to consumers; the idea that a consumer will be inspired to give unprompted feedback other than raging at terrible customer service is a myth created by marketers trying to sell brands on the value of community building. There is a tremendous need for listening and understanding consumer behavior online, and this information is not something that will be fed solely through a brand built community.

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