Target your “audience.” Know your “audience.” Build your “audience.”

When it comes to today’s most solid marketing strategies, you hear a lot around the topic of “audience.” In our age of digital communications, it’s both a buzzword and an everyday word. As business owners, we hear it, get it and tap it in our regular online marketing practices. But has all that focus on audience come at the cost of building more meaningful relationships and experiences?
    Perhaps. And if that’s the case for you, it could be because the investments around getting people to like and follow your business take time, energy, money, commitment and discipline. If you’re hyperfocused on audience-related strategies, you may find fundamental networking and more complex community-building going by the wayside. Yet, fortunately and with some solid awareness around your marketing strategies, it’s one you can course-correct and, in doing so, bring about greater balance and impact.
    Let’s start with a clear understanding of networking versus audience versus community, taking a look at this simple explanation by Tyler Kind, CEO of Less Annoying CRM (CRM: Customer Relationship Management). The three types of marketing relationships:

1. Network – The people you personally know, even if it’s just virtually. Communication is two-way (you can communicate with them and they with you). Most conversations are specific to the individual rather than mass communication sent to everybody at once.

2. Audience – The people who follow you. Messages to your audience are normally broadcast (tweets, e-mail newsletters, podcasts, YouTube videos, etc.) rather than personalized. Communication flows one way.

3. Community – People who don’t just know you, but also know each other. Everyone in a community can communicate with everyone else, and while there might be an owner or moderator, the real power is held by the members of the community.


Looking at each of these different communication strategies, it’s fun to explore the pros and cons. Here are a few:

Networks are going to be your closest relationships, the people you actually know (whether online or in person), the people you trust, the people you refer, the people who refer you, and those who engage in two-way communication with you. While networks are the most human, interpersonal and authentic of communications, they can always grow. . . just typically not as quickly as we’d like in business. And that’s why we turn to building an audience.

Audiences are scalable. With the right material and tactics, we can broadcast information out to one person, 1,000 or one million. But the word “right” is key here. To build an audience, you have to invest a lot initially to make killer content that will build regular fans and followers. When it does catch on, it feels exciting. But it can be tricky to sustain the momentum. In fact, any slacking off can undermine your market presence, position and brand. Audiences – which aren’t as loyal as your network – may shift their focus elsewhere. That said, once you build a big following, simply having a lot of fans can naturally motivate you to keep producing great content. It’s like a fire that feeds itself.

Communities deliver the most meaning for a business because not only is there two-way communication going on, but your audience is contributing to your business in various ways. For example, in a supportive community culture, people are actively helping one another, lifting everyone up and watching out for potential threats to that culture. Your community relies on your strong network but also uses its audience to share the value of what you do. In fact, investing in community positions your boutique (and you as owner) in an altruistic light, which has the power to transform your business into not just a local institution but, eventually, a legacy. Indeed, many of our VOWS profiles have invested in strategies that build community, becoming legacies in their communities.

    As you think about networking, audience and community, ask yourself: where are you investing your resources (time, talent, money, energy, tools, etc.)? How do you measure success? And what, at this stage in your business, delivers the most bang for its buck as well as feels the most meaningful for you, your staff and customers?
    It might instinctually feel like you need an equal balance of effort among all three strategies. But that’s not necessarily so. For instance, what you’re doing now might not be what you needed to do two years ago, or two years down the road. Your approach should remain dynamic and proactive based on where your business is at now and, most importantly, where it wants to go. At some point, you may need to nurture your network, while at another, it may be best to focus on building your audience.
    Many retailers feel that when it comes to building a business and having relationships with customers, “community” is the Holy Grail. But that doesn’t mean your efforts around networks or audiences are any less important – these relationships are all rather symbiotic. Over time, you’ll find the success of one depends on the success of the others and vice versa. Best thing you can do: Build a plan around ensuring success for all three. Then take action daily to execute that plan so to bring you closer to achieving your most vital communication goals.

Tips to Build Community
    Wondering what you can do to engage with and grow community? Today, you can cultivate community through different ways, including online strategies, interpersonal connections, and with your staff, other business owners and your town/city. Regardless of which methodology you choose, here are some ways to initiate community building efforts.

Solve a problem. Gather your staff together and have deep-dive conversations around what challenges your community is experiencing, then develop some creative, fun solutions to those problems. Given your resources and your mission-driven interests, figure out what’s doable, how you’ll go about it, and who on your team will be involved (and to what degree). You may find you need to reach beyond just your staff to hit your strategic goals around community.
    A great example: Prior to the 2020 holiday season, Bliss Bridal and Prom in Bourbonnais, Ill., noticed that local kids had nowhere to visit Santa due to pandemic safety precautions. With Santa events cancelled, this meant they had no way to experience sharing their Christmas wish lists. Storeowner Melanie Devore says her team decided to set up a holiday mailbox so children could drop off letters addressed to the North Pole. Devore gets together with not just staff but friends and neighbors to write back to the children, acknowledging their wishes with handwritten notes.
    “It immediately blew up in our area and beyond,” she says. “We have received letters from the surrounding states and even from across the country in Seattle.”
    Aside from creating such magical memories for kids and their families, the Santa letter initiative helped the people in their town see Bliss Bridal and Prom in a new light. The store went even further than just receiving letters; it also secretly sent gifts to some of the kids who wrote letters that really touched their hearts.
    “It has helped the community realize our business is more than just a bridal salon but an active member of our town,” she says.

Honor diversity. Do people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, races, religions, genders, socio-economic statuses and physical capabilities feel welcome at your store? A digital marketing campaign highlighting a diverse customer mix doesn’t just reflect this value but also shows your respect for a diverse community at large.
    One possible tactic: Capitalize on National Calendar Days and use them to kickstart your marketing campaigns, complete with customer stories, fun facts/data, pictures and more to reflect that your business cares about the true fabric of its community.
    A simple search for Diversity Calendars is a great place to start. A few examples:

Black History Month (February)
National Developmental Disabilities Month (March)
Women’s History Month (March)
Diversity Month (April)
Cancer Survivor Month (June)
Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15)

    Prior to any posts, make sure you get permission to share real customer stories and photos.

Celebrate other businesses, celebrate your customers. Every boutique aims to market itself directly. But it certainly pays to turn the spotlight on others in your region and really showcase what they’re doing well and how they’re cultivating community in impactful ways. Reach out to your network to find out who is doing what ­– and why. Share their posts, consider developing ways to highlight their amazingness, and strive to engage others in celebrating and building audience around these do-gooders.
    The same approach can be taken with your customers. For example, discovered during a bridal fitting that one of your brides just won a prestigious art award? Is a MOB from your afternoon appointment a longtime volunteer for the deaf and hard of hearing? Is your recent prom customer bound for state championships in soccer next week? Share these tidbits, true tales and your praises! Be THEIR newest, biggest fan.

Reflect the value of “teamwork.” When you think of cultivating community, it really starts at home. . . as in your business “home,” or the store. At the heart of creating and sustaining a true sense of community is teamwork. And what teamwork really boils down to is working together toward common, mutually beneficial goals, caring genuinely about one another, communicating effectively, showing respect in spite of differences, and practicing kindness, understanding and, in challenging times, both patience and even forgiveness.

Be compassionate. Rare is the bridal boutique out there that’s not found some cause to contribute to, be it Toys for Tots, Susan G. Komen Foundation, Brides Across America, Girls Inc. and many others. The opportunities for fundraisers, charities and causes are endless.
    “We participate in Northwell Health’s ‘Pink on the Bay’ every October,” says Rosemary Marsh, co-owner of Angel Bridals in East Islip, N.Y. “Everyone’s windows are all done up in pink (with a) portion of sales donated to breast cancer research. This year we collected hygiene items for the Lighthouse Mission, and we participate in St. Mary’s Church Rock Out Hunger Concert every November. There are so many bridal shops on Long Island I honestly don’t know if participation brings in any more customers but it doesn’t matter, it’s the giving back that’s important!”
    The best advice here is get staff consensus around the cause you choose to support. The more buy-in you get, the greater the team ownership of the efforts you’re asking them to undertake.
    Can’t settle on just one? Commit to a handful and then either choose one a year (or season) or find small ways to have a big impact. Ideally your network can help manage efforts while you lean on your collective audiences for word-of-mouth marketing via shares and reposts. Know that whatever you do, when you commit to a cause, you send an important message about how your business and its staff respond to people’s suffering and/or challenges in your community. It sends the message: “We got your back.”

Plug in and support local traditions. There’s no doubt that the Kentucky Derby is a big deal in the city of Louisville, Ky., not to mention many people nationwide. The Bridal Suite of Louisville has found a unique way to tap into that tradition, show its support, and build community around its efforts. For the past six years, it has provided the Kentucky Derby Festival Princesses with their white princess ballgowns and tiaras.
    “The five young women that are selected each year are vetted from thousands of statewide applicants,” says storeowner Laurie Costa Robertson. “They must maintain a certain grade point average and participate in community outreach programs.”
    The selected women are crowned in early January and become ambassadors for the Kentucky Derby. They wear their crowns to all official appearances through the first Saturday in May. One of the five is crowned Queen, awarded scholarship money, sits on top of the large, annual Pegasus Parade (float), and honored at the annual Fillies Ball.
    “We recently received an award from The Fillies Organization, which came as a surprise – but a happy one, which I hold near and dear to my heart,” she says. “It’s wonderful seeing young ladies, who have worked so hard to achieve so much, be positive role models and mentors at the many charitable events that they attend.”
    So maybe it’s the Kentucky Derby, or the Annual Seafood Festival or Mardi Gras. Whatever the long-held, deep-rooted, much-beloved local tradition, give it a good look and ask what you can do to participate. People love their traditions, which often tie in with deeper meanings and a strong sense of place. Join in those traditions to show you, too, connect with that deeper meaning and value that same sense of place.