US Cellular Calls on Community Engagement

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The wireless carrier aims to form authentic customer connections by exchanging community sponsorships for brand interactions.

Most every brand wants to be a part of its customers' inner circle, but customers aren't always welcoming. National wireless carrier US Cellular managed to form genuine connections with its target markets by using local sponsorships based on consumer interactions to build engagement.

Connecting with consumers in an authentic way

It's no secret that brands are constantly fighting for consumers' attention. So US Cellular wanted to connect with its target audience—families—in an organic way. To do this, the wireless carrier started sponsoring local youth organizations, such as Little League teams. However, Peter Sternberg, US Cellular's director of field marketing, knew that hanging a banner above a baseball diamond wasn't going to drive the engagement, leads, and top-of-mind awareness the brand needed.

“There's no touchpoint [and] there's no real connection between us and this [youth] organization,” he says. “It's just a logo on a wall. It doesn't mean anything to them, and it doesn't really change any way that our brand is viewed or represent who we are.”

So to get to know its neighbors a little better, US Cellular hired community marketing platform provider Pear in October 2014.

Dialing into meaningful organizations

Amish Tolia, cofounder and chief strategy officer of Pear, describes the platform as a “marketplace” in which local organizations can shop for sponsors while at the same time companies can offer funding based on their targeting criteria.

Here's how it works: Once a group organizer selects a company to sponsor his local team or club, that organizer creates a “rally page” on which people can perform various brand activities to drive funding. Each activity has a different value and difficulty level. For instance, following a brand on Twitter may be worth less than signing up for a company's email newsletter. In US Cellular's case, organizations can earn up to $9 per person by having participants complete tasks such as following the brand on social media, signing up for its email newsletter, visiting its website, answering survey questions about their current wireless carrier, and sharing the rally page with others.

“We look at it as a great way to generate consumer leads, certainly drive social engagement, and then—of course—create some of those local connections,” Sternberg says.

Ringing up stellar results

When US Cellular first started using the platform in 2014, it decided to focus on 10 test markets and to only sponsor high school groups. Now its 2015 program, which launched this past March, is a nationwide initiative and the company is supporting other community organizations.

Currently US Cellular only promotes the program in its stores and through word of mouth. But the wireless carrier has still managed to connect with locals. To date, the company has sponsored 597 groups across the country and driven 16,000 people to engage with the brand. Sternberg also says that interacting with these communities helps keep the brand at the front of consumers' minds when considering wireless carriers.

“As a wireless service provider, our buying cycle is certainly different than that of most consumer goods products," he says. “So, what we look for is that we're engaged in these communities, showing that we care, creating awareness and consideration, and that, ultimately, when someone is looking to make that purchase decision in the future, we're top-of-mind for them.”

Of course, there's always the chance that consumers will disengage with a sponsor once they receive their funding. However, Pear's Tolia argues that the affinity consumers develop for these supportive companies lessens the chance of this happening.

“Consumers are aware that they're being marketed to,” he says, “but they actually [appreciate] the idea that the particular brand that's supporting their organization or their friend's organization is actually doing something totally different and of meaning and relevance in their peer's life. That resonates with them; that stands out; and their consideration for the brand, their excitement and affinity for the brand, [and] their likelihood to do business with the brand [are] much higher.”

US Cellular's success show that when national brands think locally they can dial up the strength of their customer relationships.  

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