Issue: Online Communities and Brands – Our New Hometowns
Commentary by: David Vinjamuri
[Image from Church of the Customer]
Douglas Atkin, author of The Culting of Brands has a theory about people in the 21st century. We’ve mostly been torn from our hometowns. We don’t live with our grandparents or parents and may not even know our neighbors. We may share an income level with them but we might not share other core values or beliefs. Increasingly, we use brands as a short-hand to communicate our values to our neighbors and those we encounter socially. Driving a Volvo? I know you’re affluent, have kids and probably send them to private school. A Prius? We obviously are both Dems who share a passion for the environment. Wearing Ralph Lauren? You have money, like to make a nice impression but think fashion with a big “F” is vulgar.
The question brand marketers who see this are asking is: how will this translate to the online space? So we are all watching online communities very closely. With a few key exceptions, many online communities started by marketers are clunky, unusable affairs. We brand people are far too nervous about control to nurture communities well. Some good lessons come from urban planners. They have learned that tightly controlled or barren spaces actually attract ‘undesirables’ (drug addicts, homeless, vagrants, skateboarders) because they cannot be customized by the community. Thus, when Bryant Park was designed, over 1000 lightweight chairs were included, which were intended to be moved by park visitors. The park continues to be a safe and vibrant space.
There aren’t any definitive answers for brands with online communities, as the models are fast evolving. Sites like craigslist.org, FlyerTalk and TivoCommunity have created strong communities of interest, but they are not fully evolved social networks. Many social networks, like Facebook and MySpace are less efficient as brand havens (with the notable exception of the success of independent music on MySpace). Private label sites like NING allow brand marketers to create gated or single-interest communities, but are still in early stages of development.
The Church of the Consumer described an interesting framework (crediting Ray Bard for the visual reproduced above) for thinking about different types of online communities, or different stages in the development of an online community. Cliques are small, exclusive and anti-establishment. Networks are large and intended to facilitate introductions or the spread of information. Cults have rituals, belief systems and charismatic leaders. Finally, Nations are egalitarian, sovereign and committed to an all-consuming cause.
This leaves open the question of how a brand can create an online community. For this, I was happy to get a sneak peak at Forrester’s new report on Online Community Best Practices (thanks to Jeremiah Owyang and Tracy Sullivan). Forrester is careful to differentiate the different reasons that brands form online communities into Listening (an online standing focus group), Talking (get across a brand message), Energizing (nurturing brand enthusiasts), Support (allow brand users to support each other) and Embracing (involve brand faithful in developing the brand). The report goes on to describe some of the steps in creating an online community and – importantly – how to deal with different types of online troublemakers. At seventeen pages, it is still a brief summary, but very useful for those considering a plunge into the water.