Building a Community, Not a Theater

Advertising runs largely on messages created and conveyed much like the story in a Hollywood film: Actors present, and the audience watches. Communities operate more like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” involving its audience directly in the experience. Applying this simple analogy to your marketing program offers valuable insights.

Online communities work best — you could argue that they’ll only work — when members have both a reason to engage and do something. Otherwise, the experience is pretty passive, and what is supposed to be a participant sport devolves into a spectator sport. Facebook, Orkut, and high-traffic blogs that accept advertising (are there any that don’t?) can be used quite effectively as display channels. However, a brand that uses these channels only in this way misses out on substantial, deeper opportunities within social networks and social properties. When the campaign does all the talking, you miss out on what the community itself has to offer, and you risk paying too much for professional creative that could have been generated for free. How’s that for a step toward positive return on investment?

The point here is not to reduce agency fees. Creative professionals and account teams who manage an advertising delivery program are an important component of your marketing program. Rather, it’s this: Step beyond canned communities, hip language, and too-cool-to-be-real made-up profiles. Genuinely involve your audience, hand them the ball, and then let them run with it. Let them generate the content instead of paying an agency to do it. You’ll get a lot more from your marketing spend by reducing your own content expenses, tapping your customers for what they love to do anyway, and directing those same dollars back into proper awareness channels or product R&D. Following are some examples that show how to do this right.

Red Bull University: Empowering Student Brand Managers

Red Bull has built itself more or less completely through its association with an active lifestyle and the resultant word-of-mouth generated by a product that works. Anywhere on earth, if two people are competing in a sporting event, chances are high that one of them is sponsored by Red Bull.

To create its street marketing campaigns, Red Bull turns to its fans, empowering its “student brand managers” to promote its product while fully engaged in what they love: sports and active-lifestyle related happenings. Red Bull has created Red Bull University, an online/offline collection of students who learn from each other, developing and sharing effective techniques to further build the Red Bull presence on campus and in the surrounding community.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: “Sure, that’s Red Bull. My brand is not Red Bull.” The Red Bull brand is itself strong enough that a community can be built around it. Starbucks, Nike, and Apple fall into this same group. But what if your brand doesn’t have the same stand-alone conversation value? Lots of great products and services — established brands of toothpaste, hair care, snack foods, veterinary supplies, fasteners (you know, like nuts and bolts), and more can have strong market share in their categories, hold leadership positions, and command shelf space. Yet, by themselves they generate fairly low levels of pure talk. What if your brand is like one of these?

Tropicana: Tapping Women to Promote Better Living

Take a look at Tropicana’s “Juice” campaign, built out on Blogher and promoted through iVillage. The community is not built around orange juice: Where a certain number of fans might associate around a juice-based community (some people will do anything, right?), the real draw is the issues important to women: families, health, and nutrition. These are the kinds of things that a lot of women are interested in because they actually spend time thinking about these topics during the day. Trop 50 rides on this in a well-designed, sensible effort that places the product in a natural context. Where relatively few people will take the time to create a meaningful profile only to post about their favorite juice moments, a whole lot will share ideas on meals, snacks, and nutrition, creating a conversation into which something like the goodness of orange juice naturally flows.

Mitsubishi and Wakesites: Tapping Enthusiasts

Here’s an example that shows the value of customer contributions. When Mitsubishi introduced the Cedia Sports in India, it did it with a campaign built not around the car specifically, but around the passion of driving. Created by Experience Commerce in Mumbai, “The Great Driving Challenge” is a competition involving ordinary people, driving whatever car they happen to own now. They write and post stories, including photos, videos, and similar content about themselves and their love of driving. Winners are determined by a customer-led voting process. Check out the site; the pictures and stories are amazing.

The Great Driving Challenge is now down to 12 finalists, and guess what: Dealer showrooms have a waiting list for test drives. It’s similar to the Wakesites-based campaign created for Slingshot Sports using Friend-to-Friend’s Product Pulse: Artists and wake enthusiasts created designs for next year’s board line. Some 350,000 people viewed the results in Facebook, and their votes established the winning entries.

Building a Community: An Action Plan

I’ll boil it all down to a set of steps:

  • Look for the larger human interaction or passion point that encompasses your brand. Generally speaking, you’ll have much better results if you ask people to rally around that instead of your specific product or service.
  • Let your customers do the talking. You’ve got TV, radio, print, newspapers, magazines, outdoor, direct mail, end-aisle, keywords, and a Web site. Do you really want — or even need to have — your voice dominating the conversations on the social Web, too? Trust me: you don’t. And besides, you’ll save money.
  • Place your message into the conversation that results by participating and adding value. Disclose your presence, and practice transparency.

Taken together, you’ll discover what millions of customers already know: The social Web is about conversations, not monologues.

If you want to know more about building and managing conversations, join us in San Jose, CA, on Aug. 12, 2009, at Search Engine Strategies, where I’ll be joining a panel called “Managing Conversations and Reputations When the User Is In Control.” I hope to see you there.

Related reading