Community: More Than a Tab

I’m really excited about the number of leading Web sites exploring social media. Sites of all types, including brand, editorial, destination, and commerce, are adding social components and inviting visitors in to the experience offered. And I don’t mean, “Come on in, look around, and see what we offer.” I mean, “Join with us in making what you think would be useful to others like you.” Then apply that concept to your e-marketing.

The challenge: push a site’s social elements beyond the community tab, an increasingly common navigational sighting. Social content belongs deeper in your site, where it permeates the entire experience. Integrating social media into marketing and advertising isn’t an add-on. It requires a more fundamental approach that recognizes the visitor’s role as a participant. To understand why it’s important to approach social media in a holistic sense, we must go back to the Web’s early days.

Before 1993, most marketing communication was centrally controlled. You or someone working for you wrote, printed, or recorded it, then off it went to your PR firm or media agency for publication to a mass audience. Audience participation was distinctly limited: people could write a letter to the editor or place a comment in the FCC-mandated log book maintained by each local broadcaster. Beyond that, what people read, saw, or heard was pretty much what marketers decided they’d read, see, or hear. Given the limited forms of talk-back channels at the time, this was accepted and actually worked really well. Then came the Internet. Because it simultaneously links people together and provides easy-to-use options for two-way communication, the fundamental equation changed.

Then around 1996, adventurous marketers had some new channels: e-mail and the Web itself. Both offered easy-to-implement tell-us-what-you-think features. Remember the guest book and how, with FAQs and links, every site seemed to have one? Links were another harbinger of what was coming. After all, the links page was an early form of friending, albeit within the limited scope of friending between Web sites rather than actual people. Tripod, Geocities, AOL, Hotmail, and all tapped social connectivity in one form or another to power their early success.

Today, e-marketers have or should have a toolbox full of social techniques that can be applied to marketing. Many rightly center on the concept of community. But they also extend beyond it and are best used when deeply integrated into the low-level design and marketing strategy associated with the brand itself. This is where the forward-looking vision of the community tab is pointing.

Community implies something much bigger than a Web site bolt-on. That said, a bolt-on can be a very good place to start. There’s a list of them at TechCrunch. Like any list, it’s partial: the number of providers has probably doubled since this post. A bolt-on is an easy first step. But building a vibrant community is not an add-water-and-stir proposition. It requires consideration of what community means to the brand, of why and how it can be integrated, and, most important, what you will actually do with the content generated within your community. It requires a strategy and the ability and commitment to execute against it and measure the results. It’s a process.

This is where the integration beyond the community tab is so important. Think about the consideration cycle and role of marketer-generated content versus user-generated content. User-generated content connects your awareness and purchase activities through beneficial word of mouth (WOM). Without the consideration contribution, every new customer comes to you at your current acquisition cost. With beneficial WOM in the consideration phase, your acquisition cost is reduced by a factor related to the number of people who’ve tried your product or service, then recommend it to someone else. This implies a competitive advantage (via reduced acquisition costs) associated with the effective use of social media in marketing. This is the big lever for community when applied to marketing: creating a place where people can naturally and transparently recommend your products and services to other interested people.

Consider these extensions of community:

  • Integrate your marketing content with user-generated content on your communities. When users reference your editorial content, point to those discussions through links within your editorial content.
  • Move community beyond the Web. HTML e-mail provides an easy opportunity to add community elements. Give personas to e-mail and newsletters. Pluck-powered “USA Today” does this.
  • Reward key participants within your communities by inviting them onto your brand’s consumer council. (You have one, right?) Beyond recognizing key contributors based on the number of posts (good) or community usefulness of those posts (better), adding them to your inner circle of brand advisors offers a great way to learn about new markets and build a real community.
  • Each extension takes the concept of community beyond the tab and a specific section of your Web site. Integrate community into your brand by adding collaborative and participative extensions that directly involve your customers, and you’ll greatly increase your likelihood of an outstanding ROI (define) for your community investment.

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