Leveraging Online Communities

You need only look at the headlines to see the online community space has never been hotter. And it’s not just acquisitions like Google’s $1.65 million bid for YouTube. Even lesser-known sites are thriving. SecondLife, for example, recently reached over 1.3 million registered members and is growing at a reported 30 percent per month. In addition, many brands, such as Toyota, Adidas, and Sony BMG, have created their own online communities.

What does this mean for your business? Is it time for you to launch a community for your customers? Before you leap in, it’s important to consider the goals and possibilities.

What Is an Online Community?

Unfortunately, companies tend to use Web buzzwords, like “online community,” in a haphazard way. As marketers, we must understand what we mean by the term. For me, a working community has at least three characteristics:

  • It enables multidirectional interaction between people, including one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many communications.

  • It involves ongoing, not ephemeral, interactions.
  • It offers a comprehensive toolset for communication.

Why so much focus on interaction? A 2005 Pew Research study pointed out 53 percent of all adults use e-mail on any given day, while only 38 percent use search. In other words, people are much more interested in communicating with each other than in looking up information (which has traditionally been seen as the most common activity on the Web).

The numbers back this up. If we look at traffic for Google and MySpace, we find the latter has more visitors who stay longer. Then again, Google simply delivers users to information, while MySpace allows them to communicate with one another.

Analyzing Other Communities

Creating your own community may seem a daunting task. After all, MySpace and YouTube seem to have come from nowhere. But if you have a strong brand or product line, it’s a natural move. After all, you’re not trying to attract every user, only those interested in your brand.

First, take stock of the different types of communities, so you can decide on a basic model for interaction. Some of the choices include:

  • Social networking, such as MySpace, Match.com, and LinkedIn

  • Distributed marketplaces, such as eBay
  • Post-sales support sites
  • Collaborative sites, like Wikipedia
  • Social bookmarking, including sites such as digg and Newsvine

Which kind would be appropriate for your brand? To find out, search on your brand (or similar brands) on the larger community sites. What are people who talk about your brand doing? What are they interested in?

Let’s say you’re a soft drink brand, and you find a strong correlation between fans of your drink and fans of motor-cross racing. You might build a community around similar activities or sponsor one that’s already in existence.

You can also use research in subtler ways. Find out what exactly your online customers are interested in. This audience subset will be disproportionately important in building your online community.

Ongoing Analysis

Before you build a community, know what you hope to get out of it. It’s not enough to simply create a site and invite users. As a responsible marketer, you must make sure you have the right users and that you’ve articulated the success metrics for your site as well as your online community’s monetary value. Only then can you be sure supporting the community is a good business decision.

Have questions or need clarifications? E-mail me, and I may include your story in an upcoming column.

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