The New Communities

For e-marketers, probably the most interesting phenomenon of the current political season has been the astounding success of Howard Dean’s fundraising effort. His site, DeanForAmerica, has allowed a previously unknown former governor to raise millions of dollars, much of it in small donations. While this is a pretty major accomplishment, most of the media have missed the real Dean campaign story. His success doesn’t stem from raising money online. That’s relatively easy to do from a technical standpoint. Rather, he’s used the Internet for what it’s really good for: connecting and organizing people. Lessons from Dean (and others, like John Kerry) about using the Internet to bring people together are ones all marketers should pay attention to.

One of the most interesting (and groundbreaking) aspect of Dean’s site is Deanlink, a Friendster-like site that allows supporters to communicate their enthusiasm for the campaign; hook up with local events; and (most important for the Dean folks) recruit others into the fold. Working off the “six degrees of separation” idea, each user recruits others who, in turn, recruit more still. Over 12,000 hardcore supporters have been added, and more come into the network every day. These folks have a serious Dean affinity. The campaign is leveraging the power of the Internet to build the core of a huge groundswell of support.

Fellow ClickZ columnist Jack Aaronson asked, “ Are Viral Communities Back?” A resounding “yes!” A myriad of sites that help connect like-minded people are taking off: There’s the meteoric rise of Friendster; the Dean campaign and Ryze‘s business networking slant, to name a few. As people witness their success, I’m betting viral affinity communities will take off in business much the same way blogs did…only more so.

Why more? Because getting people involved with your business, building community, repeat business and customer involvement are some of the most important means for staving off the downward pricing pressure and commoditization that have resulted from the Internet. Brands — strong brands, with strong brand affinity and loyalty — can charge more, keep customers longer, and tap into the most persuasive form of marketing: word of mouth. The ‘Net’s ability to bring communities together (and grow them virally) is one of the most powerful tools for online brand-building.

To a large extent this happens already for strong brands that have committed customers. Products that generate great affinity and with committed user bases — for example entertainment, technology (like Apple), and lifestyle brands — spin off online fan sites, user groups, blogs, and other forms of online community. For the most part these affinity sites are decentralized and outside the control of the company itself. Sure, smart companies cultivate such sites, but there isn’t much done to truly leverage the real support base: the people behind the sites.

DeanLink, Friendster and Ryze combine all the most powerful aspects of viral marketing, affinity marketing, multilevel marketing and brand affinity in one place. They leverage the power of interactive media by allowing those most committed to the brand — the most loyal users — to bring others into the fold. Previously, these types of efforts were segregated. Combining them in one place where people with an affinity for a brand (or a need for support) can meet others with similar interests and recruit still more people is a powerful platform for building very strong brands.

How can this work? Imagine book clubs, communities built around specific books or book categories. Imagine a Macromedia user hub where Flash aficionados meet, invite others in, display their work, and arrange get-togethers in the analog world. Imagine Groups that hook people up with fellow fans by following fan associations through networks of friends. What a great idea for fans of out-of-state teams! Imagine a Friendster site built around Mini Cooper owners who want to hold rallies. You get the idea.

How are these different from simple online communities? Unlike communities of the past that were more or less message boards, these communities are built one invitation at a time by people-who-know-people. Not forums for flame-wars and lurking, these are true communities of like-minded people who already have real-world connections to one another, and an affinity for the brand supporting the group. Result? Strong brand connections through strong interpersonal connections.

Are viral communities back? Yes. Viral affinity communities are the next thing to watch for.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.