The Return of Community

I’m relatively new to Seattle. So my wife and I aren’t that familiar with the restaurant scene yet and are always looking for new dining spots. To find those new places, we rely on multiple sources, most often the Internet. Surprised? Permit me a small aside to demonstrate how addicted we are.

We recently took a trip to Vegas and were in search of a good restaurant for a quiet, romantic meal that wouldn’t cost us more than our airfare. We’d been exposed to probably hundreds of ads for great dining spots: the in-flight magazine, boards at the airport, on taxicabs, in the tour book in our hotel room, and so on. We also had no fewer than five recommendations from trusted friends. Nothing stuck. So I hit the Web. All the usual destinations: Citysearch, Vegas.com, Fodors.com, and so on. Though we found several promising joints, they were fully booked. We nearly gave up and ordered room service. Then it hit me — the hotel’s concierge! Duh. We’ve become so reliant on the Internet that when we hit a roadblock, we almost give up completely rather than try offline channels. We’ve practically conditioned ourselves: If the answer doesn’t exist online, it must not exist, period. God forbid the power goes out.

My point is even in our (relatively new) hometown, we rely heavily on the Web for recommendations. In particular, we pay attention to site users’ reviews. We listen to the community.

Recently, sites with community features have reemerged in a wide array of industries. Just look at the explosive popularity of sites such as Friendster, LinkedIn, and Match.com. The numbers are impressive. According to a recent ACNielsen study commissioned by eBay, nearly 40 percent of Americans say they participate in online communities. Sites around hobbies, personal interests, and health-related issues are among the most popular.

Community has always been a significant part of the Internet, but we’re no longer talking about cheesy chat rooms. These new communities are self-policing networks that users turn to for social and professional connections, product/service recommendations, restaurant and travel reviews, and much more.

Sites such as Friendster and LinkedIn have community at their core. What’s surprising is the rapid growth of community features on other types of sites. eBay is one of the most successful online commerce stories and has always focused on the core importance of community. The company believes so strongly in community that the new ad campaign centers around the concept that “People are good.” (Check it out here and here). Similarly, Amazon.com, another online retail success story, relies heavily on community features and personalization derived from a communal base. It seems that everywhere you turn, sites are either introducing community features or enhancing existing functionality — in places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it.

Community is a powerful way to build content, a sense of belonging, emotional connections, and, ultimately, trust. Sure, you never know if that restaurant review you’re reading was posted by the head chef, the 15-year-old snotty brat next door, or your best friend who lives on the other side of town. But that’s OK. You can get a sense for the overall flavor (pun intended) from multiple reviews. Community in this manner makes knowledge itself more democratic, and that’s a revolution. It may very well be the essence of the Internet revolution in general.

Marketers who get that are pulling ahead of the competition. Do you get it? Have an example? I’m interested in hearing other community-driven marketing success stories. Send them to me.

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