If You Build It, They Will Come

For most businesses, the Internet is a place to communicate with customers, advertise with banner or text ads, and a place to sell products and services. With the rise of Web 2.0 and the growth of social media, however, many companies are discovering whole new ways of taking advantage of what the Internet has to offer. One strategy is to use online communities to maximize the Web’s potential benefit for your business.

Online Communities—A Definition

A virtual community is a group of people that primarily interact via letters, telephone or the Internet rather than face to face. One could say, for example, that the various Committees of Correspondence that sprang up in the days prior to the American Revolution formed a virtual community spread throughout the original thirteen colonies. Another example would be the writer’s circle that sprang up in the 1920s around the pulp fiction author H.P. Lovecraft. In both cases, the group involved was brought together by a distinct interest in a given subject, and their participation was not circumscribed by questions of geography.

These same types of far-flung groups exist today. The only difference is the technology. The paper-driven virtual communities of the past have given way to the Internet-driven communities of today. Such online communities use social software—blogs, forums, chat rooms and such—to both permit interaction between, and in many cases regulate the activities of, their participants.

Online Communities and Business

The business world didn’t take long to appreciate the power of the Internet, but it did take the technology a little while to catch up with business’s desire to take advantage of that power. At first, a company’s website might be little more than an online brochure with convenient communication options via email. It wasn’t long before e-mail was being actively used as a marketing tool and a new term—spam—entered the English language. Banner ads quickly followed and soon search engine optimization (SEO) became important. Those early days seem like only last week, things on the Internet have moved so fast. Now we have targeted text ads next to search engine results, affiliate marketing, adware, spyware and all sorts of things designed to match you with just the right ads every time you launch yourself into cyberspace.

That, of course, is only half of the possible marketing work that can be done over the Internet. The other half is through social marketing. Like the use of spam, social marketing began casually enough with the rise of forums, blogs and chat rooms. Companies began to lurk in these places online to see what people were saying about them or their products or services. It didn’t take long to go from lurking to addressing negative comments to active promotion, once companies realized that they could use the same social media to get their messages across.

Start Building

The first thing you need to decide once you have committed to building an online community for your business is how you want to present it to the world. Remember, however you decide to do it, the key is that people should be communicating with you and with each other while you are communicating with your audience.

Define Your Audience

If asked whom you want to reach, a natural reaction might be something like, “Everybody!” If so, you have your work cut out for you. After all, there has to be something in your online community for everybody, and if you are running a company that makes specialty stationary and deals in fine fountain pens, appealing to the legal-pad-and-a-Bic crowd might be something of a tall order. Better to narrow your audience to, say, likely customers for your products and services. That is usually a good place to start.

Keep in mind that the majority of online communities grow slowly at first, but this growth soon picks up speed. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that the strength of any given participant’s motivation to contribute is usually proportional to the size of the online community. As the size of the potential audience increases, so does the attraction of writing and contributing. As more people participate, motivation increases, creating a cycle in which more participation leads to more participation until, as many online community members describe it, their participation in the community becomes addictive.

The Technology and Design

Blogs, discussion forums and chat rooms are the basic technologies you will have to know about to develop your online community. Blogs allow you to discuss your industry or issues that affect your industry and have readers respond, both to you and to each other. Forums are more focused on your participants and less upon you while chat rooms are simply places where people can communicate with one another in real time. You can have these technologies incorporated into your existing website, or you can make use of one of the many social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace and develop a page specifically for your company, complete with multimedia, blog and messaging.

You must also consider the reasons that people join such communities, what they get out of it.

Participants often seek a sense of efficacy in their participation. In other words, they want to feel as if they are really contributing something. You can engender this by making it easy to contribute to your knowledge base and making that information accessible to others. Your knowledge base should also be able to evolve as processes and concepts change. This is, essentially, the model seen on Wikipedia, with individual editors contributing and refining articles. Other participants are interested in building their reputations, and they want credit for their contributions. This can be done by allowing other members in the community to measure and respond to contributions.

What all this leads to is an open communication base. This does not mean that you cannot maintain a level of control over what is going on in your community; it means that you have to design the community for your audience and to meet your business goals. Returning to our fine stationery and fountain pen example, you would want more than merely a knowledge base. Your audience will wish to share experiences, voice ideas and give vent to their feelings about whether Mont Blanc is really superior to Waterman and the ideal linen content for paper to achieve the best results with fountain pens. This would be most easily controlled with a blog that permits comments and responses to the topics that you choose to write about.

Web Community Focus Groups

A web community is similar to a virtual community, but there are a number of important differences. These are invitation-only communities; they are designed to improve a company’s products and services through customer interaction; they are the result of integrating Web 2.0 technology, social networking and advancements in market research; and they are temporary, usually lasting from six to twelve months. Often, a monthly cash payment is made to participants to ensure their continued participation.

Web Community Lifecycle

There are, essentially, three phases in the life of every web community: The ramp-up, the fieldwork and the sunset, and they all mean pretty much what you think.

The ramp-up phase for a web community entails the creation of the framework, such as a special website, and the recruitment of a group of specially-selected consumers to participate. This group should be recruited according to specific criteria such as computer ownership, shopping preferences, attitudes towards a product, a service or a trend, and so on to interact with one another and discuss topics of common interest. During the fieldwork phase, the community moderator initiates topics or discussions on behalf of the company sponsoring the community. The participants, however, are always encouraged to initiate their own discussions. You will be the proverbial “fly-on-the-wall” for the various interactions amongst the members, and this can give you vital information regarding hot-button issues and unmet needs. The sunset phase marks the end of the community and is often a period of disappointment for the participants who are separated from the project and eased out of the community experience.

Is It Right for You?

The answer to this question really depends on the kind of business you run and how much time you want to devote to it. Depending on the amount of control and participation you want to have, your online community can either take very little time and effort or it can be very time and labor intensive. As for the type of business you run, ask yourself if there is some topic regarding your business or the issues that it faces that can start a dialog among your customers and, eventually, the public. If the answer to that question is yes, then go for it. Build it, market it to your customers and across existing social websites and hope that they will come. They just might. Otherwise, developing an online community might not be the best way to spend you marketing budget. If that is the case, consider a temporary Web Community instead. They are effective and offer information that you can’t get from a one-time focus group. end_mark.ai

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Reader Comments

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 8:48 PM
Dawn says:
It is so important for business to participate in social media. That is where the customers are going to find their answers, recommendations and many times purchases. Not to mention that it exposes your business to a wider customer base.

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