Today, when social network marketing is a key marketing strategy for a growing number of businesses, creating online communities is seen as the holy grail of social media. You know what online communities or virtual communities are, don’t you. According to Wikipedia, virtual communities are:
A virtual community is a social network of individuals who interact through specific media, potentially crossing geographical and political boundaries in order to pursue mutual interests or goals. One of the most pervasive types of virtual community include social networking services, which consist of various online communities.
The Wikipedia definition of online community adds a little to our understanding of these groups.
An online community is a virtual community that exists online whose members enable its existence through taking part in membership rituals (Amy Jo Kim, 2000). An online community can take the form of an information system where anyone can post content, such as a Bulletin board system or one where only a restricted number of people can initiate posts, such as Weblogs. Online communities have also become a supplemental form of communication between people who know each other primarily in real life. Many means are used in social software separately or in combination, including text-based chat rooms and forums that use voice, video text or avatars. Significant socio-technical change may have resulted from the proliferation of such Internet-based social networks.
Its interesting to note that online communities pre-date both the World Wide Web and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. But, with the growth of these networks and the birth of social media marketing, these communities have become a central element of marketing strategy.
Online communities have lots of value for both consumers and commercial interests. For consumers these benefits include replacement for “real” community that has increasingly disappeared. Gone are the block parties, bowling leagues, book clubs, church socials, and other forms of community enjoyed in the past. Sure, these community groups still exist, but they’re struggling to stay alive with membership dropping. While sociologists propose alternative reasons to explain the death of “real” communities, there’s no disagreement that online communities are growing exponentially to take their place.
Commercial interests are increasingly focused on virtual communities as social networks become an important part of their marketing strategies. Virtual communities provide value when used as part of a systematic marketing strategy, including engendering trust, encouraging sharing information, increased willingness to engage in new product creation, and other values.*
Brand communities are a specific type of community that focus on a particular brand of product rather than more generalized communities. Brand communities can exist in real life, such as the Harley Owners Group (HOGs) or as virtual communities existing primarily online. For instance, I’ve studied the Disney online community where members use the internet to share their love of Disney parks, products, and movies. Additional value accrues to firms sponsoring brand communities. In the Disney brand community, members spread information and know-how to help park visitors have more enjoyable visits, they challenged each other to be the most serious Disney-holic which encouraged more visits to the parks and made frequent park visits appear normal, and addressed negative comments to reduce the impact of these comments.
However, there is a dark side to online community that needs to be considered in developing marketing strategy. Potentially, the biggest drawback to online communities is their resistance to change. They don’t like improvements to products, discontinuation of existing products, new policies and procedures, in fact anything that affects them unless the idea came from the community first.
From the perspective of marketing strategy, this means firms need to get buy-in from their online communities before making changes. Preferably, they should involve the community early in the change process, gathering opinions, and making changes based on feedback from the community. Of course, the community doesn’t have the expertise or information to make the most strategically viable decisions, so firms may have to make changes that don’t meet community preferences. In this case, firms should be proactive in communicating with the community rather than letting them find out as the change reaches the marketplace, they should explain why changes must be made, and stay in touch with the community to address questions as they arise.
Another danger inherent in virtual communities comes when firms don’t follow conversations occurring in the communities. Left unmonitored, communities can run amok and severely damage the reputation of your brand. In the past, firms attempted to shut down the conversation by buying up websites such as “microsoftsucks.com”. Not only will this not work, it may actually intensify complaints against the firm. As social networking grows, this danger is growing, as well, as firms find it increasingly difficult to track conversations related to their brand and address issues arising in these networks. An important element of marketing strategy involves developing a strong monitoring system to track comments about your firm and its brands.
How does your firm handle these potential dangers?
Does your firm have a comprehensive social media marketing strategy that addresses virtual communities?
What tools do you use to monitor your online reputation and conversations about your brand?
* “Cultivating Trust and Harvesting Value in Virtual Communities,” Porter and Donthu, MANAGEMENT SCIENCE Vol. 54, No. 1, January 2008, pp. 113-128