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MythBusting: How Online Communities Really Work

Recently we held a webinar with ARF called “MythBusters: 10 Truths about Online Communities.” It was a terrific session that ended with a very lively audience Q&A. I wanted to highlight two of my favorite myths here because they seem to pop-up every week on someone’s blog, video, or tweet and a little clarity is always a good thing. We’ve been around the community block for 10 years…and learned a lot along the way. Read on as we share the goods!

Myth: The only viable brand communities are fan communities.

In our experience we have found this to be untrue. Most spontaneous, organic communities are typically hard core brand fans (or sometimes rabid detractors). And while these types of communities can give you a lot of interesting information…they are not well suited for figuring out how to reach and connect with a brand’s more skeptical or fickle consumers – and for most brands, people with moderate feelings represent the majority of the target.

In fact, many Communispace client communities include some mix of potential customers—prospects, lapsed customers, emerging segments, consumers loyal to competitors’ brands, and so on. It is a popular and effective strategy, because figuring out how to connect with these groups is often a company’s greatest opportunity for future growth, and communities are one way to build that communication channel.

A good example of involving non-customers in communities is Charles Schwab and their community of Gen-Xers that was brought together to better understand—not what this group’s current investing needs may be—but how to become their investment service provider of choice 10 or 15 years down the road. What they learned was so powerful that they were able to create new products and services to meet the needs of this target group— resulting in a 56% increase in GenX customers vs. a year ago (as of September). (We’re quite proud to say that Schwab and Communispace won a Forrester Groundswell Award for Listening, based on the business results from this community.)

Smaller, private communities are transparent and intimate by design, which means members develop a relationship with the company and a commitment to help; so the advice and feedback is honest and extraordinarily relevant.

Myth: Brand communities only work with high involvement products.

Here’s the truth—brand communities only work with highly involved, actively listening brands.

It makes sense that high involvement products—those that require a lot of consideration and investment of emotional energy by consumers prior to purchase—would be most likely to engage people through community.

Yet our experience tells an interesting story…when you look at the 325 communities we’ve built by industry, for example, it’s pretty clear that the majority manufacture low involvement products or offer not-so-emotionally engaging services. Toothpaste, soda, shampoo, grocery stores, household cleaning products, and newspapers are not what we think of when we imagine passionate consumers. And it’s also hard to imagine customers passionate about their savings account or insurance coverage. Yet the majority of the communities we run are organized around the everyday fabric of people’s lives. So one thing we’ve learned is that it’s the process of building community itself that creates involvement and inspires passion, even when the product doesn’t.

A great report I read on this same idea was from Josh Bernoff at Forrester. He recently wrote: Social Technology Strategies For “Boring” Consumer Brands (membership required)—that shows how building applications to talk about customers’ problems can create a way to connect with them, a sort of “borrowed relevance” that can surface all kinds of great ways you can better relate to them. One example from the report talks about how AXE, maker of deodorant and other personal care products targeted at young men, created an incredibly dynamic and insightful community full of guys talking to each other—but not about deodorant. As our AXE client would say, the community is more like a virtual locker room, it’s totally genuine, and the input members give to AXE truly guides brand messages that resonate with their target.

OK those were my two teasers, but there are eight more! Now it’s your turn to check out the rest of the webinar. C’mon it’s seriously good…you can watch it at your leisure (and don’t worry you’re not required to register). We just want you to take it all in—we think it will be a useful tool as you build your community strategy.

Once you’ve had a chance to watch the webinar, report back and let me know—are there more myths that need busting?

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