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Online Communities

Getting your customers involved

Most people belong to some form of "community"; be it a sports or social club, business network, neighbourhood programme, etc. In the online context, it is a joining of like-minded people. Online communities are fast becoming an active part of the marketing mix, and I will be introducing you to them in this article.

What is a community?

Today, virtual or online communities can be used loosely for a variety of groups with certain attitudes and interests in common, interacting via the Internet. Online communities are usually in the form of a noticeboard, chat room, newsgroup or interest group portal/website. The Daily Telegraph Business Club, for example, is an online community.

Some of the most widely known consumer communities include:

In the business environment you will find similar community sites such as eCademy (www.ecademy.com) – the virtual networking group – and LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com), which operate in a similar way.

Using online communities as part of the marketing mix

Communities are a fantastic place to observe the thoughts and opinions of your clients or target market segments. For the small business, this is a great way of doing some free market research, giving you an insight to the needs and concerns of your prospects, and allowing you to position your products/services to fulfil those needs.

You can even plant an idea into a discussion and track the dialogue for product development and general marketing research purposes.

You can also set up your own online community (or outsource it to an e-marketing specialist), to provide a more focused approach to managing customer care and feedback issues, and as a vehicle for your own PR activities.

Overcoming online community problems

If you are developing your own online community, it will involve a commitment of time and resources to maintain the quality and integrity of the dialogue. You, or your community manager, need to understand the line between freedom of speech and defamation/slander, as some communities have become a vehicle for discontented customers to vent their anger.

Some community members have, in the past, also found themselves bombarded by spammers after registering with a community. You need a very clear, understandable privacy policy to demonstrate your data protection commitment, and strict membership terms and conditions to protect your community members. Otherwise you will get people entering false data; in my time at organisations who used online communities as a means to secure personal client data I was frequently confronted with numerous Donald Duck's and Mickey Mouse's.

Some More Examples

Commercial Community for feedback and customer care activity

eCademy provides an open forum for Regus, the office space company. In this forum Regus customers discuss their issues and give feedback. A trial community was established, and it immediately filled with abuse, some quite personal, and almost led to the trial being cancelled. However, once the abusers had vented their anger, the community settled down and it now provides constructive criticism and is now seen as a valuable customer care and feedback loop.

This is a good example of how small businesses might use their own communities.

Public Community for networking purposes

eConsultancy (www.e-consultancy.com) is a subscription service for various online and "marketing" interest groups. Members post questions and comments, and share their experience and views. The site also contains many white papers and roundtable transcripts that help in the building of business cases, etc.

This is a good example of an online community where you can track the dialogue to get an understanding of your target market.

Volunteer Community for supporting each other

I was directly involved with the development of a secure area of the Chartered Institute of Marketing – South East region website (www.cimsoutheast.org.uk). We wanted to develop a community area for all the local CIM volunteers throughout this large area, to allow them to share ideas, experiences and work more efficiently. The community area contains noticeboards and calendars, as well as the content management interfaces for the public pages of the website. This is an example of a closed community, in that members are by invitation only.

This is a good example of how a franchise or remote sales team might share knowledge and help each other.

Making the world smaller

Communities have been the mainstay of human life for thousands of years. The Internet, TV and computer games have been blamed for a loss of community over the years, so it is ironic that the Internet and new generation games consoles have led to new-style communities growing up.

The freedom of the Internet means communities are open to abuse, but, if properly managed, they can provide a valuable and profitable addition to your communications and marketing research strategies.

Online communities are growing in popularity and are seen by many large businesses as very influential in developing customer relationships and knowledge. There's no reason why they can't work for smaller businesses too – just make sure your community is relevant to your customers and to your marketing objectives.

Useful links

The "Communities-Guru" is recognised as an American called Guy Kawasaki who has his own blog with other useful links - http://blog.guykawasaki.com/

About the author

Thom Poole is a Chartered Marketer with the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and a member of the Marketing Society. A marketer with over 18 years experience in online marketing and web strategy, Thom is strategic marketing consultant for Jack Marketing Solutions, working with SMEs. He is just about to launch Howto-Websites.com to teach people web design from beginners to professionals. A regular speaker on the CRM and e-marketing event circuit, Thom has also written a book on ethical e-marketing, called 'Play It By Trust.' The book is available at the publishers as a hardback or download.

Article first published: Daily Telegraph Business Club (July 2006)

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