Brands love community. But do they know what it is? The growth of social networks has forced marketeers to view their consumers differently. Instead of seeing them as ABC1 caricatures, personalised datasets, psychographic segments or simply 'the target', social networks make them look very, well, human. And that's a problem. Traditional marketing likes neat and tidy segments. Not messy human beings. One way to redress this irritating lack of order is to focus on community, instead of the people in them. The creation of a community is something that marketeers can get. After all, what brand manager worth his cluetrain doesn't want to create (and by definition own) a place...
...where consumers come along and chat about the brand. And, very importantly, communities can be measured by popularity, frequency and other familiar metrics.
However, what does community actually mean for marketeers? Well, brands have communities, right? In fact, they are communities, aren't they? If people strongly identify with a specific product or brand and are happy to discuss it then that's a community of sorts. So what's the network-picking problem? Crank up that social platform, blast out the invites and let's paaartay like it's 1999. If only it were that easy.
A Bit Of Oomph
We can all understand the idea of community based on shared interests. But shared interests that morph into lasting communities tend to have a bit of extra oomph behind them, a bit of passion. And passion can't, as yet, be procured out-of-the-box or off-the-shelf.
Take Nike. When the sports giant launched the footy community Joga Bonito last year, it appeared to be doing everything right. The timing was perfect – just ahead of the World Cup in Germany. The above-the-line campaign was spot on using the legendary Eric Cantona and god-given Brazilian Ronaldinho to lay out the turf. The tech was being handled by Google's mega-Orkut platform. Job done, right?
Wrong. When you dived down into the Joga community you expected to come up into bubbling banter, harsh analysis and punter heaven. The reality was more like arriving late to a Nike strategy meeting. One invite to the community was to choose an ideal World Cup team - but only from Nike players. This is a bit like asking people to chat about their favourite food – but only treats that start with the letter N. On the terraces it was not.
Compare this to Arseblog, a blog written by a single Irishman armed with a fan's insight into the anxieties and passions of Arsenal Football Club, a wicked turn of phrase and many pints of Guinness. Six or seven hundred comments echoing, challenging and baiting each Arseblog post is entirely normal. Alexa tells us that today Arseblog and Joga stand side-by-side in the traffic play-off. The community lives, breathes and inspires in a way that Nike and Google's $400bn combined muscle struggles to match.
Messy Doesn't Measure Up
So what's the problem? It's probably best illustrated by taking a look at the community tag on flickr, a folksonomy boasting thousands of beautiful, heart-warming photographs of family gatherings, street scenes, musicians and friendly meet-ups. In short, a messy human tapestry and a nightmare for the marketeer's sliderule.
Yes, for companies, brands are big, important and valuable. And that viewpoint can be commanded, controlled and communicated using mass media. But for normal folk, brands are just a tiny strand of their complex lives, and that viewpoint is being written large across blogs, podcasts, video-sharing sites and other networked media.
Even Walmart, the world's largest retailer, found its muscle counted for little when it tried to launch a social networking site called The Hub. Only ten weeks after the big launch, the site was shut down after a poor reception. Why? Well one feature which required users to create a list of products they most wanted to buy from – you guessed it – Walmart, probably offers the best clue. Community is an easy word to use but the marketeers' campaigning mindset of 'load, aim, fire' is a hard one to change.
So what to do? Maybe follow the lead of Burger King's global marketing supremo, Russ Klein, who this year told the American Association of National Advertisers, "turning your brand over to the consumer is taking control — and in fact, if you do, they'll return it to you in better shape." Why? Because, very simply, people are good at passion. And being spontaneous. And witty. And empathetic. And lots of other qualities that corporations lack.
Communities Create Community
So when marketeers hear themselves, or others, use the c-word, they should pause for thought. The lesson so far is that corporations should stop trying to be down with the community and stick to what they are good at : providing big, slick, pricey kit. Then, however much it goes against the grain and makes the legal guys squirm, marketeers should take a deep breath, move away from the control panel and observe as communities create community. Is that really so difficult?