Alan Mitchell: A sense of community could be a real winner

Customer ‘communities’ are usually associated with the Net, but building a sense of belonging ‘offline’ could be a valuable asset, says Alan Mitchell

In the late Twenties social psychologist George Elton Mayo was asked by the Western Electric Company in the US to help address poor productivity at its Hawthorne plant. Workers had complained of bad lighting and fatigue, so Mayo conducted an experiment: he upped the lighting in one part of the plant and kept it exactly the same in another part, as a control. To his astonishment, productivity in both sections rose by 25 per cent.

Mayo went on to conduct similar experiments, all with the same result. The detailed content of each initiative was almost irrelevant. No matter what changes he made – in lighting, payment terms, work practices, whatever – they all triggered similar productivity improvements.

Mayo’s ground-breaking conclusion was very simple. It’s the fact of being asked, of being recognised as important and valuable with something to contribute, that changes attitudes, not this or that particular technique. After all, Mayo even managed to trigger productivity improvements by taking conditions back to what they were before the experiments started.

How often have similar Hawthorne Effects (as they are now known) coloured our assessment of new marketing tools and techniques? When large-scale addressable messaging (ie direct marketing) first became economically viable, for instance, consumers felt genuinely singled out when a company sent them a “personal” letter. Loyalty schemes and relationship marketing programmes draw on marketers’ understanding that being recognised and involved changes people’s attitudes. This year companies will invest an estimated $40bn (&£27.7bn) in customer relationship management (CRM) programmes designed to do just that.

The trouble with such initiatives is that they quickly pass from “exceptional” to “normal”: the other side of the Hawthorne coin is that as soon as the initial interest passes, so does the productivity boost.

Fundamentally, initiatives like these often fall foul of a test first devised by philosopher John Searle. If you put a monkey or a computer behind a wall and communicate with it – sending messages back and forth – humans can quickly work out whether they are dealing with another human being or not. And so it is with even the best direct marketing and CRM programmes. As soon as it becomes obvious that you are dealing with a machine – meaning, it’s not a person who has decided to write a letter to you, but a machine following some algorithm that has simply selected you from a database – the all-important sense of recognition soon fades.

In other words, the human touch is everything. People only really feel engaged when recognised by and involved with other people, which is a major problem for big companies with millions of customers for whom such a personal touch is just too expensive. Or is it?

Interest in so-called “communities” and community building is burgeoning. Recent research by McKinsey and Jupiter Media Metrix, for instance, shows that users of online community features such as chat rooms, bulletin boards, product-review pages and so on, visited the relevant websites nine times more often than non-users, remained twice as loyal and bought products almost twice as often.

On average, non-community users visited a site less than once in the study’s three-month period. Contributing community users (who posted messages as well as read them) visited nearly eight times. In transaction-oriented sites, community users accounted for 35 per cent of visits, 55 per cent of user sessions and 64 per cent of confirmed sales. This evidence suggests that community membership greatly increases marketing “productivity”.

Is this just another Hawthorne effect that will fade as soon as the novelty wears off? Perhaps. But there is a chance that communities have something extra to offer. They are based on real people engaging with other real people, so the sense of recognition and involvement is robust. What’s more, as long as there is some common ground for exchange, involvement-generating interactions should be self-sustaining. Also, these crucial inputs are provided for the company by its customers for free.

Communities of this sort move customers up a gradient beyond being a mere buyer towards some sense of membership. They turn a consumer into a sort of investor, investing his own time, attention and information in the brand. The more you invest, the more committed you feel.

Of course, the 80/20 rule applies. Few customer communities will ever embrace more than a small percentage of the total customer base (though as the McKinsey/Jupiter figures suggest, this small percentage could account for a high proportion of revenues).

The McKinsey research focuses on online tools, such as chat rooms and notice boards, but the principle applies offline too. CRM, loyalty schemes, customer helplines, involving selected customers in beta-testing products, directly asking their opinions about products, packaging or advertising, complaint soliciting, satisfaction surveys, asking them to “vote” on name or product changes, organising events – done properly and imaginatively there are a million and one ways more could be done to recognise and/or involve customers.

That’s true online too. In the US, only one of the top ten clothing sites and only two of the top ten general merchandisers offer community features, notes McKinsey researcher Shona Brown. Lessons learned by Amazon and AOL years ago still aren’t being applied generally.

The usual health warnings apply, of course. Many customers do not want to get involved and bodged attempts to get them involved may seem intrusive or gimmicky. Many offline involvement techniques are expensive compared with online tools such as product review pages.

More challenging is the fact that real communities don’t take kindly to being led by the nose by some zealous brand manager. As Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Christopher Locke points out in his book Gonzo Marketing, few marketers can successfully build communities around their brands. More often successful brands will be built around – or by serving – communities.

The marketing dream is to achieve Hawthorne-style productivity boosts that are sustainable. The price of achieving this goal may be less control and less brand-centric thinking. But for many brands, that could be a price well worth paying.

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