Online communities enable consumers to seize power

Community has become one of the big buzzwords of Web 2.0 – it is now up to marketers to build closer links with brand advocates

Mike%20Nutley%20Interest in online communities has surged – is MySpace out and Facebook in? What are people saying about my brand within such networks? Networks are busily attracting advertisers and brand marketers are keen to get in on the act, but last month news site Digg.com became the latest organisation to discover the real power of online communities.

The incident started with the encryption key that prevents the copying of high-definition and Blu-Ray DVDs being hacked and the key being posted online. The electronics industry sent in the lawyers.

However, the rights and wrongs of this particular intellectual property issue are not what concerns us here. The lawyers began asking the sites that carried the code, including Digg, to take it down. Digg, a site that allows users to post stories and then ranks them by popularity, obliged. But when the site’s users got wind of this, they bombarded the site with posts containing the code, bringing Digg to a standstill.

Digg continued to try to remove the offending posts until, at the beginning of last month, the founders realised they faced a stark choice – have their site closed down by their users or by the electronics industry’s lawyers. The fact they chose to take their chances with the lawyers gives an indication of the current influence and importance of communities.

In his blog, Digg founder Kevin Rose wrote: “After seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be. If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.”

I thought of this again while I was at the B.tween conference in Bradford last week. One of the sessions concentrated on the experience of Lego, which was at the point of collapse a few years ago due to product decisions that had moved it away from its heritage and towards being a regular toymaker. At the same time a community had formed of people who exchanged designs and traded bricks online, and who organised gatherings and published magazines as part of their hobby. In parallel with more conventional business turnaround procedures, Lego executives were persuaded to leave their desks and engage with the user community, with the end result that the company is now effectively outsourcing its product innovation to its key users.

Similarly, at the same event last year I met John Sanborn, creative director at eBay in the US. He explained that, sometime into its existence, the online auction company had realised that it didn’t own the site, but merely operated it on behalf of the community of users.

Community has become one of the big buzzwords of the current era online, the era known as Web 2.0. All sorts of organisations, from media owners to footwear manufacturers, are chasing the benefits of greater involvement with their users. These include building closer links with brand advocates within the community, involving key users in product development and developing greater brand loyalty.

At its heart, Web 2.0 is actually a way of describing the attributes and practices of the most successful existing online business. The community approach has been enshrined in the Web 2.0 canon, with Google cited as the best example. The search giant’s approach of having new products in “perpetual beta”, where they are subject to user scrutiny and testing, has been so influential that even Microsoft has begun using it.

But as eBay and Digg have realised, these benefits come at a price: the loss of control. The more you empower your consumers, the more they will expect from you, with the Digg incident being an extreme case.

A couple of years ago Michael Bayler, founder of The Rights Marketing Company, described running communities of this kind in terms of beekeeping. Beekeepers don’t control the bees and don’t understand a lot of what the bees do. They just provide a home for them and collect the honey. What’s more, the bees can leave at any time.

Despite the recent backlash among some industry watchers about the amount of control companies need to relinquish to their communities, the metaphor holds true. That’s because brand loyalty online is tenuous. The audience is increasingly fickle and the competition is only a click away.

Research carried out by BT last year into online brand loyalty among young people characterised it as a series of affairs rather than a long-standing monogamous relationship. In addition, people who run community sites point out that while communities in general are good at policing the established rules, it’s very hard to impose new, more stringent rules, because the people who make up the community see it as belonging to them, and not to the brand that facilitates it. And if, in the case of Digg, they’d rather risk the community’s existence than kow-tow to forces they oppose, that’s because they know the community, like a swarm of bees, can always find a new home elsewhere.

Michael Nutley is editor-in-chief of New Media Age

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