Online Communities: Ignore at Your Peril (I)

In the strategy work I do with tech companies, I’m frequently asked about web communities — how they operate, what they can and can’t do, and how a company should look to work with them. The companies we deal with generally fall into three camps when it comes to community:

–Many companies are still learning about online community and don’t know what to do or what to expect.
–Some companies have already tried some online community activity, but were disappointed — often because they attracted only a few enthusiasts rather than the masses of end users they expected.
–And of course some companies run successful web communities, either as a sideline or as their core business. They’re very hungry for information on how other communities operate, and insights on what they could do better.

To help deal with all of those questions, I had my company conducted a very elaborate study of online community in the US. We surveyed more than 3,000 US web users on their overall Internet usage, and then dived deep on their use of online communities and what impact those communities have on their lives. This work was done independent of a specific client (i.e. all the research and analysis here was self-funded) so it could be shared broadly and without any editing.

Here are some of the key things we learned:

Small groups of enthusiasts dominate most online conversations, but that doesn’t mean online communities matter only to a narrow segment of people. Most web users read community content rather than contributing to it, and are strongly influenced by the things they see there, especially product reviews and recommendations.  Which means:

Reviews are now second only to word of mouth as a purchase influencer for web users.

This has huge implications for what commerce/shopping/mobile commerce will look like years from now. Any brand should be figuring out how to play a more meaningful role online.

–Because most web users are voyeurs more than contributors, you should think of an online discussion as theatre — it’s a performance in which the community leader(s) interact with a small group of contributors for the education and amusement of the rest of us.

All the web’s a stage, but we’re not all players in it.

This means companies that turn away from web communities because they’re populated by only enthusiasts are entirely missing the point. If you are not participating, you are not allowing yourself to build a community that will market for you much better than if you did all the marketing yourself. More importantly, you are missing out on the singular opportunity to get better by working with your enthusiasts.

You’ve mistaken your fellow actors for the audience. Take care of the active participants in a community and the audience will watch and learn.

–If you needed more incentive to work with the Internet, it turns out that the web has also become the number two source of product support information for web users. After checking the manual, web users are more likely to check your website for information or search the web than they are to take traditional steps like calling you or asking a dealer.

–There are an enormous number of tidbits in the study regarding web use. A few items that stood out to me include:

  • About a quarter of web users say they have dated someone they first met online.
  • Although Twitter and SecondLife get a lot of press, their audiences are very narrow when you compare them to major social sites like MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn.  (remember that things will change over time and Twitter could very well be very popular in, say, 2010.)
  • Yahoo is the second most valued website in the minds of US web users, after Google. It’s ahead of major web properties like YouTube and Wikipedia. Given how much trouble Yahoo is having, they should try and figure out how to serve their existing population better rather than trying to be “like Google”.
  • The major social networks are much more satisfying and useful to teens than they are to adults. In fact, satisfaction with the social sites peaks at age 14 and declines steadily with age.
  • Democrats are more active online than Republicans, and say the web has a greater influence on their behavior, including voting. This should explain a lot to those watching the 2008 campaign.
  • Young people dominate online conversations, with people 22 and under producing about half of all user-generated content and comments. So if you sometimes feel like you’re dealing with kids online, it may be because you are.

The next section, part II, summarizes how communities work.
Part III talks about the role of community sites and why they matter .

A full report on the findings is available in PDF and it’s downloadable here: Rubicon-web-community . But we know many people don’t like to read PDFs online, and besides you can’t easily comment on them or link to sections in them. So we’re also posting the report online, cut into several sections for easy reading.

To go on to Part II, click (here). to go to Part II (why they matter), click here.

(Note: This post was co-authored with my Rubicon colleagues in 2008.)

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12 Replies

  1. Very insightful. When I read different marketing forums and business owners say something like, “I’m so close to signing up for Facebook, it’s on my list,” and I’m thinking they are missing such a huge market. Some people just don’t understand how great the impact social communities could be for their company.

  2. “These findings mean online community matters enormously to companies, but not in the way that most of them expect. Online discussion is a poor way to communicate with the average customer, because average customers don’t participate. But it is a great way to communicate to them, because average customers watch and listen.”
    This was the most useful idea: online communities as theatre.

  3. Great insights – validates some of what I’m experiencing. For companies who are struggling with how to most effectively engage, mashable had a recent post about the most common mistakes made by social media guru’s: Great fodder for people to ponder before diving into online communities, blogs, discussion boards . . . .
    My personal advice is to sign up and observe before weighing in. If you are patient and astute, you can gather a lot of clues as to what is appropriate (and what is not) simply be being present. Perhaps this is akin to being a member of an audience at the theater.

  4. Thanks for the comments, folks.
    James, I think you’re right. That’s the big idea we were trying to get across.
    This was a tough one to write up because there’s so much detail in the study. The information on things like website usage and the most frequent contributors will be very useful to a lot of companies, so we tried to hit a balance.
    Brent, I like your analogy. A prospective community participant should hang around and listen for a while first, just as a young actor or actress should attend a lot of plays. Learn from the masters.

  5. You should think of an online discussion as theatre
    I could not agree more – regardless of your stated ‘member count’ only a minority of this total will be creating content. Community statistics such as these fail to take into consideration the number of unregistered visitors that are still engaging with the brand and community by reading its content.
    Visitors, members and activate contributors are all components of an online community’s membership base and all have value to the community and the brand.
    – Martin Reed

  6. “You should think of an online discussion as theatre.”
    I could not agree more – regardless of your stated ‘member count’ only a minority of this total will be creating content. Community statistics such as these fail to take into consideration the number of unregistered visitors that are still engaging with the brand and community by reading its content.
    Visitors, members and activate contributors are all components of an online community’s membership base and all have value to the community and the brand.
    – Martin Reed

  7. Amazing and thorough look at the online activity and conversations. Best piece of analysis (in my view) is reminding companies that the online voyeurs are the real audience and to not engage in the dialogue is to miss an opportunity to participate in a “watched” conversation. Wonderful!

  8. Thanks for the interesting blog post. Some of the research you mentioned also supported the Beeline Labs study out this year on online branded communities. Two of the key failings discovered were not having an active community manager, not setting clear objectives and getting the right level of participation.
    I believe that watching and ‘listening’ is critical and data- mining has its place but dialogue via online communities can also be highly useful and insightful if it is actively moderated.
    MROCs (market research online communities) have a role to play in this space where bespoke communities are set up to create dialogue with consumers but are actively managed and have a clear idea of what success looks like (ROI) with accompanying objectives.

  9. Your post has on internet marketing is definitely true. Internet marketing has opened new ways of attracting visitors to the website giving the webmasters a way of earning cash as well as web status. Let’s see what the future holds for internet marketing.

  10. Pingback: Online Communities and Their Impact on Business. Part One: How online community works « nilofermerchant
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