An Airport-Embedded Study of the Boingo Community

Well I’m back from Norway, and back in the airport again, traveling back home to the Land of the Free, which always feels good.

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It’s nice to be able to blog from the airport, and I have to say that I am enjoying and using my Boingo membership. Boingo is the company that provides wireless Internet access to airports around the world with a single membership. A great idea for those of us who are on and off of planes a lot. I remember probably 7 or 8 years back, I had a student presentation in my New Products MBA class at Kellogg with a similar idea. Back then, the economics were a bit different because wireless wasn’t a ripe technology.

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Anyways, I just brand blogged about Boingo. Ooops, I did it again. I’m getting no compensation of any kind, just saying that I think it’s a good idea and a decent service and I’m using it, and the deal they gave me ($10 a month for the first three months) was fair and got me hooked. Now that brings up an interesting point that came up in the class on Consumer Communities that I taught in Bergen Norway for NHH‘s Marketing Department. And that is:

How incredibly vast this topic of Consumer Communities is, and how incredibly much we currently don’t know about it.

So, the Boingo example. Because I blogged on Boingo, am I now a member of some “Boingo Brand Community”? Well, we could use the standard Muniz and O’Guinn 3 pillars of brand community view to ask:

1. Do I have concsiouness of kind as a Boingo member? Well, yes. But as a Boingo “community member”? Hmmm, that’s something different and I’d say no to that. I don’t know who else is in the community, so I don’t feel connected to them. I did, however, blog to my posse (that’s you guys) about Boingo. I WOMmed them. But that’s not the same as feeling like I connect through them (although, literally right now, I do).

2. Do I share rituals and traditions with other Boingo members? Like the log-in, the plug-in, the weary airport carry-on shuffle? Well, yes I guess that I do. But it’s not really Boingo brand community related, though, is it?

3. Do I share moral responsibility with other Boingo members? Hmmm. Ten minutes ago, a woman I’ve never seen before and will almost certainly never see again approached me and asked me if I was connected to the Internet. “Yes,” I said. I didn’t bother to flog Boingo, just said yes. “Could you do me a big favor?” She asked. I expected her to ask me to check her email, or her Facebook account, but instead she asked me to check on her flight, which is sort of sensible. Toronto is getting some weather today, with freezing rain, but things seem to be okay at the airport so far.We checked her flight, she realized she was at the wrong terminal, and away she went. So Boingo allowed me to engage in a moral act or responsibility towards my fellow traveler and in fact fellow human being. But it isn’t that I reached out to her as a fellow Boingo-er (Boinger? Boingee?–c’mon brand-brothers and sisters what should we call ourselves?). In fact, maybe sharing our online access is bad for Boingo’s business. Probably it would be.

So this quick example suffices to show some important areas we still need to explore and fill in with an enhanced understanding of online communities.

1. When does a customer become a community member? What’s the threshold?

2. Related to this, is their an awareness that you are a community member, or not?

3. What are the degrees of community-ness?

4. How does community form temporally? What are the acts and the processes involved?

5. Are those formation processes different for different kinds of communities? I’m thinking that virtual communities of consumption (VCCs), product communities, lifestyle communities, and brand communities are all different social formations that are all relevant and interesting to marketers and marketing/consumer researchers.

6. What happens when companies mess with them?

7. When does brand or product community work against the company? When does sharing something hurt sales? What happens then?

8. When is a ritual really a ritual? Or a moral responsibility? Are those really critical elements? Are there others? Where do we draw the line between the kind of support I would offer a stranger at the airport with that I would give to a member of the same brand-oriented tribe? Does it even matter? Are there overlapping circle of community-ness? The traveler’s community (an imagined community of cosmopolitan travelers). This airport’s local community (including staff, workers, people waiting for family and so on). The Canadian and American and Euro communities of travelers. The TSA workers community. The people-wearing-jeans, and people-wearing-business suits communities. Maybe I hate the other people wearing Armani suits, because they make my brand seem more common. So there’s no community fellow-feeling there, there’s a feeling of resentment and competition.

It seems to me we have some fuzzy understandings here. And lots of good research that can and I hope will be conducted to keep on clarifying and building our understanding of this important and fascinating topic.

Yahoo! Zap! Twitter! Google! Boing! Oh.

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