eTribes and Emergent Community

I’ve been solid busy with some big projects that have required my full attention this week. On Monday and Tuesday I was speaking to an International Consumer Insight Summit. They wanted to know all about….you guessed it, netnography, and that presentation gave me a great opportunity to develop some of my thinking about online community marketing and eTribes.

eTribes is a term I coined early on as a sort of abbreviation term, but now that I’ve worked with it, I am finding that it really can mean something significant and important about online tribes. Calling them tribes rather than communities is an important move for me, because tribes connotes an anthropological view that is different from the sociological view connoted by the term communities.

One of the assertions in that presentation is that the “E” in eTribes can stand for “Emergent.” I argued that eTribes spring up organically, naturally, by themselves. They don’t need to be prompted, seeded, or activated. But for many companies, the idea of seeding and creating “their” communities is extremely tempting. Doing so makes online community fit into the familiar C3 model (command and control consumers). It makes online community much less of a threat, an unknown.

It’s like a light goes on in the boardroom: “Oh yeah,” someone says. “We fence them in, we moderate them, and then they won’t criticize us and say bad things about us.” And when they ask questions that are relevant only to them, they still get some answers. Voila, instant voice of the consumer. We knew they thought the same way we did.

Companies, you want to control you consumers better. But in this Brave Net(worked) World, you’ve already lost control.

That raises a big question for me. Is there a difference between the kind of “community” or tribe you get in a “community” that is created or sponsored by a website and the one you get emerging spontaneously, implicitly motivated and flowering on its own.

Communispace is a fascinating company that pays people $10 a month to form an artifically constructed brand community (and yes, they use the brand community terminology). They sell “private” (as in gated and controlled) online communities. Every consumer is fully identified and accountable. “Bad” (non-participating) members are bumped off. Messages are moderated. Communispace act sas the buffer zone between the world of real consumers and the corporate customers.

They’ve been quite successful selling companies this model. And why not? It’s neat, it’s clean, it’s controlled. The “wild west” (as someone at the consumer insight summit called it) of eTribes is tamed and its threat contained (and there are real threats). But I wonder exactly what it is they are selling. Is this really a tribe? Does it have the hallmarks of genuine community? Or is this a dolled up panel–still valuable, but not really a community after all?

Is anyone aware of any solid research that might shed some light on these questions?

2 thoughts on “eTribes and Emergent Community

  1. jwschlack

    Hi Robert. I’m Julie Wittes Schlack from Communispace Corporation, and I found your blog posting to be both intellectually and emotionally provocative — intellectually, because I think you’ve raised some important questions about the difference between organic, self-forming communities and the “intentional” communities of the sort that we run; emotionally, because I think it also reflects some misconceptions about how we recruit for and conduct our communities. So let me first dispense with the latter, then get into the good challenges you’ve posed.
    We do indeed recruit and learn a lot about members of our communities, both so that our clients (the sponsoring company) has some context for intepreting and acting upon the feedback of community members, and because we’ve found that this personal accountability helps to create a more respectful, higher trust relationship between community members. And we do periodically remove non-participating members, not because they’re “bad,” but because if they choose not to participate, while they may learn something from “lurking,” they’re frankly not providing any value to other members or to our client. However, we do not “moderate” (as in censor or in any way filter) member postings, and we certainly do not act as the buffer between our members and clients. On the contrary, our facilitation practices are explicitly designed to elicit ongoing, long-term engagement and honesty between members and the corporate sponsor, and have an extensive body of research demonstrating that this is precisely what occurs. If you were to ask any of our facilitators whether they “command and control” our members, they would tell you with polite amusement that most certainly do not.
    In short, what we try to create is not so much “control” as dialogue, intimacy, and engagement, and have found the small size and private nature of the community to be an essential prerequisite to creating that kind of climate. In fact, when we’ve done both quantitative and qualitative comparisons to large, public “community” sites such as FlyerTalk, we find much higher participation rates (as a percentage of total “visitors”) in our private communities (i.e. a greater diversity of voices and number of contributions per members), much more “you” and “we” language (as opposed to purely “I” language), many more actionable suggestions, a higher average word count per posting, etc. The bottom line is that when consumers feel that they are in a genuine dialogue with the brand, when they feel heard, they engage more and with greater candor. And to your excellent distinction between a “genuine community” vs. a “dolled up panel,” our daily experience with members sharing intimate details of their lives, supporting one another both practically and emotionally, and most importantly, taking ownership of the community by initiating their own dialogues, surveys, brainstorms etc. (a practice that we actively encourage and reward) suggests that their experience is that of belonging to a genuine community.
    I don’t mean to suggest that small, private “branded” communities are superior to self-forming, organic communities such as you find at SlashDot or SparkPeople. The latter are great forums for peer-to-peer advice giving and seeking, and by “mining” their content, companies can identify emerging trends, competitive threats, etc. But when the company’s objective is to achieve insight and the consumer’s objective is to have a voice, small and private communities can play a valuable role in meeting both sets of needs.
    I do welcome your healthy cynicism — these are great questions to raise. If you’re looking for some solid research addressing some of these issues, I recommend downloading “Size Matters” and “WHY Size Matters” from our corporate website. And I do thank you for providing a forum in which to discuss them.