Is Communispace-type Community “Real” Community?

This is interesting. I’m very grateful to Julie Wittes Schlack from Communispace Corporation who commented on my blog entry from last week talking about emergent community and elaborating on Communispace’s perspective. She also gracefully corrected a few misconceptions I had, and shared lots of information, for which I thank her. I recommend you read through her comment before proceeding with the rest of my entry so that this train of thought is running along smoothly.

Julienotes that Communispace’s average member participates much more than the average member of an organic online community. She also notes that Communispace members build strong ties to the brands whose communities they participate within. Those are important differences. In organic commuinties, deep attachment to the brand usually but not always precedes participation in a brand community. When participation leads to deep attachment, this sounds a bit more like marketing, and I wonder if Communispace may be offering a hybrid of promotional WOM community with marketing research community. As Alice might say, interestinger and interestinger. More on this point later.

As she does, I think this is a productive and provocative discussion. I’m not trying to be critical or overly-confrontational here. I want to state at the outset that I think that Communispace offers companies a very valuable service. I also think that there are many, many ways to work with an study onlne consumer communities. Many ways to conceptualize them, gain insights from them, research them, and incroporate them into corporate strategy and tactics.

But I’d like to take this a step further. Asking the question above, about whether an intentionally constructed online community made of monetarily motivated individuals can provide the same insights and benefits as a community that has evolved of its own accord is a legitimate question with practical and research implications. Or, maybe it’s interesting to ask about what kinds of community seeding there are as options, and what their implications are.

Here is my thought on the topic. Off the top of my head, I believe that there are five important differences bewtween the “Communispace”-stype constructed community and the organic variant that arises on its own, which I have been participating in for the last two decades (I was a dedicated Compuserve member for a while in the 1980s, and participated in BBSs long before the wonders of Mosaic, deja.com, and usenet readers) and have been studying for the last 12 years.

1. Motivation. I question the difference in participation and information that extrinsic (rewarded by corporate payments, as with focus groups, panels, depth interviews, and so on) and intrinsic rewards (I love or hate the brand and want others to know about it and share in it).

2. Anonymity. Online anonymity is paradoxical. There are so many tags, cookies, trails and tracks that the online world can be a control freak’s dream. In many ways the Internet has turned into a gigantic panopticon. However, this tracking is counterbalanced by an amazing freedom. I think that a balanced combination of freedom and loss of privacy creates a very fruitful level of engagement in onlin communities, one that has a decade-plus long history. People will have multiple identities to express different ideas, or to flame other people. They play fluidly with identities as part of the communal interaction. But I wonder what happens to this balance when it is shifted into the constructed community model.

3. Contributions. Organic community members want to contribute. Sponsored community members are compelled and directed to contribute in certain ways–and perhaps want to contribute in those ways. As Julie’s comments make clear, it is the needs of the company which are paramount in Communispace, not the needs of the community. In sponsored communities, as Julie’s comments indicate, this leads to a more productive and efficient atmosphere. But communities are not necessarily about productivity and efficiency–those are economic goals. Sponsored communities do have wider contributions, less hierarchy, and probably more discussion around interests of focal concern to companies. But what is different, or what is lost?

4. Commercial orientation. Online communities come in many sizes, shapes, and forms. Many lifestyle communities provide very interesting, contextually-embedded informaton on brand uses, choices, and relationships. By “managing” the format, and directing it into an online brand community, the sponsored community model constructs a particular kind of interaction and commuity experience. That is useful, but again, it may not be what we’d see emerging in a natural online discourse. I suggest that we are less likely to see resistant discourse and anti-corporate or anti-brand pushback. We may be less likely to see wider contexts, or to be able to discern how incidental, noncentral, or unimportant our products and brands may be to people. I also think that these elements might be valuable to know. Julie’s comments suggest that perhaps these elements can be managed and play a part in the Communispace experience.

5. Community Restrictions. Do people in sponsored communities form strong alliances? Do they take them offline? Do they move them to SNS as well? Are they free to email each other? Can they make their own rules, control their own community experience as much as they would like? Can they discuss the topics that concern them (for instance, politics, religion), or only what concerns the brand and brand managers? Are people being put into an artifical “brand community” box for the convenience of market research data gathering? How open is that box, if it is pen? What are the effects of that closedness or openness?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m suggesting that we need good, qualified, third-party academic studies of the differences between prompted or sponsored community and organic or grassroots community. This is parallel to studies beginning to emerge about word of mouth marketing, which compare the managed or constructed variety of word-of-mouth marketing with the prompted or synthetic variant. 

We would all benefit from a more systematic understanding of these ideas, and rigorous research. We are heading into a new age of online communities in which we recognize and understand their use in management and marketing.

We need to devise classificatrions of the tpes of communities, the types of management of them. In the past, I have always advocated a “light touch” apprach to managing organic online communities. But companies need more specific and precise advice than this. 

I think that Communispace is a very valuable experiment and contribution to this field. It may combine the management of a promotional-type of brand community with the interests of a captive audience marketing research forum, a type of interestingly communal panel or ongoing focus group.

We have lots to learn, and valid roles for all sorts of communities, including the managed varieties. 

2 thoughts on “Is Communispace-type Community “Real” Community?

  1. Robert,

    I was thinking in some of this topics that you have described while reading the reply in your previous post. Are these communities the same? Is the same of studying rats in a “controlled ambient” or in a “natural one”? Are they going to do the same things?

    Extrapolating the example of the rats, in my view it will be the same of a bunch of people consuming while other observe them, and they know that they are going to be observed, so they can act different. I’m not implying that this should or would happen always (to act different – not natural). First because we are always performing personages in our daily life. But it will be “natural”, or less “natural” when we know that we are going to be analyzed by what we are doing? Or it will be just another personage that you are performing during a set time?

    I think that this topic raises again the old questions from naturalistic and non-naturalistic research. Participant observation x simple observation x ethnography x etc. To what point our presence (even virtual) is influencing the results, the field, the data, the informants…?

  2. Hi Robert

    Once again you provide for a stimulating discussion. Right after I read your posting I received an invitation to “Join our Community & WIN!” from irewards (indigo books). I believe there could be good value for both contributors and the company alike however; the devil is in the details with these Online Communities.

    It should be clear what the motivations are behind the Community. With the irewards it is clear. They want to sell me a selection of books that I choose, they want me to add content to their website with book reviews and they want me to recommend books to my friends so they in turn can market to them. They are trying to cultivate the “mavens” as coined by Malcolm Gladwell in “The Tipping Point”.

    As a marketing professional hats off to them for a clever strategy and being clear about what they want to accomplish.

    Where I get concerned about the “On-line Community” is the potential for confusion between passive marketing and market research.

    For years market research was conducted over the phone. People were asked for their opinions on products and services on the basis they would not be sold anything and their responses would remain anonymous thus ensuring the feedback was unbiased as possible. It often relied on people’s good will and recognition that it somehow would benefit them with improved products and services down the road despite the possible presence of a small incentive to participate.

    One of the side effects of a focus on certain products or services in market research was that respondents go away with an enhanced awareness, familiarity and even likeness for a product they never thought about before. However the holy grail of market research was you do not cross the boundary between a thirst for insights and helping you client directly sell its wares.

    Enter the proliferation of telemarketing. Telemarketing is killing market research over the phone for a number of reasons. First it’s the majority of calls that a household will receive. With call display and “telezapping”, electronic dialing, necessary in both MR and telemarketing, go unanswered. You see 1 888 on call display and you don’t pick it up. Sure telemarketing has a right to exist; however, what really annoys me is the telemarketing call that is guised as a market research call. Hello we are from XXX (said really fast so as not to legible), I am not selling anything and would like to ask you a few questions about windows”. At the end you are either passed over to a supervisor to “verify” your answers or you get a call a few days later about “window replacement”.

    Marketing research is moving on line. Respondents find it easier and more convenient to use. It is much less intrusive. Market researchers are finding it more accurate for a number of reasons plus they use different questioning techniques to provide more robust analysis for their clients. Market research firms have developed panels, however, these panels differ from the online communities described in your article, as the panel member knows that there individual responses are not shared and no one is going to market to them as a result of their involvement or the answers they provided to questions. The MR firms clients get unbiased results to make decisions and the respondents cooperate on basis their information remains anonymous.

    If the motivation for getting you on a marketing panel is not clear and people find out that they are being sold instead of being involved in a market research project they will stop responding to all calls for on line involvement. If I am in an online community directly with a company (such as Indigo) I know that I am I am going to be marketed to. If I am in an on line community through a third party provider I need to know why I am being asked to join and what happens with my information.

    Perhaps this new emerging industry needs a code of ethics or an association standard so as not to discredit on line involvement for all involved… consumers, on-line providers and MR firms?