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.