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. 

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?

What Facebook is Up To: A Netnographic Perspective

I’ve been a big fan of Facebook for quite some time as a user. I like SNS and think it offers consumers a valuable service that helps demonstrate the linking power of the Net and some of the innate and intimate possibilities of online communities. But I’ve always subjected any class discussions of SNS and Facebook in particular to an interrogation of their business model. After all, how do you monetize those 50 million plus users? It’s cool to see them sending messages and connecting, but what do you *do* with them? Advertising is a natural play.

Well, flush with Microsoft’s cash, Facebook just yesterday revealed a part of their grand business plan, which they call “social advertising.” You can read about the story here from the New York Times. I’ll quote that story a little bit here as a set up before providing my own opinion.

“Yesterday, in a twist on word-of-mouth marketing, Facebook began selling ads that display people’s profile photos next to commercial messages that are shown to their friends about items they purchased or registered an opinion about. For example, going forward, a Facebook user who rents a movie on Blockbuster.com will be asked if he would like to have his movie choice broadcast out to all his friends on Facebook. And those friends would have no choice but to receive that movie message, along with an ad from Blockbuster.”

They can call it “social advertising” but as the article infers, this is just tarted up word-of-mouth marketing. It’s not blazingly original, but there it is. One of the main problems I see with this execution is the issue that I see with all WOM marketing: it’s a different animal from “naturally occurring” WOM. We know a lot about “organic” WOM–still very little about the prompted variety. I suspect that it is received differently. Like other forms of social business, it does blur the increasingly blurry lines between social interaction and marketing-business-advertising moment. And I suspect consumers read it differently. And maybe start to read their “friends” differently. On Facebook, where a click also disconnects (yes, you know who you are, those who I’ve ‘defriended’), it remains to be seen how people will react to being barraged by a bunch of ads by their former pals.

Really, am I to assume that when you recommend a movie to me in person because you loved it, or even when you write in a email to me about a movie you just saw that you loved, that I’m going to treat that the same way that I would one of these tacked on ads in Facebook? It’s a decent empirical question.

Let me take a moment to look at Facebook from a netnographic perspective. From that perspective, I view the rise of online community as a social phenomenon but do so from the lens of marketing. Advertising is most certainly not the whole story, and is just the tip of the iceberg. Although it does have the implication to seriously dent the Titanic of online communal interaction. I do see a range of other interesting opportunities to use Facebook and SNS as marketing tools. And they are matched by just as many challenges. Some random thoughts I could easily expand upon in future:

  1. Facebook is awash in marketing research and consumer data: big opportunities, especially when combined with Microsoft knowhow
  2. If Facebook starts using consumer data profligately, odds are consumers will turn away (anyone remember the Windows 95 experience?)
  3. Facebook is a very branded and corporate place already, in terms of its “Feel”
  4. Gen Y and Millennials are only just so tolerant of corporatizing and commoditizing before they tune out the messages (and maybe the medium)
  5. We still know very little about the way word of mouth as a “push” marketing form works (I have a major study underway, with three co-authors, that sheds some new light on this topic)
  6. There are many ways for community to form, and SNS seems to be only one particular kind–how could it be combined in interesting ways with other forms of community, like virtual worlds, or blogs? We’re just beginning those explorations/exploitations
  7. The Facebook experience seems to be fairly surface-level for the most part, but wide–not a lot of deep conversations on the publicly accessible level; lots of bite-sized comments (maybe this is ultrapostmodern life?)
  8. Facebook’s corporatism hides some interesting anti-branding and anti-brand communities that are every bit as significant as the rah-rah recommendation engine idea
  9. These are called “New Media” for a reason: the rules of the game are still being made up as we go…
  10. What really comes after advertising? What is traditional advertising morphing into? Not just social advertising, but something truly different, and extensive, inclusive of all prior forms, but growing, reaching, broadening in scope. I think Google is moving around the edges of these ideas. I think Facebook may have many more ideas in this vein as well. These are certainly interesting times to be working in the realm of web2.0, online communities, and netnography. What do *you* see?