Tigers, Oysters, and Communities

caged_tiger.jpgLast week I was talking with my  C3 colleague Sam Ford about the upcoming C3 affiliate Researcher’s retreat at MIT (it’s on Friday).  Sam is Director of Digital Strategy at Peppercom, a very forward thinking NYC-based public relations agency.  Recognizing his talents and the value of staying in a position of  thought leadership, Peppercom has developed a truly innovative position  for him that bridges academia and business functions. It’s worth thinking about how next-generation companies are going to do this-Sam and Peppercom look like a model to me (Grant McCracken writes about Sam in his wonderful new book Chief Culture Office, on pages 190-191-book review coming soon!).

So back to the conversation. Sam and I were talking about online communities and social media, and the current heavy interest in same, and he was recollecting a conversation I has at a past retreat with Judy Walklet from Communispace (I think it was Judy…).

The upshot of that conversation was that that there are many different forms of “community” (defined nice and loose) available online, and in real life. And that businesses that are interested in understanding how they are going to work with “communities” should try to work with and study many different types-and then devise appropriate strategies from that knowledge and experience.

Basically, you need to know that there are different forms of community, and community research, and they are good for different things, business-wise. And if you are, indeed, business wise, then you will pay attention to the differences and be strategic about them as you go about your brand management and marketing research.

As Sam and I were talking I thought of a metaphor that likened constructed  consumer research communities (sometimes called ORCs, online research communities-yuck, that’s one nasty, LOTR-inspired acronym) to caged tigers.

“Sometimes,” I said, “you can find out interesting things about  tigers by studying them in their cage in a zoo.” Their biology stays the same and probably some if their behavioral are the same as wild tigers. How they chew food, how they walk, how they clean themselves.

wild_tiger2.jpgBut you can’t learn much about tigers’ wild behavior by studying them  in their cage. They pace way too much, they are constrained in very important ways, they don’t have to forage or hunt, they don’t really compete, they don’t have very  active social lives. Sure, you can put an antelope in there and they  might kill it. You can put other tigers in their and they might react  to them or mate with them. But the situation is constructed and, only slightly beneath the apparent competitive behavior, you have lazy, well-fed domesticated tigers being prompted to compete.

So I am not saying all caged tiger info is useless. But I am saying that, if you were going tiger hunting, and wanted to know where tigers hide, or what they like to do in the wild, the info you got from studying caged tigers might not be all that useful.

“However,” I said to Sam, “if you are made out of meat, there are lots of  reasons why you’d prefer studying tigers at the zoo rather than in the wild.

Sam said that he had observed that companies tended to want social media studies that delivered what they expected them to deliver. A lot of the time, caged tigers delivered good results. Just like surveys that asked the wrong questions but came up with good quantified answers, also offered good results.

It all depends on what you mean by “good results.” In our business culture, people don’t usually get fired for producing and sharing studies that show managers how much consumer like their brands, and tell them why they like them.

But what we forget is that those are the results of caged tigers talking.

The wild tigers might rip you to shreds. They might make incredibly rude and unbelievably insulting commercials about your beautiful brand using transvestites and sexual innuendo, or shots of filled toilets, bloody entrails, and vomit. Or they might completely ignore you. It’s very hard to tell what a wild tiger might do.

So, despite a lot of talk about consumer power over the last decade or so, business and marketing  are still having a hard time with the idea of wild, grassroots up, chaotic, self-organizing consumers. And I think all these studies of caged tigers, and the value placed on them, are a sign of that deep, intense fear of the consumer taking over.

oyster_farm.jpgTo add another metaphor to the mix, marketers and managers want to create marketing responses that are like the pearls of cultured oysters. As with an oyster farm, the brand manager can cultivate consumer communities. Place the sand of marketing stimulation in and get a perfect brand loyal consumer community. No nasty, imperfect pearls. All those nice little oysters, lined up next to one another, producing perfect marketing insights every time.

But it doesn’t work that way. Wild tigers are messy. Real pearls are unever and crooked. Consumer communities are messy, nasty, loving, resistant, deeply loyal, incredibly fickle, angry, and hard to understand. They don’t cultivate easily.

Real culture doesn’t culture well. If it does, it’s probably not real culture. Ditto for community.

My bottom line is that it’s important to mix studies of wild tiger with studies of caged ones. If you are a business using an online research community for research results, it makes good sense not only to monitor the chatter online-and there are lots of good companies that can help you do this if you don’t know how to use Google trends yourself-but also to qualitatively understand and delve into those pre-existing, grassroots-formed online communities.

Add netnography into the mix and watch what happens. Instead of caged tigers, you’ve got the real things. Suddenly, you look like meat all over again. And that scary reality is yours to deal with.

If you go out into the wild and through your encounter with it understand it and are ready for it, I think your hunting, communication, and defensive strategies are going to be much better than they would be if you just did all your research in the zoo.