UGC, CGM, customer-created content, social networking, social media, social computing, social technologies, citizen marketing, community…

There are many buzzwords to describe customer participation. "Community" is a word that has made a comeback from the late '90s, when a best-selling book was "Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities". In 1997 this was our 'bible' at Thirdage.com. Content, community and commerce was the mantra. Unfortunately content was too expensive and commerce was too early. Hence, I'm still working :-)

Now "community" is back. More people are online, more eyeballs to feed ads, and more participation from the next generation of online consumers is feeding this trend. However, as Dave Evans points out in his recent ClickZ article, "community" often gets confused with the broad category of "social media". 

When I visit Fortune 500 clients I see one or more of the buzzwords above used. One word may become prominent within the organization, perhaps because the CEO or CMO went to a conference or read an article. Sometimes that buzzword is "community". I hear, "We need to build community into our site". However, what they ultimately mean is they want customer participation and customer engagement, which CAN lead to customer retention, word of mouth, and increased persuasion / conversion.

Community is perhaps the most overused term of them all, perhaps because it infers a higher level of customer engagement than user generated content or social media. Some of our clients (or more accurately, their customers) have a community on their site. Others have the opportunity to build a community with our functionality.

I've had my experience with community, as Director of Community for ThirdAge.com  and as manager of Dell.com's support forum technology for a period of time. If I learned anything it was this: Community is about customer passion, relationships and/or a sense of belonging. On Dell support forums, it was very utilitarian. However, techies ansnswer questions because they are proud of their knowledge and passionate about helping others. They had relationships with each other and Dell moderators, and liked to be part of Dell's Brand. At ThirdAge.com, a web site for baby boomers, we tried to seed topics on forums and chats, and most of the time we were way off! Customers created their own topics, and the ones that flourished are those that had drama, emotion and passionate utility. Love, sex, hobbies, local discussions, medical topics, relationships, etc. were top topics. For context, read this history of Thirdage.com community from a member (warning: midi music) and this story I wrote of a love and marriage originating on ThirdAge.com forums and chat. I also saw and participated in saving a life through ThirdAge.com chat! That's community.

For a company, the strategic 'community opportunity' is to identify the emotion in their brandtheir products and their customers. It could be something related to the prdoucts (ex: Harley Davidson), or the problem the product solves, or their advertising (ex: Geico), or their customers (celebrity customer?). On PETCO we see 700 reviews for Greenies, a $1 dog treat! Greenies has their own community within the product pages of PETCO! But that doesnt' work on Epinions, for example, which has been live for 8 years. Why would the 700th person write that review on PETCO? The combination of Greenies on PETCO (a site for pet lovers) makes it a community of passion for a product for pets they love.

As for Social Media (and I'll put user generated content, including reviews, in this category) vs. Community, Dave Evans suggests another difference between social media and community, in his article:

At its core, social media both encompasses and provides a set of tools that enable members to share and share in the information around them. It is a precursor, but not a guarantee of community. The social web, a facilitator, enables me to ask you or anyone else in my distributed network about something and facilitates you telling me and anyone else in your distributed network about it. This has implications for marketing and advertising. Primary among them: the explicit condition that participants in your community be able to freely talk and share information. Right there, most so-called communities fail. By controlling rather facilitating, the conversations become predictable, one-way monologues. It's like the CMO who went to a marketing retreat and came back enlightened about social dynamics in our age of democratization: Maoist chants of "Let a thousand flowers bloom" sound great, and look even better in contemporary mission statements. But then, just as predictably, the other shoe drops: "And if those flowers turn out to be dissidents, we can lop their heads off later." That isn't, community.

This is not to say that social media and community-inspired marketing needs to be totally open, free, and unconstrained. This is the '00s, not the '60s, as much as I wish I were back there. A bit of structure actually seems to be a good thing. As marketers, we've got jobs to do and results to which we're held accountable.

4 Responses to ““Social Media” vs. “Community””

  1. Great posting, the next piece to this is that “community” interaction with the brand if fostered correctly can become a powerful word of mouth or viral tool. We often get caught up with the trend words, as you mention, and try for the big home run when it is the one to one relationships that are fostered, grown and expanded upon that allows for the passion the consumer have to be share which help reinforce your brand more than any traditional advertising ever could.

  2. Great posting, the next piece to this is that “community” interaction with the brand if fostered correctly can become a powerful word of mouth or viral tool. We often get caught up with the trend words, as you mention, and try for the big home run when it is the one to one relationships that are fostered, grown and expanded upon that allows for the passion the consumer have to be share which help reinforce your brand more than any traditional advertising ever could.

  3. It has been a while since I heard anyone other than myself mention Thridage.com. I was one of the very early members and Thirdage provided me a lot of experience that has gone into my writings. I was once feature in a Time magazine article through the auspices of Thirdage and have returned there from time to time. It is no longer the place it once was but I am sure those currently participating are well rewarded by the site. Thanks for bringing this story forward. A friend has seeded it to Newsvine.com and that is how I got here. Thanks.

  4. It has been a while since I heard anyone other than myself mention Thridage.com. I was one of the very early members and Thirdage provided me a lot of experience that has gone into my writings. I was once feature in a Time magazine article through the auspices of Thirdage and have returned there from time to time. It is no longer the place it once was but I am sure those currently participating are well rewarded by the site. Thanks for bringing this story forward. A friend has seeded it to Newsvine.com and that is how I got here. Thanks.

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