Five Rules for Working with Online Communities

The resurgence of activity and the emergence of the so-called Web 2.0 mean that online activity has never been more important when it comes to marketing and customer relationship management. At the center of much of this renewed interest is the online community.

When “Time” magazine named “You” as its person of the year in December, it acknowledged the power of the online community. “It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before,” wrote “Time.” “It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”

The power of virtual communities has been revealed in study after study, showing an increasing distrust of advertising matched by a surging trust in opinion and advice from postings and reviews published in communities, discussion groups, special-interest forums, blogs, and other online sites.

The critical questions for marketers are, first, whether these communities can be used to advantage, and, second, if so, how.

The answer to the first is a conditional yes, but the potential for disaster is ever-present. Take just one recent example: Microsoft’s decision to seed the blogger community with free laptops and the Vista operating system ahead of the software’s launch unleashed a storm of negativity, casting Microsoft again in a manipulative, Machiavellian light.

The answer to the second question, how best to work with online communities, can be summed up in a few simple rules.

1) The most successful online communities are based on people doing it for themselves. You must recognize that you cannot control, let alone exploit, online communities. There must be legal and professional constraints, but even if you host a community you cannot, for example, censor or delete comments and content you don’t like. You will simply drive members to other communities and give them another stick to beat you with.

2) If you’re going to engage with an online community you must do so in an open and honest fashion. People will inevitably criticize your company, your products, and your services; how you respond is vitally important. Don’t trivialize or argue, and if the criticism is wrong, be polite and reasonable in correcting the error.

3) Be responsive, and be seen to be responsive. To participate in the community and ignore the feedback is worse than not participating at all. Worse still, however, is to promise action and then fail to deliver.

4) Give something back. At the very least, be proactive in engaging with the community, making sure that all news about your organization, products, and services are posted in a timely fashion. Advance notice of a new product, an exclusive offer, or a competition can create and reinforce feelings of exclusivity (but remember rule number two and the example of Microsoft quoted above).

5) Know what you want to achieve and how to measure results. Although online communities are inexpensive compared with other forms of marketing, they carry costs in terms of staff time or bandwidth, servers, and other IT resources. Make sure your investment is worthwhile.

Chris Underhill is CEO of SmartFOCUS, a supplier of enterprise marketing management software for direct and database marketing.

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