Online communities – commercially viable?
We all know the rise of the online community has been one of the most significant developments on the internet in recent years. Some have even called the phenomenon a second internet or Web 2.0.
We'd hesitate to describe it as such, because the software that enables users without programming knowledge to create a web for themselves, has been developing for years. Plus, it's only in recent years that this has led to an expansion of widespread and self-sustaining online communities. While the online community's development is more of an evolution than revolution, there can be no denying that something significant is taking shape. So while you may by all means adjust your business's online strategies to include social media, do not expect the Earth to move straight away.
Do be tuned in to and clued up on the online community 'evolution', though.
Investigative rather than buying intent
Social media websites and software like YouTube, Wordpress and Facebook have changed the balance of information supply. But they have so far failed to monetise themselves.
That's because social media users are not searching for products in the same way users of search engines are. They may be looking for advice or opinion about a product. But online community users aren't generally in buying mode.
But there are still opportunities to be maximised.
Today's social-media savvy consumers are no longer happy to rely solely on a brand's own website copy or on a comparison website. Hence the mushrooming of consumer communities and 'super advocate websites' such as www.moneysavingexpert.com
The transient nature of sentiment
A key point to grasp when considering the role online communities can play in business is the transient nature of users' views and opinions. It's human nature to highlight the bad rather than good. People rarely go online to say something middle of the road. It's often one extreme or the other.
Online businesses often fall foul of this. You only have to look at many of the high street banks, who have all experienced bad publicity on social media networks recently.
Online discussions can spread the word about a brand, for good or ill. These can be organic or company-bred. But because it's almost always transient it can be difficult for businesses to interpret.
But forums, blogs and other community media are excellent at tracking transient sentiment because they usually give accurate dates of when posts are published.
There are ways of offsetting bad publicity. Alliance and Leicester, for example, has offset its share performance by offering excellent account products, which are regularly praised on moneysavingexpert.com
Information is not proportional to meaning
This is very important to remember. If lots of people are commenting about a product on a rarely visited message board, this is far less significant than one person making one negative comment on moneysavingexpert.com
Some businesses are better suited than others to having user-generated communities built around them. Others really aren't. There are far more companies in the UK that barely receive a mention outside their own websites. But don't despair if this describes you. You can still find conversations about your industry and react to them with an online community campaign. And you can use these to bring something unique and supplemental to what's on your website.
The problem for most businesses is how they link this content with their product, and make it commercially viable.
The passive and active responses to online communities
Because the online community is transient, and is created by consumers themselves, it's difficult for businesses to make their mark. Information that comes straight from a company can often appear sales oriented and offputting.
We've identified two ways that a business can use the online community.
The passive response is when a company isn't involved in the online conversation, but uses the online community as a source of customer feedback. The downside is the vast majority of businesses don't get online community mentions. And even when they do, the information is often out of all proportion to any meaning.
Many companies take a more active response. This can be achieved in a variety of ways:
Instead of actually joining the online conversation, many businesses are trying to build it around themselves. For example, they may have Q&A or customer feedback features. Amazon has customer review pages for example. But because Amazon sells so many books it's happy to let customers review them openly. This wouldn't work so well for every business.
Offset media includes forums, blogs, wikis and user collaboration - and allows consumers to do more than just have their say about a brand's products.
Forums are opportunities for people to talk about whatever they like, within the forum rules. This approach keeps the discussion of these relevant issues within a business's website and also drives returning traffic.
Blogs are commonly misused, but can be useful. Often, content appeals to niche audiences. Blogs can also take a long time to produce results. Their real advantages are that they give companies human faces and provide a longer tail of content, meaning they can target search terms the main website can't.
Wikis and user collaboration give users the opportunity to edit site content. Wiki editorial about a business is rarely all that interesting, though. Instead, companies can devise other ways for their consumers to participate in their brand. For example, Coca-Cola's 'Design the World a Coke' feature challenges users to do just that. While wikis are expensive to set up, they need less creative maintenance than blogs or forums.
In order to use this approach, businesses have to create a profile on a social media network. Social network advertising is in its infancy and click-through rates on banner ads are poor. But there are some success stories. Top Shop has over 7,500 'friends' on its Facebook user profile, who regularly receive updates about products.
The biggest challenge for businesses on social media networks is appealing to their demographic. The majority of users are under 30.
Today and tomorrow
The gulf between the user generated web and traditional commercial web is wide, for now. Indeed, the question is how can the user generated web become commercially viable?
Driving traffic is straightforward, yes, but converting that to sales remains difficult.
But the goalposts could shift quickly and forward-thinking businesses are advised to keep or get active in the online community.
The most important role of the online community is that of influencers and advocates. The product communality drives an often transient debate and tracking it is vital for a business in understanding how web users view their products or brand image.
Companies can often offer something supplemental to their business, which is genuinely interesting and can guide consumers away from unjustified views. Consumers are looking for honest opinions from other consumers. For businesses participating in the online community, transparency is therefore key.
To read about this topic in more detail request your free white paper 'Transience and transparency: online communities and their commercial viability' today.