Online communities can measure success for your brand

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The resurgence of dot.com activity and the emergence of the so-called Web 2.0 means online activity has never had greater importance in the roles of marketing and customer relationship management. Right at the center of much of this renewed interest is the online community.

When Time magazine named "You" as its person of the year last 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 these virtual communities has been revealed in study after study, showing an increasing distrust of advertising and traditional published reviews, 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 whether these communities can be used to advantage, and, if so, how? What are the rules?

For marketers, community marketing is a challenge as the potential for disaster is ever-present. To take just one 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.

A crucial aspect of community that marketers need to embrace - especially in the Web era - is that all communities are organic in nature. They are created and sustained by the participation of autonomous individuals. Any relationship with a community is an interactive, two-way conversation, one of many multi-way conversations taking place within the community. Even if an organization has invested considerable resources in helping to create, sustain and host a community, it should never assume that it owns controls or sets the boundaries for that community. The Web makes it easy for any or all of the participants to voice their dissent or go elsewhere if they perceive any attempt to manipulate the community.

Best practice in community marketing seeks to build trust and respect between an organization and the communities it interacts with. That means accepting and encouraging full and open conversation among and between all participants (because if it isn't allowed within your community, it'll happen somewhere else anyway).

This means that sufficient resources should be allocated to monitor, react and provide fair information to the community.

How to cooperate with online communities can be summed up in a few simple rules.

The most successful online communities are based on people doing it for themselves. You must recognize that you cannot control, let alone exploit them. There must be legal and professional constraints, but even if you host a community you cannot 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.

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.

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.

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 competition can create and reinforce feelings of exclusivity.

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, servers, bandwidth, and other IT resources. Make sure your investment is worthwhile.

In summary, it takes effort and resources to provide content and functionality of a caliber to entice and sustain the interest of a community. And the more sophisticated the community functionality becomes, the more management and nurturing the community requires. So you should expect some payback in return for this investment. Sometimes the payback is simply the pro-bono kickback that comes from supporting a community, but it's more likely some kind of business return, such as creating an ad-carrying online media asset, or having the opportunity to promote a product or marketing message to members of the community.

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