Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The real value of online communities

I recently came across an academic piece that offers an interesting framework for gurus/experts/consultants/practitioners/geeks/students (delete as appropriate) to think about as an analytical and/or planning tool for online strategies.

I know there is no one size fits all approach – and clearly in this ever changing world we live in (anyone spot the music reference there?) flexibility and constant learning is key. That said, I see a lot of the headline arguments from this article holding true, and it has made me want to share it on this blog.

The article focuses on the Internet as a tool that is increasingly being used to foster sizeable virtual communities. The writers argue that these virtual communities can be grouped into four main categories:

Communities of transaction facilitating the buying and selling of products and services and delivering information related to those transactions (eg Amazon reviews).

Communities of interest where participants gather to discuss common interests, not necessarily related to a transaction, but related to a product, service or activity (eg Facebook fan pages).

Communities of fantasy where individuals create a persona for themselves and become immersed into a world that may or may not be strictly real-life (eg online gaming).

Communities of relationships based on the sharing of life experiences and developing real life relationships from them (eg online dating).

Now, it stands to reason that communities displaying all four elements are likely to be the largest and most vibrant. The authors use the example of a travel company using a travel forum (interest) to advertise a competition or game where the winners receive a discounted holiday (fantasy). The winners then consult other community members on how to best use their prize (transaction) and then look for others who they can share their experience with (relationships).

Once a critical mass of community members has been reached, there are four principle ways to create an economic return. These are based around usage or membership fees (self explanatory), content fees (such as premium services), advertising (self explanatory) and cross linkages with other parts of the business (essentially cross selling or affiliate programs).

These four methods all hinge on ensuring that the community is in place, and the participants are sufficiently engaged in your community (whatever that may be) so that they can then be targeted and ultimately monetized.

A key paragraph from the article states that “by creating strong on-line communities, businesses will be able to build customer loyalty to a degree that today's marketers can only dream of and, in turn, generate strong economic returns.”

Note the buzz words…critical mass, engagement, community, monetization, economic return. Sound familiar? Yep, social media & comms 101.

Now, here's my take on all of this:

I see a lot of chat questioning how to monetize online communities, and wonder whether the reason we find it so hard is because the communities we’re building aren’t being constructed and defined effectively? I think this framework offers an interesting starting point.

What intrigued me most about the article is that it was not written this year. Or last year. It was not written in the early-mid 2000’s when Facebook, Twitter and YouTube came about.

This article is from way before the advent of social media. Way before web 2.0.

This article was published in 1996. In the age of dial up net access and the crossover from Windows 3.1 to 95.

Far ahead of its time.

I found it eye opening and fascinating that these principles we talk about today as some sort of mysterious craft have been talked about for years, just under a different guise.

What do you think? Is this too theoretical, too academic? Or too simplistic? Or just plain incorrect? I’d be really keen to know your thoughts, as I’ve found it very useful.

Article reference:

Armstrong, A. & Hagel III, J. The Real Value of On-line Communities. Harvard Business Review, May June 1996, p 134-141

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where are we headed?

With the launch of Facebook Places, one of the established major social networks has finally taken on the mantle of pushing this technology out to the masses to see exactly how far it can go.

According to the video stream of the launch from Facebook HQ, they plan to implement places in the same way they have photos – with the tagging API and features playing a key part. Users will be able to check in to a location and then tag the friends they are there with, with the ultimate aim of painting a picture in the news feed of where they are, what they’re doing and with whom.

The benefits are that we can link it to the friends we already have, the status updates and news stories we already create and essentially extend what we do, rather than somewhere like foursquare where we have to get used to a new platform (albeit a very simple one).

Consider the way Apple took a platform we were all comfortable with (iPhone/iOS), and extended it (iPad); it seems Facebook has done the same.

My major (and as yet unaddressed) concern is whether it allows individuals ultimate control over their own check ins. Foursquare for example allows you to check in to a location and THEN links you to who you’re there with. The link only happens after you check in; therefore you have chosen to make your presence in that location public with those people.

With Facebook Places allowing friends to check you in by way of tags (“I am in place A with friend X, Y and Z”) and this story appearing in your and their news feed, this element of control is removed. This could be a big thing, especially when facebook friend numbers creep into the 6,7 and 800’s and beyond for some. You may not want all friends to know where you are and who you’re with, but someone else could tag you and your cover would be rumbled. And from the way the privacy settings appear to be structured, you either opt in or opt out to being tagged.

Practically, it’s the way at a party you’re wary of what photos are being taken of you, knowing they will probably appear on facebook the morning after without you knowing. Are we now going to be wary of where we go too?

I look forward to seeing this in action, but it looks like it’s going to be a slowly-slowly approach to flicking the “on” switch to all these settings. There’s almost 300 facebook friends that will know where I am at all times. Tread carefully.

- On a side note, Chris Cox, VP of products at Facebook painted us a picture of how thanks to Facebook places, we will tag ourselves in places that in 20 years time our kids will discover and re-trace our steps and important moments in our lives. Chris: kids don't like befriending their folks on facebook!!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The good, bad and the ugly

I visited my favourite milkshake bar the other night. It’s fairly new, different from many other fast food places both in the image and design of the shop, the menu, the staff and the location for starters. In summary, they’ve got a lot of the basics such as product, price, place, people, physical environment right. Marketing 101.

They also have a lot of fans that I know locally (talking offline) - a bit of a cult following, especially amongst the local young/student population (makes sense, they’re up the road from the university).

What caught my eye this time was that they were advertising their facebook page all over the plasma screens in the shop. As I waited for my Oreo shake to be mixed, I had a browse on the iPhone. Checked in on 4sq (location listed but not owned), facebook page (150 odd fans), twitter (account with no presence) and started to chat to the owner.

We talked about the business – how it started, what they’re trying to do differently, plans for the future etc. All good background information. At which point the conversation moved on to the facebook page and social media in general - how it came about, why it came about, what was happening on it, what they were finding.

It evolved into a great example of things that should and shouldn’t be done when using social media, and it gave me the idea for this post. They were talking to their fans - responding, engaging, facilitating. All good things.

But there were some things they weren’t doing.

Sure a lot of these pointers might be obvious to some, repetitive to others…but when they’re still happening out there it means they need repeating.

1. The days of “a facebook page is all we need” are over

In the early days of fan pages and groups this may have been justifiable in some cases, but not anymore. A business that really wants to use the power of social media to spread their message, brand, business and get others to do that for them need to look wider than just a facebook fan page. Location based services, message boards, blogs, photo streams, twitter conversations…the whole spectrum.

2. It’s not just about online

For a business/concept/brand that has so many good things being said about them OFFLINE, to have barely 150 fans (at this time) on their ONLY web presence (no website either) is criminal. I know about “followers are folly, engagement is everything”, but there needs to be a minimum following, a critical mass level that you need to achieve to start getting your message spread.

Online needs to be integrated with offline, and my visit was evidence of that. I saw the facebook page advertised OFFLINE, and then took my interest ONLINE. Where I saw people talking about different shakes and experiences that then brought me back OFFLINE into the store again.

3. Get the basics right

I started my conversation with the manager by talking about the basics – the story of the business, the brand, their offering, their USP etc. Only then did it move to their SM presence. I don’t know whether this was how they thought when they set up their own presence, or whether they were advised accordingly by anyone, but it’s certainly a more methodical way of thinking that does work.

4. In 2010, having your own website is essential

Facebook and social media pages in general are too ubiquitous. It needs to feed back to an individual website where you can really show off your brand and image. Especially in this case where the company’s brand was so different. They had something really great to show off and could do so much with their own website but had it dressed around facebook’s standard blue/white.

5. Don’t do things for the sake of it.

A twitter page facilitating no conversations is pointless. A fan page with (relatively) few fans isn’t doing anything. It’s dead. This particular twitter feed is being streamed directly from facebook and some of it doesn’t make sense.

Referring to a menu tab on twitter is a clear example of facebook auto-feeding gone wrong. Sure with less than 10 followers it doesn’t mean anything, but in time, it could.

It made me think, and made me realise companies and brands are making these mistakes. The real social media and online winners will be the ones that get the basics right. I do love Archie’s and I hope they do manage to spread their word on social media. It’s exactly the kind of brand that could develop a great local social media following.

Anyone reading this in Manchester (UK) should check out Archie’s shakes on Oxford Road. See what you think. And have the Oreo shake if you do nothing else. It’s amazing!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Some spicy questions

At the outset of this post I will openly admit that I am no marketing expert. I know my stuff, I’ve got a good level of understanding of the basics and a bit more, but I wouldn’t call myself a guru. Not yet anyway.

But even by my understanding, the questions currently being asked about the Old Spice YouTube viral video campaign are puzzling. Questions such as:

“What were the results?”
“What is Old Spice’s ROI for the campaign?”
“Has it been money well spent?”

The reason I’m so confused is that I wasn’t aware the Old Spice campaign was actually over. As I understand advertising and marketing in general, it’s something like this:

Advertising, at its most basic level serves to increase awareness of a product, brand, service…essentially whatever is being advertised. This awareness then needs to be translated into sales, units of a product sold, revenue, profit. Advertising is just one of a range of tools that forms part of the promotions mix. Tools also include sales promotions, direct marketing, PR, personal sales etc…

So the questions being asked of the campaign seem, to me, to be about 6 months too early.

In my mind, Old Spice was always the brand of shaving cream my dad used. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this. The current campaign has certainly served to raise my awareness of Old Spice as a more modern brand, a brand that I might use as well as, or instead of, my dad.


Surely the next step is for the Old Spice campaign AS A WHOLE to move into the stores and onto the high street. Now we start to see promotions instore involving Old Spice products, freebies in our shopping centres, offers online offering us trials in the post. And only then, when we start to get sales data, should we ask the type of questions I listed earlier.

In all the buzz about social media campaigns and whatnot, we’re forgetting that social media is not a strategy in itself, it’s a tool that is used as part of a much wider, integrated set of tools that form the ultimate strategy.

Questions on ROI need to be asked of the whole campaign, not the individual tools. Let’s not be blinded by these shiny new toys; marketing and advertising existed a long time before social media, and those traditional tools and media are just as important.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Waving it (Goog)bye

So it’s the end of Google Wave. I can’t say I’ll miss it, because I used it for about a month and whilst appreciating the technology, I couldn’t see a use for it. I tried to convince others I could see a use for it, but I was really only trying to convince myself. Perhaps I should apologise for being one of those early adopters that moved away. Or perhaps not.

So why did it not work? Here is yet another comms blogger’s probably-not-unique-but-what-the-hell-anyway thoughts on it. Yes, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but most of these thoughts I did have at the time, just take my word for it!

1. The buzz

No, I’m not talking about Google Buzz (incidentally another Google service I don’t get). I’m talking about the buzz generated around Google Wave. I got a very early invite from Google, and once friends found out I had invites to share, my facebook page and email inbox were overflowing with “Hey, can I get an invite to Wave too?” messages. Everyone wanted a piece of it.

And every time I invited someone else onto Wave, we started a conversation which always went along the lines of:

“Hmm, so this is wave. Cool. Er, right, ok, now what?”

You see, Google had pulled us in but then did nothing to keep us there. What is it they say, customer retention is easier than new customer acquisition? Well Google had done the initial hard part but then couldn’t follow it up.

2. There were other tools out there

Granted, if Google does something then you take notice, on the assumption they are likely to do it well. As with Apple (for me at least). But let’s face it, online collaboration tools aren’t a new thing, yet this was being separately touted as Email 2.0, the service that will revolutionise efficiency and workplace collaboration and all sorts. It didn’t.

3. No one could figure out exactly how to use it

Imagine if you had been told about a great new restaurant. The best there was, serving food that no one else in the world had ever heard of. And the restaurant owners told you to come in, enjoy the food and then spread the word about it. The first time you went in, you found tables, chairs, all the standard furniture from a restaurant. But no menu, and no waiters to guide you.

This is what Google Wave felt like – lots of people being told to spread a revolution without being shown what the revolution was.

Perhaps enterprise users could have gotten first use. Built up a presence leading to other organisations following suit. Helping Google iron out the bugs. Giving us something to see…a demonstration of how this new technology could be implemented for those of us who couldn’t see it ourselves. Think Apple and the first iPad keynote speech. Showing us where to start.

In that context, rolling it out to individuals for them to send invites to their friends about next Saturday’s BBQ party seemed like a bad deployment strategy. That sort of thing happens on Facebook every day. Already. So there was no reason for them to change their behaviour. Unless…

4. It could have been integrated with Gmail

A few days ago I blogged about integration of various online tools. And how in some cases it was a good thing, yet not so good in others.

One of the first things I noticed was Wave’s lack of integration into Gmail. For me, this was essential. Crucial. Perhaps the one thing that would have led me to continue using it. If Google really did see Wave as “email the way it would be if it were designed today (sic)” then they needed to make it so that that yesterday’s emails were integrated into it. It didn’t.

Web 2.0 didn’t throw away the traditional web and start again. Simlarly, email cannot start from scratch.

5. The iPad lesson

I hinted at this earlier, and Google won’t like this, but they won’t see it, so it doesn’t matter. But they could really look at what Apple did with the iPad. A device that created its own niche, helped in no small part to Apple holding our hand and showing us exactly where they thought that niche was and giving us a starting point.

Now granted Apple has hype, fanboys etc etc that propel its products, but you could argue Google has its own fanatics and brand evangelist army. Either way, it couldn’t find a place in the market. You could say that was a failure of research, product positioning and all manner of theories, but it was a failure nevertheless.


Google have said the code and technology will be retained, and that can only be a good thing, as I don’t think it’s the end of Wave. Maybe we’re all wrong and they were right, maybe we weren’t ready for Wave. Time will tell.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Socially (un)acceptable?

I would broadly describe myself as a technophile. I like new technology and I spend at least as much if not more time than the average citizen online. And as these online activities start to take up more of my time, I find their integration of increasing benefit.

However, I’ve recently started to see where the integration should stop, an endpoint to it all, if you will.

For example, I like that I can post tweets and facebook updates from one to another and vice-versa on the go. I appreciate how my email is synced between the web, my laptop and smartphone. The way my diary is synced through online servers is a godsend. Earlier this morning I read about a new iPhone app that worked with foursquare by saving a list of your favourite destinations, and using geo-technology checked you in to these locations if you visited them, saving you the effort of having to pull out your phone and do it yourself if you couldn’t, or if you forgot. I thought this was a great idea, a great time and effort saver.

The more technically minded readers will all recognise this as Web 2.0, or cloud computing. How all our data and services are synced up to a central server or service allowing us to access all our information, all the time from wherever we are.

But the endpoint I mentioned earlier has also hit me almost like an e-piphany (see what I did there?).

I’ve seen the idea crop up repeatedly from a number of sources that “facebook is for all the friends you’ve made, twitter is for all the friends you should make”. It essentially says that people use facebook to communicate with the people they know, and twitter for the people they’d like to know. Well in that case do I really want constant cross integration between the two? Are the messages I post to one group the same messages I’d like, need or want the other group to see? Certainly not in my case.

Last night I participated in my weekly communications tweet chat – essentially a collection of like minded individuals who come together online and have a communications debate. Messages are exchanged for an hour at a relentless pace, and I certainly wouldn’t want my facebook friends news feeds clogged up with this. It would be like a foreign language and I’d lose them all as friends.

Nor do I appreciate foursquare and twitter linkages. They clog up my twitter stream and I find them irrelevant most of the time. Meanwhile, none of this should appear on linkedin. I can think of many more examples, but the point essentially is this: we’re using and integrating these online services to make our lives easier, but in doing so are we making others lives more difficult?

I think in some cases we are. For me it’s all about self concept, considering how our actions impact on others and how they see our actions from their frame of reference.

In the same way we (used) to be self conscious about how we use our online services and mobile phones in the presence of others in the real world (offline) I think we also need to take a step back and be a bit more self conscious about how we use our online services in the presence of others ONLINE.