Someone said the other day that online communities (or social networks) have become the next big thing. In fact, they've been the next big thing for some time now and the past 12 months has seen their proliferation continue unabated.
But before we try to answer any question on how advertisers can best take advantage of them, it is important to set some context. How is a community defined?
As Community Guy Jake, a guru on the communities phenomenon, says, communities are "a group of people who form relationships over time by interacting regularly around shared experiences, which are of interest to all of them for varying individual reasons".
So now that we have some context, what is and who is actually out there in cyberspace?
We've all heard of some of the following well-established communities, I'm sure: MySpace; bebo; facebook; faceparty; flickr; ipodlounge; lunar storm; fireside chat; slashdot; my-kindaplace; monkeyslum and rocketboom - now brands in their own right with huge and growing databases.
As several of the bigger communities bid for the attention of the hearts and minds of the cyber population, an all-out war between the big players may well ensue.
Those communities I have mentioned have one thing in common: strength of numbers. This, of course, is the big attraction for advertisers. You have a broadcast-scale audience who frequent the same place, stay on average for 20 to 40 minutes, encourage other like-minded people to join them and see the community as a way of conducting conversational life, expressing personality and individualism. Yes, communities have become a communication channel in their own right. And herein lies the challenge.
But how to exploit it? You have to look at the dynamic of communities and try to see beyond brand awareness campaigns and data-acquisition exercises to find the answer. Communities have been built by the people for the people. Consumers have rapidly become their own creators, editors, aggregators and broadcasters of their own content and it is this dynamic that leads to a new challenge for advertisers: how can, or rather should, they get involved?
Advertisers and brands often want total control, something which might not sit comfortably in the egalitarian world of online communities.
As Howard Rheingold, a leading authority on the social implications of technology, points out: "The quality of community in tomorrow's wired world is an important concern. It is not, however, the first question we need to ask. The prefix 'cyber', from the Greek word for 'steersman', implies that cyber society will be steered in some manner. The first question to ask is: who will be doing the steering?"
Of those communities mentioned earlier, you'll find traditional online advertising and sponsored links galore in many of them, and some might argue the advertising is highly targeted. Spot cream and sexual health are promoted on teenager sites, high-octane sports and literature ads for the boys who like their toys or cheap-rate ISP provision for the masses.
But I wonder, do the inhabitants of those communities take all that much notice? Are they beginning to feel like the spaces they created aren't really their own?
To be successful, users have to share an affinity with a community. And with that in mind, should communities be owned by advertisers? Simply setting one up and saying we are here is not a guarantee of success, in the same way that assuming you have a captive audience ripe for advertising messages, however they are delivered, will not necessarily result in increased unit sales or more brand loyalty.
Community members transact with each other. They share information, opinions, gossip, pictures, music and news. The community is a diary, a contact book, a business network. People within it happily trade personal and intimate details, and advertisers see this very much as the Holy Grail.
But they should not necessarily see communities as another part of the paid-for media slab.
The key learning for advertisers has to be about facilitation and creation, allowing people the freedom to hang out, exchange views and interact, both with each other and the brand. So when should community-based advertising be recommended? What business objective does it answer? Ultimately, how should brands execute against a community-based idea?
We've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to make a community-based recommendation to one of our clients. The objective first had to be to reacquaint the brand with its audience, and what better way to do that than to create an environment where they can go and play?
This brand will be talking to a very different audience from the one it lost touch with 20 years ago and Generation I is very different from Generation X. They're much more cynical, savvy and uninfluenced by traditional advertising. They're content creators not watchers, and they have a lot more control over the media they consume. As a result, they have much higher expectations of brands and how they communicate. Engaging and entertaining is everything. Mass broadcasting of generic messages is nothing.
Our recommendation was to create a digital space where this audience can hang out, where they can be creative and showcase their own content, where they can talk and interact with like-minded people and have some fun. This community will help them keep their finger on the pulse of everything that's cool and interesting and give them a platform to publish their thoughts to be critiqued in a unique way.
And this community will have no obvious branding on it. To overtly brand a site like this would diminish its credibility in the eyes of a cynical audience and, given that it is serving a higher purpose than simply flogging products, it really is the only option.
For our client, the community becomes a source of unique market research and insight. It will be a place for them to communicate with their audience and to understand not only what form their marketing and advertising should take, but how their products should evolve, and to develop a dialogue that goes way beyond standard customer relationship management.
We've talked through the creation of this community with our clients at great length and despite the obvious associated risks with an unregulated or controlled community, they're up for it. They understand that their brand won't achieve what it needs to without allowing consumers to truly interact and play with it. Besides, the upsides are too great. Get this right and it will truly be a business transforming idea. I'd argue that it's where most advertisers want to go, but they don't seem ready to take the plunge.
- Neil Hughston is the managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi Interactive.