The Direct Approach: Community centres

Relationship marketing skills can also influence online communities, Thomas Curwen argues.

Social networking is a phenomenon fuelled by the internet, one that offers marketers new opportunities. These networks have primarily been the territory of the interactive specialists, but the direct marketing industry has an important role to play, if it adapts.

Since the mid 90s, online communities (social networks) have been bubbling under the surface. In the early days, they were communities of journalists and enthusiasts, whereas now communities form around virtually any concept, via blogs or self-expression websites such as YouTube, MySpace and Bebo. Brands are now able to increase the level of engagement and advocacy they receive from their prospects by positioning themselves at the heart of the community.

The rewards can be high. Communities influence others and increase brand preference and sales. This is an area in which DM specialists should be active, given their heritage of relationship marketing, but this requires a shift in focus: from harvesting sales leads to taking a lead in growing the value of the community to members.

Communities have changed considerably in the past year or so. Whereas they used to be based around chat forums, technological developments have allowed users to generate and share words and pictures and to edit and comment on the work of their peers. This has increased the value of the communities to their members. But communities depend on people dealing with each other as equals - and it is here that their real value becomes apparent: people generally trust friends, family and peers more than they trust marketing messages.

Once a group of people agree on an idea, it can gain momentum very quickly and spread beyond the community, into the general consciousness. If a brand can gain acceptance within a community, this is a potentially cost-effective, powerful means of influencing attitudes.

There are, of course, ad opportunities for brands that wish to buy space within the larger social networks, but brands can also increase their engagement by becoming woven into the community structure. Given DM agencies' heritage in relationship marketing, this is an important area. While interactive specialists understand the technology and the way in which people behave online, DM specialists are probably just as well equipped to influence a community.

Interactive specialists can create environments free of geography and time, and can place messages into online communities, but they find it near impossible to cold-target individuals based on location or demographic segments. DM specialists can cold-target any neighbourhood as a potential community, simply through bought lists. Furthermore, direct mail can be more intrusive than online, delivering something tangible through the door that can surprise or delight the recipient.

At present, the typical DM pack tends to focus on sales or data-gathering, but there is no reason why it should not direct the recipient to another person, rather than to a call centre or sales opportunity. This approach is not that new: collections-based promotions can lead to a trading market as people swap vouchers to get a match, creating a trade-based community.

Once inside the community, DM specialists have the experience to segment and target groups within groups to increase the efficiency of their communications and the saliency of the brand. So what is stopping us from extending DM's role in the broader social networking communities? It is primarily the fear of the unknown, as we cling to the security of short-term response data. The focus on response levels and cost-per-response inhibits the DM specialists from shifting their attention from harvesting existing category interest to managing attitude.

Insensitive or aggressive marketing risks rejection; the community may start a wave of complaint against the offending brands or block them (Bebo is talking of letting the users select which sectors have permission to advertise to them, while pop-up blockers have been around for a few years).

Marketers also fear people will say negative things about their brand. Yet, if people have negative things to say about a brand, the chances are that they are already doing so. By providing them with a platform, you can at least observe what is being said and reply to it - demonstrating that your brand is responsive.

Marketers are also understandably put off by the risk of targeting a community. In advertising or DM, the bulk of the budget (media) is not committed until the client is happy with the creative and production, so the risk exposure is low. For online, it's different, particularly when you're building the infrastructure to nurture a community. In this situation, the proportion of the budget given to production is much higher, so the sense of risk is much greater. DM specialists may have to accept a higher degree of risk before they see any returns.

So what needs to change? First, we need to understand the values and skills traditional DM specialisms bring to community marketing, such as the ability to target accurately, segment and provide (unprompted) something tangible that acts as a reward or a catalyst.

Second, we need to embrace input from other disciplines early on in the planning process and establish clear roles for each medium. Of particular significance is the PR agency, since it often relies on independent third parties to support their brand messages.

Third, we must establish both long- and short-term objectives. Attitude shift is a longer-term objective, and can be compromised by short-termism in social networking. It will require intelligent working of the key performance indicators to ensure a balance between objectives is reached.

Fourth, we must accept the customer is a partner to be listened to: imagine each one is a journalist.

DM agencies are ideally suited to develop highly successful community marketing programmes that shift attitudes and generate customer-driven conversations, but they need to embrace some of the longer vision of ad agencies, some of the subtlety of PR agencies and some of the behavioural understanding of interactive specialists. Better still, they should act in an integrated way with other partners.

- Thomas Curwen is the planning director at Publicis Dialog.