Online communities represent a significant challenge for traditional marketing departments to tackle. Online communities are active conversations – the kind that Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger talked about.
Traditional marketing happens in a broadcast mode, whether television, billboard or conference. Think of the traditional community as a park full of individuals strolling about each doing their own thing. Then someone with a megaphone shows up and announces a new lemonade stand has opened. Simple. Lots of individuals have now been informed that there is lemonade. Some will check it out, some will ignore it.
This is how marketing worked when there was no conversation. It was one voice directed at many individuals. Communities are not individuals, however. But most marketers still love the megaphone. It is a metaphor that they understand.
Imagine now the park is not full of individuals but groups of friends who have gathered together. One group, six friends having a picnic, discussing work and home life and enjoying themselves sits at a picnic table. The marketer approaches, megaphone in hand, and announces, in the midst of hearty conversation, that the lemonade stand has opened. Do people get up and get lemonade? No, they cover their ears, throw half eaten hot dogs at the marketer and after the marketer has departed discuss amongst themselves how rude the lemonade people are and how they should avoid buying their products. The opposite of the desired effect has occurred, but should not come as a surprise to anyone.
The problem here is that the marketer is still attempting to speak at the conversation, not to join it. That’s not how to win friends and influence people.
Instead, the marketer needs to put down the megaphone, saunter on over, make a casual introduction, join in the conversation, earn trust and respect. Eventually many people will be more than willing to discuss the lemonade stand, in a friendly, non-aggressive manner. They might have questions too. Is the lemonade organic? Is the water filtered? How much does it cost? Is there a volume discount? When does the stand open and close?
Not only does joining the conversation give the marketer a chance to inform in a generally non-aggressive way; it also provides opportunity for customer engagement where a bidirectional exchange can provide feedback to marketing and information to customers. Everyone wins.
A common mistake that companies make is sending out a marketer prepared only for the broadcast mode and throwing them into a conversation with non-peers without proper support. In technical circles especially, people involved in the conversation are likely to have questions for the marketer attempting to promote their product. In broadcast mode marketing it is relatively trivial to hide or gloss over product defects – such as ignoring the fact that the lemonade doesn’t come with a straw for easy sipping. But in a conversation mode, people may ask what type of straw is included with their purchase. If the marketer avoids the topic, people will begin to discuss reasons why there is no “straw disclosure.” Perhaps the straws are defective, cost extra or do not exist. Maybe there is so much pulp that a straw wouldn’t work or maybe the lemonade stand has never actually sold lemonade before and isn’t ready to open yet even though they have started marketing.
Silence in the conversation leads to speculation. Speculation is nearly always very bad in a conversation mode. People will assume that the worst case scenario is true. Open communications is absolutely critical to healthy marketing in the conversation.
I have seen this first hand. A marketer gains access to an online community, posts some at marketing and generates enough interest to get the community talking. But almost instantly the community has questions, and tough ones, for the vendor. The vendor goes silent. In the days it takes for the vendor to arrange a spokesperson to be assigned to the community the vendor’s reputation is destroyed within the community through speculation and independent research done without the vendor present to counter claims, provide additional details or just be a part of the conversation. The results were public relations disaster for a product that might actually have been quite good. It destroyed the product’s position in the community and heavily tarnished the vendor – prompting them to abandon that channel entirely. All because they were not prepared to participate and thought that broadcasting at the conversation would be sufficient.
The same effect will happen in real-life communication groups as happens in online communities. User groups, for example, can be real world analogues to online communities – general familiarity between members, common topical uniting factor. Marketers attempting to utilize the user group as a platform must consider the group to behave just like the online community – but perhaps a little more real time and slightly more polite, but the basic mechanics will remain the same.
Attempts to market at a user group will generally result in the marketer being excluded from the conversation with the conversation being focused heavily upon criticisms of the marketer or product. Without participating in the conversation, the marketer’s position is weakened as there is no ability for defense or explanation. This is best case – assuming that the marketer was invited and welcomed to the group but fails to participate. If the marketer is not present via invitation the results can be actually hostile as the marketer can be considered an invader violating the group’s identity.
Effective participation in the group dynamic is important for a marketer to gain access to the community or group. Only after joining the conversation can a message be effectively presented, discussed and supported through healthy group interaction.