"Online Community." It's a phrase we're hearing more and more lately, but one that can be misleading. After all, an online community—or any community, for that matter—comprises a variety of people with myriad interests, hobbies, ideas, insights, etc. Is creating a single online community the best way to meet the needs and wants of these individuals?
I don't think so—and neither do the global business leaders I spoke with at the recent DEMOfall show (a premiere showcase for emerging technologies). As we delved deeply into the topic of online communities and how brands can best integrate them into their marketing strategies, a key point emerged: Savvy organizations realize that it's not about creating an overall global community. It's about creating segmented communities with a global overlay. It's about creating an array of intersecting communities—and letting users opt in to participate on the level that is most relevant or important to them.
Micro-communities add value to the user experience
For example, let's look at a ski resort. By the mere fact of frequenting the resort, a person considers himself part of its global community. The resort, however, is composed of a variety of customer groups, including season-pass holders, racers, family skiers, and vacationers. Accordingly, a skier will also feel aligned with one or more of these segmented groups. To fully engage him in its community, the resort needs to allow him to interact with the company—and other community members—at the level that best meets his individual needs and wants. This means enabling individuals to opt in to the global community, a specific community of interest (like the "ski racing" community)—or a combination of the two.
An important part of this discussion needs to focus on what prompts people to join online communities in the first place. Offline, most people make friends through an activity or interest. The same can be said in the online world, where communities form around passions and interests. People flock to social networks to collaborate with their peers—swap stories, share ideas, give and seek recommendations, etc. And the conversations they have are specific to their needs and wants at that time.
Marketers need to look at building their branded online community in the same way. While some companies personalize Web sites for different users, the vast majority are "one size fits all," showing essentially the same information to everyone. Individuals, however, interact with a brand differently. They have varying expectations, needs, and wants. Whether these differences are driven by gender, age, geographic location, or the like, the key to delivering a meaningful customer experience is to embrace the diversity of the user base—and to use that information when building the online community.
For instance, instead of building one universal community, Nike has created multiple sub-communities that, when blended together, represent the full spectrum of its consumers.
Runners can join their own Nike sub-community in which they can interact with fellow runners, get involved in group discussions, and learn about events. Soccer enthusiasts can join Nike's joga.com community in which they can meet other soccer players, swap their experiences, and share photos and videos from around the world.
Richard Buck is founder and CEO of Eluma (www.eluma.com), which develops software for building stronger relationships with loyal customers through the power of communities and an always-on desktop connection.