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The Key to Marketing in an Online Community? Not Marketing.

by Mike O'Toole  |  
July 20, 2009

Humility, patience, and generosity are not the virtues we typically associate with corporations, but these are exactly the qualities it takes to be good members of an online community. Or so we found in our recent survey of about 3,000 global IT decision-makers.

This week, and PJA released the fourth wave of our survey on social media in IT. Check it out: social media usage spiked dramatically, particularly among executives, and Twitter is beginning its adoption curve in IT. But the most interesting findings have to do with attitudes around vendor involvement.
Our earlier research found that communities such as Slashdot are among the most trusted sources of content related to purchase decisions, precisely because the chatter you hear about companies and products is unfiltered. It is information direct from peers who, for the most part, don't have a vendor agenda or ax to grind. So we were curious what community members thought about the role of vendors. Do parties with an explicit commercial agenda–and clearly a less-than-objective point of view–belong in the conversation? We have seen that open source developers are deeply ambivalent about the role of corporations in the Linux space. We figured we'd hear a lot of the same skepticism and mistrust. We were wrong.

The biggest finding? Vendors are more than welcome.
Not only were respondents open to vendor involvement in online communities, most people felt they had a critical role to play. A full 76% of respondents said it was important that vendors participate in online communities. When you dive deeper into the research, it makes sense. We are talking about professional networks: large, vibrant communities of people banding together online to get work done, get information to make better decisions, and further their careers. Professionals commit time to communities because they have important, concrete tasks to accomplish. And they want vendors there because effective corporate involvement can help them accomplish those tasks.
Toolbox is a global IT community, and for technology products, complexity reigns. When users want vendor comparisons, they trust their peers. But when sorting out product or platform questions, users wrestle with product specs, roadmaps, workflow, integration, etc. And they are sophisticated enough to recognize disinformation, spread by people who don't know the facts. This clutter is confusing and a time-waster, and community members know that a product manager from the vendor can provide real answers. We saw a lot of verbatims like the following:
"Vendors bring insight and authoritative knowledge to discussions of their products, thus reducing having to speculate on the validity of information provided within the community."
The second biggest finding? You don't get credit for just showing up. How vendors participate in the community makes all the difference. This from a survey respondent:
"There is nothing worse than over-commercialization. Venders must know how to communicate information that actually matters and help along the community rather than just set up shop to beef up their internet presence and attempt to push their products."
What do members want from vendors? Respondents value transparency, responsiveness, (improve products based on feedback), and relevant content. Interestingly, they don't care that much about give-aways or members-only benefits. Participate on the same terms as everyone else, and enrich the community as a whole rather than a chosen few. Egalitarianism, not exclusivity, is the dominant ethic in communities.
The thread across all the research is that vendors are welcome if they participate in the give-and-take spirit of the community. And there are strong suggestions that the rewards are there, they just might not be the ones companies expect. Many marketers I talk to evaluate investments in communities against traditional media or demand gen programs. Communities will never stack up as lead machines, certainly not short term. The rewards of effective vendor involvement are two-way. The community gets the information it needs, while the vendor is saved from the outcome of "a misinformed community who may lose faith in a product due to incorrect information."
What the research says about communities characterizes the relationship people want with companies in the age of transparency and consumer-driven marketing. Companies are welcome to participate, they just need to strip themselves of their marketing layer. They need to leave a narrow, parochial corporate agenda at the door. Start with a sense of honesty, responsiveness, and transparency. The rest will follow.
I'm curious whether your experience with communities supports the survey results, or has been different. Let me know here or on twitter @motoole1.

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Mike O'Toole is a partner at PJA Advertising and Marketing, where he oversees strategy and operations in Cambridge and San Francisco.

Mike advises senior marketers at clients such as Novell, GE Healthcare, and Infor on messaging, advertising strategy, and marketing accountability.

Twitter: @motoole1

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  • by Roger Ewing Mon Jul 20, 2009 via blog

    Great bit of research. I have been trying to convince my web development team that subtle is the way to go. We will soon be launching neighborhood blogs in the communities we serve in my real estate business. I knew these stats would be revealed some time. As a result I will continue to move toward a more organic approach to our blog sites.

  • by Mike O'Toole Mon Jul 20, 2009 via blog

    Roger, Glad you found the research useful--I'm never quite sure how typical the tech market is. Like you, we have found that all the content we're creating for clients is moving promotional to non-partisan. Community members can smell a sales pitch a mile away.

  • by Doug Davidoff Mon Jul 20, 2009 via blog

    Fascinating article. I have one bone of contention. IMHO you are misusing the term "marketing". If you were to use the term "promotion" or "selling" (as in remove their promotional layer or selling layer) then I'd agree.

  • by Mike O'Toole Mon Jul 20, 2009 via blog

    Doug, Thanks for the kind words. And I take your comment: marketing doesn't have to equal promotional, and shouldn't these days. Remove the promotional layer it is.

  • by Promotional Products Thu Jul 23, 2009 via blog

    Very interesting article, I'm still trying how to figure out the proper plan of attack for marketing in this social media age. Thanks for the tips.

  • by dedicated server Fri Oct 2, 2009 via blog

    excellent. I have got to say, you guy is got a lot of good information for people to come and look......thnxxx

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