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"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 community in which they can meet other soccer players, swap their experiences, and share photos and videos from around the world.

It's this peer-to-peer interaction that takes place around the brand's content that drives the users' engagement within a community. The brand already has this content—such as training tips, event schedules, product descriptions—on its Web site. By tapping into this prepared pool of information, repurposing it, and delivering only what's most relevant to each community segment, marketers provide a more personalized experience with the brand.

After all, this is information that is important to the community members and speaks directly to their interests. It's content they'll want to talk about with each other. Through this interaction, users will actually build a tighter community around themselves.

Delivering relevant information drives loyalty

Creating multiple communities enables marketers to deliver the most relevant, customer-specific information and messages directly to their users. By listening to what users of each segment do or ask for, brands can make their experience richer without impeding the global community or other, less-interested communities.

eBay's introduction of its community-building tools at its recent eBay Live Conference illustrates this idea. To help sellers build community and engage in meaningful conversations with their buyers, the company launched eBay Blogs, the eBay Community Wiki, and other Web 2.0 community technologies.

For instance, I searched the blogs for the term "tennis" and received a variety of tennis-related results, such as tennis bracelets, tennis vacations, tennis equipment, and even tennis videogames. While my original intent was to get information on tennis equipment, I instead followed my passion for videogames, clicked on a seller within this segment, and was taken to his personal community. From here I was able to interact with other videogame buffs (both buyers and sellers) in a variety of ways—view blog entries, read and post comments, search tags, and link to other seller communities to view their goods.

By giving me the links and feeds I wanted (even though many of them were not his own) and giving me the opportunity to connect with people who shared my same interest, the seller created such a meaningful experience for me that I was compelled to tell my fellow eBay users about it.

I had become what Frederick Reichheld called in a Harvard Business Review titled "The One Number You Need to Grow," a promoter. His research indicates that there is a strong correlation between a company's growth rate and the percentage of its customers who are promoters—that is, those who are likely to recommend the company to a friend. As Reichheld contends, "the ultimate act of loyalty is a recommendation to a friend."

What's more, when this recommendation happens within the context of an affinity group, it is even more powerful.

"Word of mouth is extremely effective because shoppers want to hear information they perceive to be trusted, credible and reliable straight from their peers. Enabling customers to speak with one another is key to driving business growth because they don't want to hear only corporate marketing messages," says Leslie Ament, director of customer intelligence research at the Aberdeen Group. "Customers who communicate with one another are more likely to purchase more and to purchase more often." ("Can Social Networking Sway Shoppers," Internet Retailer, September, 2006).

Communities form around people's passions and interests. As these examples illustrate, the same can be said for a brand's community of users. This is why marketers should not look at their customer base as one global community, but rather as a patchwork of many segmented micro-communities—each with different needs, wants, and expectations.

Leveraging web 2.0 tools and technologies enables marketers to deliver a brand experience that embraces this diversity and forges stronger bonds with its customers. The word-of-mouth that emanates from these loyal relationships gives marketers the power to touch not just the individual consumer, but his or her entire peer-to-peer network.

Ask some questions

There are a number of questions marketers should explore when creating and nurturing an online branded community:

1. How can you best segment your customer base? Around passions? Interests? Engagement level with your brand?

2. What content and messages will be most meaningful and useful for each of these segments?

3. How can the content you already have be repurposed so that you deliver the most relevant information to each user group?

4. What combination of Web 2.0 technologies—rating, tagging, RSS feeds, streaming video, desktop alerts, etc.—will be most effective in facilitating peer-to-peer recommendations around your brand within each community?

5. Are you actively listening to what your customers are saying, both to you and to each other, and using this information to deliver the personalized customer experience that drives loyalty and inspires brand advocacy?

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Richard Buck is founder and CEO of Eluma (, which develops software for building stronger relationships with loyal customers through the power of communities and an always-on desktop connection.

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