The Real Key to Communities: Connecting On and Offline

In the Near Future Every Marketing Program Will Start This Way

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Community is the glue that unites us all as humans. It has for thousands of years and mostly via offline venues.

More recently, thanks to the rise of Web 2.0, communities are becoming an equally huge part of our online lives. Technology and broadband are giving rise to thousands of micro global villages where people find each other, talk and collaborate around shared interests or goals. Where there's an interest, there's a community.
Steve Rubel
Photo: JC Bourcart
Steve Rubel is a marketing strategist and blogger. He is senior VP in Edelman's Me2Revolution practice.


This isn't a new idea, of course. When I was a teenager in the mid-1980s, I spent hours on the Genie online service RoundTables. When the web blossomed in the late 1990s and I entered the work force, I hung out on AOL and on community sites such as GeoCities. These were all predecessors to today's hubs. The difference between then and now is sociological -- habits are changing.

However, community is getting ready to enter its next wave. It's no longer just the domain of pure-play specialist sites such as Facebook. Community is becoming completely ubiquitous online, just as it is off -- like water. You can find it everywhere, really, if you look. USAToday.com, MLB.com, AdAge.com and even Apple.com are, at least in part, communities.

In the near future, every online marketing program will start by asking how to engage a community in a way that first meets its goals, not the marketer's. During the Paley Center summit I attended earlier this month in Silicon Valley, Vint Cerf, one of the so-called founding fathers of the internet, talked about this concept at length. He was referring specifically to the power of video inside virtual worlds -- video is a hybrid between offline and on.

That's just the beginning, however. The most exciting moments will come when marketers use online communities to foster connections offline. That's the big idea behind Meetup.com, a social-networking site that facilitates real-world meetings, and why it's thriving. It's also why eBay Live, the annual gathering of thousands in the eBay community, is a successful event.

The lesson here for marketers is that even though we are spending tons of time online, it does not replace what happens offline. In fact, it amplifies it. The secret to success is gluing together online with offline, real and virtual. Use the web to make the physical connections we have stronger.
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