If you are fortunate enough to hit the "viral video" jackpot, for example, you can sit back and watch as the infectious behavior kicks in. No wonder marketers can't get away from the idea of viral. The problem with it, however, is that the odds are not in your favor. My writing may be influenced by the fact that I'm doing it on a plane on my way to Las Vegas for the WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) summit. But, I'm also pretty sure that the stats back up my claim, as there are relatively few of the "Subservient Chicken" and Dove "Real Beauty" examples compared to the thousands of initiatives launched that hope to be the next one.
So let's forget the "V" word for a moment and talk about the "C" word: community. Chances are that this is a word that's come up nearly as often as "viral." But unlike viral, community requires a different set of objectives, strategy and tactics around measurement. Yet, intuitively, brands realize there is value to them. That's because if we take our bright and shiny marketing hats off for a moment, we realize that it's likely we are part of them. From Apple to Mini Cooper, many brands already have millions of fans participating in some form of community around the brand, official or unofficial. People who use social networks also feel like they're part of a larger community of people they relate to. Twitter, for example, has this effect, especially when many of us actually make efforts to meet each other in real life or just connect digitally. Just ask the "Motrin Moms."
But brands need to know a few things before they head down the community path. The web is saturated with communities. Some, like WebMD, are thriving, while others have come and gone. The starting point to any community is finding a niche that is currently underserved and serving that community better than anyone else. For example, I'm a member of the IXDA (Interaction Design Association), a community that sprung up because there was a void between information architects and designers. Brands do potentially have opportunities to act as what I'll call "facilitators," but they have to be willing to start with a bit if research and then ask themselves if they are really willing to do what it takes to start and maintain a community.
The tools aren't the issue -- by using services such as Ning, any brand can build a community without investing in heavy infrastructure. Or they can add community functions through solutions offered by companies such as Pluck. Communities can be used for consumer research, too. Leverage Software creates internal communities around products, brands and organizations which can be positioned to test ideas. Critical Mass, the company I work for, even has an internal group called "Curious" dedicated to polling communities that we help pull together for the purpose of gleaning insights.
And of course there's always the option to customize and build as we did on our recently on Pampers Village. For P&G we teamed up with both technical partners as well as global agencies such as Saatchi. Together we built the beginnings of a branded community that blends content, tools and social functionality, all based on the insight that parents want to connect and naturally form communities both online and off. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before even thinking of a community initiative, consider the following "Four C's" as a high-level framework:
Quality content is a great way to attract the people who are needed to form the elusive community that your brand is hoping to help build. When considering community initiatives, there are three questions to ask: Where will the content come from? Does it provide indisputable value? Can a regular flow of quality content be maintained? Even pre-Web 2.0 initiatives such as beinggirl.com, another P&G-powered community for female teens grappling with relevant topics, have to focus on keeping the content itself fresh and relevant.
Context means understanding how to meet people where they are and serving them the right experience at the right time. Well-designed applications and functionality have great opportunities to deliver on context. For example, Facebook's recently updated iPhone app is perfectly designed for contextual usage on the go.
Communities thrive on squishy, hard-to-measure activities that are relationship-based at the root. It's not about mass communications but more about the micro-interactions which I've talked about at great length. Designing experiences that support thousands of micro-interactions means you are making a commitment vs. trying to produce a one-hit wonder. Communities can in theory be the new CRM (Customer Relationship Management), but require people to mind them. Community software platforms such as Liveworld offer moderation services. If you've invested in building a community framework, you need to play host if you're lucky enough for guests to arrive.
Communities that thrive often evolve to meet the needs of users. As mentioned earlier, we launched our Pampers Village which includes a baby name finder, parent blogs, forums and a non-traditional navigation design that tags topics and references relevant products. Communities such as this and others need to be flexible to evolve while still providing a valuable and consistent user experience which can be sustained.
The bottom line is that building a community looks less like marketing and more like customer relationship management, and it takes the combined effort of different disciplines to even get one off the ground. It's not a campaign you can launch and walk away from. If you are fortunate enough to champion a brand that has the potential to draw people who want to connect, or are associated with an underserved niche -- then it's worth investigating. But know that you are in for the long haul and it won't be easy.