In 1997, I wrote an article for Internet Marketing & Technology Report titled “Marketing in Virtual Communities.” The IMTR newsletter, now out of print, was published by the research firm Computer Economics, where I assisted as a contributing editor during the late 1990s. Frank Scavo, president of Computer Economics, has kindly given me permission to re-post the text of my article, which appears below (I’ve added some images showing screen shots of online communities from 1997).
The article came to mind when a colleague on Facebook posted a link to another 1997 article, “The Epic Saga of The WELL,” published in Wired. While not the first online community, The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, started in 1985) exemplified to many 1990s Internet users the potential of electronic networks to become true communities in online space.
Interesting as it was, The WELL did not represent what I was trying to write about, that is, the use of virtual communities as marketing media. Believe it or not, this was an uncertain and even controversial idea in 1997. At that time, there was still a significant contingent of users who regarded Internet marketing as a blasphemous idea. Many business people thought it was stupid and a waste of money to take your business online.
I wanted to re-post “Marketing in Virtual Communities” in part to provide this text with an online presence; in part to show what marketing experts were thinking back in 1997, before Facebook existed and even before the term “social media” entered common usage; in part to show how things turned out both differently and similarly to what we expected; and largely, I think, to show how hard it is to predict future innovations.
In the article, I listed a number of online communities that had been started as commercial efforts created with the goal of marketing to large groups of people associating together because of mutual interests. Some of the sites I named still exist today, but not as virtual communities as defined in the article. However, many social media efforts have gained large audiences and commercial success, somewhat along the lines of what we were thinking in 1997. According to one reckoning, social media ad spending will reach $68 billion in 2018, and Facebook boasts 2.2 billion active users.
And that brings me to what I like to call ‘the folly of futurism.’ When I first saw the NCSA Mosaic World Wide Web browser in 1993, I was astounded. I knew I had witnessed a great innovation, but I had no conception how far things would come in the next 25 years. We can try to predict the future, and more power to us. But we can’t count on being right.
Marketing in Virtual Communities
by Al Bredenberg
First published by Computer Economics in Internet Marketing & Technology Report, October 1997. Republished with permission.
The idea of “communities on the Internet” might sound quaint in these days of widespread commercialization of the Net. However, an updated view of this concept reveals important opportunities for marketers, advertisers, Web publishers and prospective community organizers.
In his 1993 book, The Virtual Community, visionary Howard Rheingold described online communities mainly as a social phenomenon:
“Think of cyberspace as a social petri dish, the Net as the agar medium, and virtual communities, in all their diversity, as the colonies of microorganisms that grow in petri dishes. Each of the small colonies of microorganisms–the communities on the Net–is a social experiment that nobody planned but that is happening nevertheless.”
While communities like this do exist today, four years later, many intentional communities have come into being, built by companies, organizations and individuals with commercial motivations.
A virtual community can provide compelling benefits for the marketer:
The opportunity to engage a loyal audience of members in an online environment where they feel secure, in control and open to commercial solicitation in their areas of interest.
Availability of user demographics or intelligent targeting for promotions.
The ability to develop special promotions tailored to the community’s audience and integrated with content.
Reduction in the cost of searching out customers (the community helps vendors and consumers find each other).
Defining virtual communities
In the 1997 book, Net.Gain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities, John Hagel III and Arthur G. Armstrong set out an updated vision of online communities from a commercial perspective.
Hagel and Armstrong define a virtual community as an aggregation of people in a computer-mediated environment with these characteristics:
A distinctive focus
Interactivity, or integration of communication and content
Emphasis on member-generated content
Involvement of competing vendors
Community organizers with a commercial motivation
In marketing today, considerable cost and effort must go into obtaining and maintaining audience information and marketing database. Hagel and Armstrong believe that, in the future, one of the great assets of the virtual community will be its possession of member and commercial transaction profiles.
This vital data, however, will be under the control of the members themselves, who will offer it in exchange for better deals and better service from vendors serving the community. “Members will choose to capture information about themselves so they can maximize the value from that information,” postulates Net.Gain on page 104.
“By shifting power generally from the vendor to the customer,” claim Hagel and Armstrong, “virtual communities will irrevocably alter the way large companies market and sell to customers in their core business. These changes will demand new ways of thinking about and approaching the marketing and sales functions.” (Page 186)
Do any existing communities now fit the vision outlined in Net.Gain? Perhaps not yet, at least according to the rigorous requirements set out above. However, if the authors are correct, some mature communities will begin to emerge over the next few years with tremendous financial rewards for the members, organizers and marketers involved.
Even now, Web environments are emerging that exhibit some characteristics of virtual communities. Many of these are providing financial returns now. Others promise to do so in the future.
Existing communities offer numerous ways for advertisers and marketers to gain exposure. Nearly all have banner advertising programs. Many allow sponsorship of specific content or communication areas, provide special commercial areas (perhaps with online storefronts or mini-sites), or can develop specialized campaigns within the community.
Several online communities have managed to amass large memberships by providing a general-consumer environment for online interaction.
GeoCities [ http://www.geocities.com ] is a large, many-faceted site boasting 900,000 members. The site is divided into 38 “neighborhoods,” or interest areas with live chats, busy message forums, and free personal Web pages and e-mail.
The Globe [ http://www.theglobe.com/public.qry ], with 600,000 members, runs a number of popular “chat zones,” a matchmaking service, discussion forums, games and quizzes, and even a “Letters to Lola” advice column.
In a similar vein, The Park [ http://www.the-park.com ] emphasizes live chat, positioning itself as a “global communication system and online meeting grounds.” The Park’s 500,000 monthly visitors can participate in 115 chat areas, post personal ads, use a Human Matching System to find other members of like interests, exchange e-mail, and engage in online games and discussion boards. The Park’s founder, Brent N. Hunter, is motivated not only commercially but by his love of Internet technology and its ability to bring people together.
Many virtual communities are organized around specific areas of interest. iVillage [ http://www.ivillage.com ] describes itself as a builder of targeted communities “for grown-ups who want practical answers to real-life questions.” The iVillage channels, AboutWork, Better Health and Medical Network, ParentsPlace.com, Parent Soup, and Vices and Virtues, offer many focused resources, chats and discussion groups, and special question-and-answer areas, such as “Ask Dr. Gayle” in ParentsPlace.com.
Besides offering banner advertising, iVillage creates customized campaigns and special promotions within its communities, as well as bridge sites (mini-sites) branded to the advertiser. Each channel or community includes built-in retail shops targeted to the membership.
iVillage was started by a team of partners from publishing, media and marketing, and is backed by heavy-hitter financing from America Online, Cox Interactive Media and various venture capital companies. This is a group that is banking on a profitable future in the virtual communities business.
Travelocity [ http://www.travelocity.com ], operated by SABRE Interactive, a leading provider of travel reservation services, is almost a Net.Gain textbook case. Directed at travelers, Travelocity provides feature articles, fares, information on destinations, and travel advice and tips. However, it also furnishes busy chat and bulletin board areas, contests and games. Previous chat transcripts and board postings are kept on hand as member-generated content.
Vendor participation is quite active on Travelocity as well. Besides the expected banner ads, the site provides a travel agency directory and a travel mall with complete storefront and e-commerce capability for vendors. Also available: extensive coverage of destinations, complete with listings for lodging, dining, attractions, tours, shopping, events and more.
Evidently SABRE, as community organizer, hopes to position itself as the provider of travel bookings on the Internet, as well as to profit from electronic transactions handled via its e-commerce system.
Communities can be organized around geography as well. Total New York [ http://www.totalny.com ] is a funny, hip, offbeat site devoted to New York City. Members can enjoy news, features, interactive games, live chat events, bulletin boards and more. Total New York is produced by Digital City Studio, owned primarily by America Online and Tribune Co., more players obviously betting on the digital future.
Virtual Jerusalem [ http://www.virtual.co.il ], another geography-defined community, claims to be the largest site in the world for Jewish and Israel-related material. “The Jewish World from the Heart of Israel” offers news from Israel, religious content on Judaism, and features on business, culture, travel and tourism, and the arts. Members (25,000 registered) can interact via e-mail discussion lists and live chat and can send in questions to “Ask the Rabbi.” Virtual Jerusalem emphasizes its promotional capabilities: banner and sidebar advertising, Web presence on the site, a custom storefront in the online shopping area, opportunities to become a content provider and more.
Demographics can be the basis for communities as well. SeniorNet’s [ http://www.seniornet.com ] purpose is “to build a community of computer-using seniors.” Advertisers can sponsor special content areas; for example, the site includes the MetLife Solutions Forum and the Kaiser Permanente Health Discussion. Also demographically based, Vietspace [ kicon.com ] is a beautifully designed site directed to the Vietnamese audience.
Professional and business audiences form the basis of many virtual communities. Inc. magazine is building its brand on the Web with Inc. Online [ http://www.inc.com ]. The site offers a great deal of useful content, including interactive areas such as bulletin boards, chat areas and a “Virtual Consultant” section. Advertisers can sponsor special mini-sites on such topics as Finance and International Business.
Physicians’ Online Network [ http://www.po.com ] furnishes a compelling interactive environment for its 100,000 physician members, with a great deal of highly-focused, members-only content and many discussion areas. Advertisers can purchase banner advertising and can sponsor discussion groups and online events. Extensive demographics and targeting are available. POL can work with a medical marketer to develop a special “Disease Management Center,” positioning the company as a leader in a key disease or therapeutic area.
Environmental and Municipal Online [ http://www.environmentonline.com ] has built several well-designed virtual communities centered around water, pollution, public works and solid waste. These communities are designed to create an online marketplace by bringing together buyers and sellers for the various targeted vertical industries.
Virtual communities promise increasing returns
These are only a few of the emerging virtual communities now in formation. No doubt many more will arise as time goes on.
Hagel and Armstrong, the Net.Gain authors, predict that virtual communities will be the next increasing-returns business model. Successful virtual communities will enrich their organizers in the manner of Microsoft and Federal Express.
However, as in the case of Microsoft and FedEx, it will take some time to reach that point of phenomenal profits. Virtual communities must first reach critical mass in numbers of members, advertisers, vendors, and member usage profiles, as well as in volume of commercial transactions.
For some marketers, Web publishers and community organizers, virtual communities may promise profitability right now. For others, it will be more important to invest now and look for benefits in the long term.
In any case, Hagel and Armstrong claim that now is the time to get involved. The eventual winners will be the companies who enter the virtual communities business early. As they say, quoting a Silicon Valley maxim on page 7 of Net.Gain:
“Speed is God, and time is the devil.”
Al Bredenberg is a writer and marketing consultant. He is principal of COPYWRITER.COM (www.copywriter.com), providing Internet marketing, Web content and creative services.
Gladys Ellis Bredenberg November 26, 1926 – May 19, 2018
Gladys Ellis Bredenberg died at the age of 91, on Saturday, May 19, 2018, at Sunrise North Hills Senior Living, Raleigh, NC, where she had resided since 2014.
Gladys Bredenberg came to Raleigh in 1950 with her husband, Paul Arnold Bredenberg (October 24,1923 – November 15, 2009). Together, the Bredenbergs raised a family and developed deep roots in the community. Gladys studied at North Carolina State University, taught English and reading in public schools, and operated a tutoring service specializing in remedial education.
Gladys Marie Ellis was born November 26, 1926, in Georgetown, SC, daughter of Buchanan Carmel Ellis (1879-1939) and Ola Belle Dukes Ellis (1904-1994). The Ellis family moved to Kingstree, SC, about 1930. Gladys attended Kingstree High School starting in September 1939 and graduated in May 1943.
After finishing high school, Gladys moved to Charleston, SC. She was working in Charleston, when she met Paul A. Bredenberg, who was at the naval base in Charleston for the decommissioning of his ship after World War II. They were married in Charleston in 1947. From 1947 to 1950, they lived in New Haven, CT, where Paul completed his graduate-school education.
In 1950, the Bredenbergs moved to Raleigh, NC, where Paul began working as assistant professor at North Carolina State College (now North Carolina State University, NCSU).
Gladys and Paul’s first son, Alfred Roy Bredenberg, was born in 1951 and their second son, Jeffrey Ellis Bredenberg, in 1953. When the boys were small, the family lived on Carlton Avenue in Raleigh, near the college campus. For the academic year of 1955 to 1956, the family lived temporarily in Palo Alto, CA, where Paul studied at Stanford University. In 1962, they moved to their new home on Crump Road in Raleigh, adjacent to an extensive tract of North Carolina state farmland, which is now NCSU’s Centennial Campus.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Gladys studied English at NCSU and obtained her bachelor of arts degree with high honors in May 1970. She went on to earn an M.Ed. from Duke University in 1974, with specialization in reading. She obtained teaching certificates in reading and English, and spent seven years in public-school classrooms, teaching English, language arts, and remedial classes. Gladys later started her own practice as a private tutor, specializing in reading.
After retiring in 1986, the Bredenbergs spent many glorious days at their vacation house near Sparta in the North Carolina mountains. Gladys enjoyed volunteer work, including reading for the blind and visiting nursing-home residents. The couple celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in Raleigh on June 21, 1997, in conjunction with a large Bredenberg-Ellis family reunion.
In 1998, Paul and Gladys left their Crump Road home and moved to Whitaker Glen, a lovely retirement community in Raleigh, where they enjoyed the company of many long-time friends and acquaintances. In March 2009, Paul entered Mayview Convalescent Center, where, sadly, he died in November. Gladys was further grieved by the death a few months later of her younger son, Jeffrey, who died at home in Oreland, PA, on March 2, 2010, after a long illness.
In 2014, Gladys moved to Sunrise North Hills, an assisted living facility near the home of her surviving son, Alfred, and daughter-in-law, Virginia. At Sunrise, she received much kind attention and assistance from skilled care managers and nurses at the facility. While limited by her health, Gladys enjoyed several peaceful years at Sunrise, interacting with acquaintances in the Sunrise dining room, participating in group activities, and receiving visits, phone calls, and letters from friends and relatives.
Gladys suffered a stroke on May 8, 2018. Unable to recover, she died on Saturday evening, May 19, 2018, in her own room at Sunrise North Hills.
Gladys Ellis Bredenberg is survived by her son, Alfred R. Bredenberg, and wife Virginia, of Raleigh, NC; her brother, Jack B. Ellis and wife Rosa, of Santa Rosa Beach, FL; her daughter-in-law, Stacey Burling, of Oreland, PA; and grandchildren Paul W. Bredenberg, Adam Bredenberg, Colin Bredenberg, Bevan Quinn, and Mauireen Quinn Bell.
An informal gathering for family, friends, and acquaintances of Gladys will be held on Saturday, June 2, 2018, at 1 p.m., at Sunrise Senior Living of North Hills, 615 Spring Forest Rd., Raleigh, NC 27609. Friends and family will be invited to share experiences and remembrances.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Rex Healthcare Foundation, 2500 Blue Ridge Road, Suite 325, Raleigh, NC 27607.
Lately, Match.com has been sending me invitations to communicate with single people in my area.
The Internet is a wonderful thing. I receive so many lovely invitations. This one I think is unnecessary. I already know many single people and always make an effort to say hi to them. If they want to talk about it, I’m happy to let them know how much I enjoy being married. But maybe married life isn’t for everyone, so I don’t like to push it on them.
I read his poems
Each one a few spare lines —
An image of an old woman or a honeysuckle vine or a bee or a dying man.
I shift in my chair, munch on salted nuts, heave a sigh.
You’re the great man,
Get to the point.
Tell a real story.
I close the book and set it on the desk.
I rinse my drinking glass,
Shed my day clothes,
Brush my teeth,
Stand at the window looking out on a quiet street.
Somewhere across the city, a train whistle whines.
The book sits there on the desk.
I pick it up, take it to my bed,
Read it until sleep takes me away.
[Following is an essay written by my father, Paul Arnold Bredenberg, in 2003. A further explanation will follow. ARB]
A Yearbook Encounter
By Paul Arnold Bredenberg
It started with a newspaper clipping sent by my brother, who still lives in my old home town. The story was a tribute to Naz Servideo, an old acquaintance of mine who died recently. He was a basketball star on our great high school team of ’38-’39, the team that almost won the state championship. We lost by four points. I always felt that we would have won if Naz, our best shooter, had taken just three more shots. Do you suppose that loss is long forgotten and has entirely ceased to hurt? Think again — it’s been only sixty-four years. A fellow needs time.
I was a student manager for that team, and the players treated me like one of the family. How many times had I taped Naz’s ankles before he went out on the court? 1 just had to get out my yearbook and find the team picture for that year. Maybe not one of my better ideas, but I couldn’t help it.
There they were. What athletes! Two of them, who also played football, went on after the war to play the end positions (offense and defense in those days) on the New York Giants first team. Both are also now deceased.
But what happens once your yearbook lies open? Your finger turns page after page, you see row after row of those clear young faces, most of them hauntingly familiar. Your finger stops now and then under pictures of the smart and talented and, in my case, of a few girls who caught my eye, gave me “ideas,” but seemed unreachably distant. I found, however, that they had signed their names beside their pictures, so apparently I was not hopelessly shy.
My finger paused for some time under Vito’s picture. It seemed I had always known him. His father had been my barber as far back as I could remember. The next pause was for Archie — tall, raw-boned, tough — but as gentle and kind a friend as you could ask for. The thing is, I knew that Vito and Archie never came back from the war in Europe.
The picture that held my attention for the longest time was the one of Stanley. Seeing that strong young face, with the expression that always seemed to me slightly cynical, my thoughts spun back in time more than sixty years. Stanley was the kid next door, my companion on neighborhood adventures. We walked to school together and were about as close as teenagers can get.
When the war was over and I had received my discharge from the Navy, I went home for a brief visit with my parents before going back to work on my college degree. Approaching the house, I looked down the driveway between our place and the neighbor’s; then upward against the sky I could see the line running between the second floor windows of the two houses. I smiled.
On my first trip upstairs to my room I went over to my desk beside the window. There was my little apparatus, just as I’d left it several years before. I’d put it together with scrap wood, metal and wire. Adding a store-bought lantern-type battery and a buzzer, what I had created was a kind of telegraph terminal. Stanley had put together a similar rig in his room across the driveway, and we had strung a two-way insulated wire through our room windows connecting our “terminals. ”
What we had in mind was to send messages back and forth by Morse Code. But first we had to learn the Code. Perhaps we thought it might be worth a Scout merit badge. We went to work on it and got to the point of being able to chat back and forth at about ten words per minute, maybe more.
Now, years later, 1 thought to myself, just for the heck of it, let’s try it out. Surprisingly, my buzzer worked just fine. I raised my window, pressed my key, but couldn’t tell for sure whether Stanley’s buzzer was sounding.
I found my mother down in the kitchen.
“Mom, I just tried to get a signal to Stanley. Do you know whether he’s home these days?”
Her hand flew to cover her face, as it always did when she was surprised or embarrassed. “Oh, my Lord,” she said. “I forgot to tell you …. His parents got word, oh sometime last summer, I think …. that he was missing in action. Then a few months later someone came to tell them that he … that he would not be coming back … from Europe.”
She reached out her arms to hold me, her eyes watering. “I’m so sorry … I know how you and Stanley ….” I held her close and didn’t try to stop my own tears. The wound was as dose to the heart as any that war would bring me.
Back in my room I sat at my desk a long time, looking down that telegraph line to Stanley’s window. My youthful sentiment at the time was that in the years to come there would always be a kind of connecting line between us, even though one of the terminals lay under a small white cross on a gentle green slope in the north of France.
Nearly sixty years later, that line is still there. It carries no messages in code tapped out with finger on key, but one can tell movement on the line by pressing a finger under a certain small picture in an old high- school yearbook.
[The essay quoted above was published in 2003 in the newsletter for Whitaker Glen, the retirement community where my father and mother, Paul and Gladys Bredenberg, were living at the time. During his last several years, my dad began doing some writing and published a series of essays and poems in the newsletter. I always wished he had done more writing and that he had sought broader publishing venues, but near the end of the life he seemed satisfied to reach his small audience there at Whitaker Glen. This was always my favorite of his pieces, and recently some family members said they would like to read it again. So here it is.]