‘Marketing in Virtual Communities’: A Retrospective

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 WELL home page, 1997
The WELL, 1997. Source: Internet Archive

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.

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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

Geocities home page, 1997
Geocities, 1997. Source: Internet Archive

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)

Emerging communities

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.

iVillage home page, 1997
iVillage, 1997. Source: Internet Archive

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.

Vietspace home page, 1997
Vietspace, 1997. Source: Internet Archive

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.

 

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Reading His Collected Poems

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.
Say something.
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.
Damn you.
I pick it up, take it to my bed,
Read it until sleep takes me away.

3 July 2016

 

The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True

I think a lot about assertions, things that people assert as true, very often without acknowledging their personal bias. To be fair, most of us are so immersed in our ideologies that we’re not aware of how they are compelling us toward bias.

The title of this post refers to some of the kinds of assertions I hear, by which someone states something as a fact:

  • The way things are — some assertion about fact, whether it has to do with science, economics, politics, or some other sphere. One of my favorite manifestations is when someone begins an utterance with the stark word “Fact,” followed by a colon to emphasize the factiness of what follows, then followed by an unquestioned assertion.
  • The way things were — some statement about history or the past. For example, such and such Egyptian dynasty ruled in such and such time period, or some assertion about why humans came down from the trees to live on the savanna.
  • What is true — This is really akin to the other two kinds of assertions I’m pointing to, but maybe in this case I’m thinking about an assertion that goes beyond a mere statement of some fact. Some examples might be that God exists or that he doesn’t, or that evolution is an incontrovertible fact.

An assertion might be well supported, but what I’m trying to spotlight here is the common practice of making an assertion without acknowledging the background and context surrounding the assertion and the person making it. One result is that people get into fierce arguments even though they aren’t really arguing about the same thing.

Here are some of the kinds of influences that one might make clear to provide context to an assertion:

  • The lines of evidence behind the assertion — Is the assertion based on scientific or scholarly research? Sometimes a speaker will make an assertion, basing his or her statement on the consensus within a profession or academic field. (Academic or scientific consensus doesn’t always mean the same thing as the everyday understanding of what constitutes a consensus.) One of the problems here is that there may actually be a minority that disputes the consensus view. There might be a legitimate critique that isn’t getting acknowledged when the speaker makes the assertion.
  • Assumptions — Many assertions are based in part on ideas or constructs that are taken for granted. As with lines of evidence, there might be a legitimate minority critique of a given assumption. One example would be dating a past event based on the conventional chronologies hypothesized by historians and archaeologists.
  • Definition of terms — Often people get into arguments without establishing and agreeing on the meaning of the point they are discussing. For example, people argue about whether evolution is true without coming to a prior understanding of what they mean by evolution.
  • The ideological leanings of the speaker — For someone who wants to evaluate an assertion, it could be useful to know something about the speaker’s ideological convictions. Is the speaker a theist? An atheist? A free-market fundamentalist? An eco-socialist? One problem here is that many people don’t like to admit that they subscribe to an ideology or aren’t even aware of it.
  • The speaker’s authority for making the assertion — When evaluating an assertion, it can be useful to know the speaker’s credentials.
  • The speaker’s underlying agenda — As with ideology, many speakers don’t like to own up to their agendas, which are often political or ideologically-driven.

As is often the case with this writing project, my purpose here is to set out some basic ideas with the intention of coming back later to revise and add ideas and examples.

ARB — 3 Oct. 2013

Competition as a Form of Cooperation

Here’s a piece of business advice: Wherever you go, whatever you do, always act in such a way as to raise the bar.

In business, we frequently focus on competition. In the darwinian ideology, life is supposed to be about competition, and that idea often gets transferred into business. In reality, though, I think cooperation is more important in the way both life and business work.

Cooperation is much more fundamental to getting things done, and I think even competition can be seen in a way as a form of cooperation, in that when we compete, we make each other better by raising the bar.

ARB — 6 September 2013