‘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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Using Speech Recognition to Automatically Transcribe Interviews, Meetings, and Speeches

I’ve been looking for a way to use speech recognition to automate the transcription of interviews, meetings, speeches, conference presentations, and so on.

I spend a lot of time on the phone interviewing experts for the articles and reports I write. Normally I conduct the interview with a headset and do my best to type a transcript of what is said. I’m slow and a terrible typist, so my transcript misses a lot and comes out with many misspellings that are impossible to correct. Usually for an hour-long interview it takes me another hour to go through and fix mistakes, filling in gaps, and making guesses at uninterpretable words.

I would greatly benefit from a speech recognition solution that could create a fairly accurate transcript from audio, for example, live over the phone or from an mp3 file.

This need was emphasized to me even more this week, when I attended a conference and spent two days trying to take notes and capture useful quotes from speakers. I have a digital voice recorder and have all of the presentations in mp3 format, but it’s going to be quite a challenge to comb through all of that audio to find relevant quotes for the articles I will be writing about the conference. How much easier it would be it I had a software application that could convert all of those mp3s into fairly accurate text transcripts!

Unfortunately, it appears that voice recognition software is not ready to handle meetings and so on where multiple voices are involved. These systems have to be trained to recognized the voice of a single user.

I’m using this blog post to mark and share some possible solutions I have encountered. I will plan to add to this list as time goes — if and when the technology continues to improve.

+ Dragon Naturally Speaking by Nuance is supposed to be the best reasonably-priced speech recognition software for professional use. Nuance says Dragon is not able to transcribe multiple voices, but I’m tempted to shell out the $200 just to see what kind of results I might get with it. Suppose it were 50 percent accurate transcribing unfamiliar voices? That might be good enough for me.

+ Windows has its own built-in speech recognition capability. I plan to test this out to see whether I can make it work somehow. However, it’s hard to believe that Microsoft could come up with a better solution than a specialist company like Nuance.

+ One suggestion I’ve run into a lot is to transcribe a meeting or lecture by “parroting” or “re-speaking.” In other words, using speech rec software like Dragon, you listen to the recording of the meeting on headphones and repeat what you hear into your computer mic. Because Dragon is trained to your voice, it can create an automatic transcript. Sounds laborious, but it would probably be better that having to type it all out myself.

+ I also heard about a company called Koemei that has a cloud-based solution for converting video and audio assets into text. Looks as if this might work pretty well, however, their entry-level service is $149 per month. That sounds like a lot, but maybe someday…. For $20 per month I would definitely try it.

+ Another idea I have thought of is to call my Google Voice number and play the audio recording into my voicemail. Google Voice automatically transcribes my voicemails into text and often does an acceptable job — good enough so I could paste the results into a word processor and make quick corrections. I’m not sure yet if Google Voice can handle long audio streams, though. I’m thinking about testing this solution to see if I can make it work somehow.

+ Here’s an interesting video by Chaelaz showing how to use YouTube’s closed-captioning transcription service to convert audio to text. Looks as if you would have to create a video first and upload it to YouTube, but that’s an interesting possible work-around for what I’m trying to do.

ARB — 21 June 2013

Mechanical Transmission of Power With Endless Rope Drives: More Efficient Than Electricity?

Wire rope transmission in 1896. Source: Stadtarchiv Schaffhausen.

Kris De Decker at  Low-tech Magazine has published a fascinating article discussing rope drives, a 19th-century technology that was used, especially in Europe, to transmit power over shorter distances. This method of transmission was actually “more efficient than electricity for distances up to 5 kilometres” and even today “would be more efficient than electricity over relatively short distances.”

De Decker makes an interesting connection to the spread of small-scale renewable energy production and suggests a possible role for a technology such as the endless rope drive:

“In spite of [some drawbacks discussed in the article], power transmission by ropes might have a place in our energy systems. Today, there is a trend towards small-scale, decentralized power production, based on renewable energy sources. These solar panels, water turbines or wind turbines generate electricity, but whenever we need to produce mechanical energy, eliminating the step of generating electricity could result in a somewhat less practical, but more efficient use of energy.”

De Decker thinks that “If we used modern materials for making ropes and pulleys, we could further improve this forgotten method.” He illustrates his article with many photos of 19th-century installations.

ARB — 4 April 2013

The Creative Process – How an Intricate Stop-Motion Animation Project Came to John Frame in a Dream

I just heard a fascinating interview with sculptor and stop-motion animator John Frame, who explained how his long-term project “The Tale of the Crippled Boy” came to him in a dream. Frame had been a sculptor for decades but had hit a creative wall, or more precisely had run out of steam, to use another metaphor. He had reached a point in his creative work where he just couldn’t create anymore.

Then one night he had a lucid dream in which he imagined an entire world populated with characters in motion. He somehow recognized that these characters were his own creations, and in that dream state he spent several hours observing this world. When when he woke up early in the morning, he captured it all in drawings and notes and storyboards and began his current stop-motion animation project. Did I mention that he had never done stop-motion before? But now “The Tale of the Crippled Boy” has become his entire creative activity.

You can see Frame’s initial animations here on Vimeo:

I have to admit that I’m not drawn to the creative product, fascinating and detailed as it is — too bizarre to appeal to me. But what I am intrigued by is the way the idea came to the creator — seemingly arriving out of the blue in a dream state. Everybody dreams, and I suspect that lucid dreaming is fairly common. However, the important thing here is that Frame got up and captured it all so he could turn the idea into a creative product. It’s also significant that the stop-motion product draws on his many years of work as a sculptor.

This experience illustrates what I think are some important lessons about the creative process, and it follows the ideas set out in my favorite book on this topic — A Technique for Producing Ideas, by James Webb Young. Written in 1965, this is a brilliant treatise for anyone involved in creative work — Young was actually an advertising guy, but his ideas really apply to anyone in the arts. It’s only 36 pages. You can buy it for a few dollars on Amazon and read it in an hour or so.

Thinking about Young’s book and John Frame’s experience, here are some lessons I extract:

  1. Work very hard over the long term to develop your creative skills, whatever they are — design, writing, drawing, sculpture, painting, music — or skills that are creative but more commonly used in the business world, such as copywriting, graphic design, or art direction. I would also extend this lesson into areas such as innovation, science, engineering, and architecture.
  2. When you are up against a creative problem, put a lot of concentrated effort into analyzing the problem, doing research, brainstorming, testing ideas.
  3. When you are sick and tired of all that concentrating, take a break for an hour, a day, a week, or even longer. Do something else. Relax. Exercise. Go for a hike. Watch a movie. Read. Or go to sleep.
  4. At an unexpected moment an idea or a series of ideas will come to you. Be prepared to capture these ideas — have the tools you need always available to write down or draw out ideas that come to you. I always carry a pocket notebook and set of pens with me. Ideas often come to me when I’m out walking. Like Frame, ideas have sometimes come to me in dreams or just before sleeping or just upon waking up.
  5. After the idea comes to you, work with it and adjust it and figure out how to make it work in a practical way. It might be the solution to the problem you’ve been working on, or it might be the source of an entirely new and unexpected creative endeavor.

You can hear the interview with John Frame at The Story — his is the second part of that particular show.

ARB — 14 Oct. 2012

Infographic Shows US Solar Industry’s $1.9B Net Export Surplus

I thought this was an interesting and useful infographic highlighting the growing U.S. solar manufacturing business. Right now, it shows a $5.6 billion industry that imports $3.75 billion, for a $1.9 billion trade surplus.

I wrote something about the growth of the solar industry recently for ThomasNet Green & Clean — see “How Will U.S. Army Energy Initiatives Affect Expansion of Solar Energy?

Infographic shows US solar industry trade surplus

AB — 15 September 2011