Community has Consumed the ‘Net: But Are Marketers Ready to Open Shop in Them?

Inplace #2

Consider the physical community in which you live. Why did you decide to move there, work there, raise your family there? Isn’t it because your community is filled with things you enjoy and people you like? Physical communities are designed to satisfy your wants and needs so you can comfortably and conveniently date, shop, play, learn and more. Online communities do the exact same thing. The only significant difference between physical communities and online communities is geography.

‘Online community’ is a loosely-defined term referring to websites hosting consumer-generated content available for public consumption. These communities are comprised of likeminded individuals who form social groups and interact virtually regarding specific topics. Chat rooms, file sharing sites for music or photos or videos, online forums, product rating tools, and consumer reviews are all forms of online communities.

But the single biggest contributors to online communities are blogs.

According to Technorati, the number of blogs has doubled every five months for the past three years. There are now nearly 30 million blogs with over 75,000 new ones being created each day. Thanks to the adoption of high speed Internet access and cheap server space, the infrastructure now exists for anyone who wants to share an opinion to quickly, easily and cheaply create their own blog — building one requires about as much technical aptitude as creating a document in Microsoft Word. And once built, blogs beget more blogs because people read and react to one person’s opinion by posting comments or creating their own blog.

Seemingly no topic goes unexplored — everything from music to games, politics to sports, travel to entertainment, romance to employment. And that’s why marketers should pay close attention. Many conversations within blogs are about you – your brand, your store, your employees, or your products. These peer-to-peer conversations represent the next “big thing” in consumer marketing.

Trends in Marketers’ Relationships with Consumers

For the past couple of decades, two marketing trends have been paramount. The first was the widespread adoption of direct and database marketing. Beginning in the 1980s, most major corporations invested heavily in database technology and direct-to-consumer strategies. Customer retention became of equal importance to customer acquisition. Mainstream mass advertisers allocated significant resources to direct marketing efforts such as direct response television, direct mail, direct order catalogs and email. Organizational charts began featuring Direct Marketing Managers and V.P.’s of Customer Retention and Directors of Database Marketing. Businesses got smarter at talking to their customers in relevant ways.

The second trend began in the early 1990s. This trend dealt with customer relationships and loyalty marketing. Rather than talking to customers, businesses learned to talk with customers. They created two-way interactions, facilitated dialogues and monitored customer behavior through loyalty cards and website analytics. Marketers built subscription management tools to collect customer preferences and executed a myriad of sweepstakes, surveys, credit card programs, and point of sale technology designed to capture more customer information so marketers could have more mutually beneficial relationships with their best customers.

Now a third trend is beginning to emerge. Peer-to-peer communication is becoming increasingly valuable to customers. As a result, referring to consumer controlled media now means more than just the technology consumers use to bypass your messages (TiVo, satellite radio, pop-up blockers, spam filters).