Phil Soffer is Vice President of Product Marketing at Lithium Technologies. He has held a number of positions at the company influencing the direction of the platform, most recently running Product Management.
Jonathan Salem Baskin had a great post over at Social Media Today called "Company Towns Never Work: The Case for Third-Party Online Communities."
Using historical analogies from the Pullman Company to the California Gold Rush (the original one, that is, not the Internet one), and informed by Jane Jacobs's study of urban spaces, Baskin argues that in the real world, communities form organically from the needs of participants and tend to whither when they're controlled by corporations who sponsor them to advance their own interests. By analogy, he suggests that most branded communities will not stand the test of time.
This post caught my eye for a couple of reasons. Naturally, I have a professional interest in the success of branded online communities. But on a personal level, when I studied history in the early 1990s, one of the hot areas of interest was the degree to which people can carve out social arrangements that serve their own needs even in the midst of apparently hegemonic controlling forces.
My graduate advisor Larry Levine was one of the most vocal proponents of the idea that people make their own communities in almost any situation, even -- or especially -- in the dehumanizing world of the slave quarters or the Jim Crow South. Surely they would also do so within a community hosted by a corporate brand.
And so I can say with the epistemological certainty of a former student of the humanities (that's supposed to be a self-deprecating joke, by the way) that Baskin is right on in his diagnosis of the potential problems, but not necessarily correct in the how smart companies actually engage with their communities.
Unlike the offline world, the online world offers almost complete mobility. If you're not getting what you want out of an online community, you can leave with no switching cost whatsoever. By contrast, if you don't like living in Pullman, it's kind of a pain to move. And since it's expensive, you can't do it on a whim.
A couple of things follow from this: first of all, if companies run their branded communities in ways that don't serve their users' needs, they will die just as Baskin predicts. This is one of the most important aspects of the community management training that we provide to our clients. There is a strong market incentive to do right by your customers. We think this is a Good Thing.
Secondly, the company's brand on a community is a way of signaling to users that some organization cares enough about this to spend the money and effort that it takes to manage a community. Baskin's claim that branded communities are tenuous may be true in some instances, but I think it's more often true that the branded nature of the community signals to potential members that it's worth spending their precious time there because 1) it's going to be around for a while; and 2) someone is going to protect them against trolls, shysters, and other miscreants. That promise helps attract the volume of people on the street, which -- as Jane Jacobs told us so eloquently -- is the lifeblood of a community.
Far from tenuous, some of our sites have been running since Mark Zuckerberg was in high school! We see very few companies that start down the community path and then stop.
Ultimately, there are going to be a lot of different places where customers can talk about things that interest them. Branded communities are an important part of that ecosystem because they create a critical mass of people interested in a brand who come together under rules that are fairly well understood and articulated. If these communities fail to meet people's needs, they die. That's why we counsel our customers to do as Baskin suggests and encourage the wide variety of behaviors that make a community vital. And why most successful branded communities are ultimately managed and policed largely by their members.
The answer is not that brands shouldn't have communities. They should. But they need to manage their communities as though they may be ghost towns tomorrow. They could be.
But in the meantime, branded communities keep companies honest while giving customers something valuable in return.
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