Count me as someone who doesn't find the perennial argument about "is an online community a real community" to be very fruitful. This may be because the debate hasn't advanced very far since 1968, when J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor first used the term "community" in relation to computer networks. " They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest," said L&T. Smart guys. Hard to improve on that when trying to describe what brings people together -- and keeps them together -- online.
But I think you can improve on that, by acknowledging that online communities can also be united by geographical, family, or institutional (education, employment, commerce) relationships imported from the "real" world. That's the world of Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. L&T didn't see it because they didn't see quite all the implications of a time when you, and you brother, and your neighbor, and your boss might all be part of the same online network.
Brand communities -- which we haven't really defined, but by which I believe we mean communities created by companies for customers and prospects -- are united by interest and by the institutional bonds that link companies and customers (i.e., contracts, warranties, support agreements, tacit expectations about what it means to be a customer or a product/service provider). Brand communities are a means by which the effort of individuals pursing individual goals (information, help, entertainment, recognition) is converted into a collective benefit to all participants, including the company.
Ok, that's a description of "what a brand community is," which is independent of the question of whether they look or feel like your neighborhood, town or village. (In fact, it is somewhat similar to your neighborhood, town or village, since the latter also have an institutional "host" (i.e., the city or county government that paves the streets, keeps the peace, etc.), a small percentage of the population that devotes the effort that benefits the community, and a large percentage of the community that supports it largely by not breaking the law.)
On to the questions of whether a brand community can succeed, and what makes a brand community successful:
Re whether a brand community can succeed, I simply direct you to Google and say, with Dr. Johnson, "I refute it thus." A little searching will turn up hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of successful communities created by brands for their customers. Most of these, as JSB predicts, are aimed at meeting needs. They are "how-to" communities -- they address, with regard to the product or service the brand provides, how to find, how to buy, and how to use those products or services. This type of brand community is the normative case; the community of "come look at my marketing materials" is the edge case. When JSB says "brand communities are destined to fail," he is generalizing on the edge case. Which isn't to say that there aren't a lot of examples of that particular edge case. It's a big world out there.
Re what makes a brand community successful, I'd direct you to the Lithosphere, including the advice Mark and Phil have shared here over the years.:)
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