Brain Trust: Mining the Community Mind

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Consumers are long-standing users of community tools on Web sites-message boards, chat rooms, rating and review systems, and Usenet newsgroups. Consumer comments posted in these areas are valuable in providing helpful information to would-be purchasers. However, it is not only the consumer who is paying attention. Corporations are realizing the value of the rich market data that online discussions contain.

A new niche industry has developed to meet the corporate need for efficiently organized presentations of the volumes of online discussion content. These niche players-let's call them Discussion Miners-generate revenue by aggregating relevant consumer insight from various community sources that is then analyzed, packaged, and sold to corporations. Corporate customers benefit from this repackaged consumer knowledge and use it to provide better and more competitive products and services.

The only ones that may not be sharing in the benefits are the communities whose content is being mined. Many don't even realize this is going on and would certainly love to tap into a new revenue stream. And, revenue opportunities aside, there's the picky little issue of copyright. Are community discussions and postings protected under copyright laws? These sites have some decisions to make. Do nothing, mine their own content, enforce protection-if rules are being broken-of their copyrighted materials, or find ways to share in the revenue stream that is being generated from their content.

The Community
Many site owners describe user-provided content as being an "intangible asset." What users are saying can be valuable, but Community Managers have had a difficult time calculating and cashing in on their member-generated content.

Funds are poured into creating, growing, and maintaining community with little to no revenue being generated from or attributed to the community itself. The return on investment for a community is typically calculated in terms of user reviews influencing purchase decisions, customer service savings, member loyalty, increased page views, and overall site use by the community members. With nearly intangible ROI, community places a serious onus on revenue accountability. And sites that utilize community features as a core business model face a real threat of shutting down if community-related revenue streams are not developed.

While many communities are struggling financially, the Discussion Miners are making a business of using member-generated content as a freely sourced data mart to feed their aggregate databases.

The Demand for Consumer Insight
Major corporations spend millions of dollars each year on market research. What are they looking for? Consumer feedback, consumer insight, market intelligence, competitive intelligence, product trends-any information that will give them a competitive edge, increase their profit margins, and provide better consumer products and services.

Positive consumer comments in an online community are free testimonials for the brand and can positively influence purchasing decisions in a growing online audience. Negative comments often assist the company to improve products and services more quickly than traditional focus groups. Discussions about a product versus a competitor's product help the company learn how consumers compare brands and ultimately make a purchasing decision. The more consumer in- formation the company has, the better the chance of making product and service improvements.

Tim Colbeck, director of ebusiness for Subaru of America, knows the value that online communities have to a manufacturer. "Online communities are a very efficient way to get messages out and generate enthusiasm via opinion leadership."

A member of the Subaru team is a regular member in online communities where Subaru products are discussed. The Subaru representative is a resource within the community who answers questions, gathers feedback, corrects misinformation, and points members to re- sources. Colbeck adds that communities "help us keep in touch with the voice of our customer and can give important input to potential customer issues and preferences."

For a product, brand, or marketing manager, acquiring a summary of what people are saying about your company without having to read thousands of postings across various sources is a powerful and competitive tool. Think of it as a real-time CliffNotes version of all conversations and customer reviews about your company's products and services-a way to quickly take the online pulse of your brand.

The Discussion Miners' real-time market research is at the corporate manager's fingertips, and can quickly save hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, by simply "listening" to the consumer. Marketing managers can tweak their message to reset consumer expectations about existing or upcoming products. Brand and product managers gain insight from consumers of current products and use it to enhance future product offerings. Corporations gain market and competitive intelligence on what influences the purchasing decision, purchase cycle, price points, and competitor's products. Corporate relations analysts can assess damage control of recent corporate activity, such as product recalls and corporate behavior.

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