Communities in Practice
Paul Gillin, author of The New Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to the New Social Media, observes, "Blogs, discussion boards, and other forms of interactive media are the most cost-effective customer feedback mechanism ever invented. You won’t get a representative sampling of your customers, but you will get your most passionate customers."
Don Philabaum, CEO of Internet Strategies Group, agrees. "It’s a good time to become a niche online community and do it right," he says. "You have millions of people who have learned the value of being a part of an online community, and they’ll bring experience, enthusiasm, content—and their network—to your online community."
Generally, review communities break out into three categories: Most popular are social hangouts that offer a review domain component. These communities borrow from the MySpace and Facebook model, attempting to offer community features to attract as many visitors as possible.
Other online review communities are completely private, invitation-only affairs. While these are generally much smaller than the public sites, many firms had discovered that there’s a big payoff when they are picky about the members they welcome into their review community. Specifically, community members are generally highly valued customers who offer dependable insights, and they usually post more often and more regularly than those participating in public review networks. Often, their discussion threads last for years.
Meanwhile, a third flavor of review community exsists solely to solicit and publish reviews. Many of these are driven by sophisticated, review-soliciting software engines that walk visitors through every step of the review process and find all sorts of ways to encourage them to expound upon what they think about a company on the company’s own site.
Plus, if you don’t have the time, money, or inclination to create a review component to your site, there is also a completely different genre of service providers that will monitor what is being said about your firm on the web (in review forums and elsewhere) and alert you when things are going badly.
No matter which type of review community appeals to your business, it appears the ongoing rise of such gathering places is inevitable. "Expect at least one-quarter of the Fortune 100 to announce online communities, in which they learn about and create higher levels of engagement with their customers and markets," says Brad Bortner, co-author of "Top Market Researcher Predictions for 2008," from market research firm Forrester.
If your firm is interested in going with a social networking model, which may also include a review domain component, web marketers say you’ll want to offer a full array of community fostering amenities, including discussion boards; chat rooms; instant messaging; blogging; photo, audio, and video posting; and similar services offered by sites MySpace and Facebook.
You’ll also want to jump-start the community’s nerve center—the discussion board—by posting commentary on a dozen or so topics and then encouraging visitors to offer their own reactions and opinions to the discussions you’ve started. Obviously, this is also one of the best places to begin soliciting the kind of review feedback you want for your firm.
With perseverance, and a little luck, these discussion boards will take on a life of their own, with community visitors and reviewers coming up with their own follow-up topics and others volunteering to moderate special interest groups relating to the company that they are passionate about. Some members will even volunteer to guard your forums from the occasional visitor who just shows up to make mischief.
Fully realized review communities of this type also often bring in professional moderators who assume responsibility for moderating and managing subject- specific forums. These experts may or may not individually generate review fodder for your site, but they should bring in more visitors who will contribute to the review section in addition to keeping an eye on the provision of quality content.