Step 2: Recruit Community Members with a new Toolbox and Your Own Marketing Skills

marketing: recruit membersDoes this sound familiar? “We tried a podcast . . . a microsite . . . a webinar, but nobody came. It was a waste of time and money.” It’s a complaint I often hear when I talk to executives about marketing to the social web. Even when you observe what people are saying online about your brand and company, even when you map the various communities you want to attract, you can’t just create an online presence and put out a sign saying: “Here we are.”

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The “build it and they will come” strategy might have worked in the Internet 1.0 world of 1994, when websites were still novelties (and unfortunately, some companies haven’t abandoned this outdated strategy). But those days are gone forever. Maybe it’s a human impulse to believe that what’s mine is better than what’s yours, and companies fall into that trap just as individuals do.

They believe that if they make a website exciting, lively, colorful, and feature-rich, it will be better than other sites and attract attention. Your site may, in fact, be better, but so what? What’s in it for the customer? The customer needs a real reason to show up. And that’s where recruitment comes in.

Recruit as if Your Business Depends on It

Recruiting for the social web is serious business.

Why?

Because once people have been recruited to one or more communities, they tend to become impervious to traditional media. In fact, according to compete.com, an online research firm, over one-third of the people who participate in online communities spend less time watching television and reading newspapers or magazines as a result of their increased usage of social networks. (That makes sense. A day still has only 24 hours, and the more time customers spend on the Web, the less time they have for other media.)

The impact of diminishing audiences is magnified by the increasing influence online communities have on the products their members buy. Nearly 75 percent of the people who spend time online say their colleagues are the primary influence on their purchase decisions, and 63 percent consider reviews and product comparisons from other consumers to be as credible as expert reviews from independent third parties.

This trend of using the social web to inform buying decisions and circumventing marketing messages is sure to continue and spread. More than one-third of consumers said in a recent study that in the future they will rely on product reviews found through forums and online networks more frequently.

Already, 20 percent of consumers surveyed reported that, based on information they found online, they purchased a different product than the one they originally intended to buy.1 If you don’t recruit people, if you don’t engage them with meaningful content, you’ll get run over by the speeding locomotive the social web has become. Only by recruiting members and getting your site ready for the online community can you put the power of the social web to work for your business goals.

Bring a New Toolkit to the Job

At the start of this chapter, I mentioned an all-too-common lament: a company opened its site and nobody came. Let me suggest two reasons why people might not come to your online party.

First, there was little or no outreach to the social web; and second, the content was not compelling enough. You need a definite plan for attracting and retaining community members. And that’s where your marketing knowledge and skills come in. Marketing to the social web does not mean forgetting everything you’ve learned.

It does mean using a new toolkit or approach to build on what you already know.

You’ll need new and different perspectives on how you connect with and relate to consumers, but the basics of good strategic and tactical marketing communications don’t change. You’re trying to generate leads, produce revenue, and exert influence; you’re trying to generate brand awareness, induce trial, and build customer loyalty.

It’s the old lather, rinse, and repeat from Marketing 101. None of this is particularly revolutionary, but it’s absolutely critical. You already have some idea of how to address many of the questions raised by marketing to the social web. Now it’s time to put your skills to work by recruiting members for your online community.

You recruit online community members the same way you do in the offline world, but it is much easier and richer online. A good starting place is to think about the reasons why people join online communities at all.

According to Compete Inc.,2 there are four reasons:

  1. Meet people. Some 78 percent of the people who visit online communities join themto communicate with others, either colleagues or new acquaintances with whom they develop relationships.
  2. Entertain themselves. Another 47 percent join to find entertaining content such as photos, music, or videos.
  3. Learn something new. Some 38 percent join because they want to obtain information about topics that hold particular interest to them.
  4. Influence others. And 23 percent join to express the opinions in a forum where their ideas can be discussed, debated, or acted on.

Note: These add up to more than 100 percent because some people participate for two or more reasons.

Send Out Your Invitation

With these four reasons in mind, you can start crafting an approach to recruiting members to your community. Perhaps the simplest and most direct place to begin is with the names and addresses available in company databases.

These may come from warranty cards, contest entries, dealer lists—any source your firm has used in the past to build a mailing list. Another simple recruiting technique is to print the site’s URL on product labels and invite people to join. You should certainly include the URL in all your printed company marketing materials—catalogs, brochures, direct mail, and advertisements.

You can buy a list from a research panel company much the way you would buy a list for a direct mail effort from a list broker. These are optin lists of people who have chosen to receive e-mail communications (which distinguishes this approach from spam).

Send those people an invitation to join your community. Your e-mail invitation has to be as engaging and attractive as any direct mail piece. Be sure that when people respond, they find themselves taken to a website where they would like to be. Otherwise, with a click, you’ll be added to the spam filter.

More broadly, recruiting to the social web consists of two toolkits: digital media marketing and digital media relations. Digital media marketing creates branded community-based destinations and invites people to come to them through the sources I’ve just mentioned and through paid advertising.

These destinations could be webisodes (cartoons or a short film—often in installments—used to promote offline events or products), microsites (a website developed with a particular focus for a specific target audience), a contest, or a viral experience.

Digital media marketing can cover the spectrum from kooky viral videos to very serious targeted microsites that might be targeted at a very narrow (or not so narrow) target audience that you want to reach with your product or service. As an example, the site 43things.com has found an interesting way to build communities.

The site invites visitors to list things they would like to do with their lives: Improve my vocabulary . . . practice yoga . . . backpack through Europe . . . have a secret underground lair . . . the list is endless. “It’s more like a life list than a to-do list,” says John Peterson, one of the site’s seven founders. “It’s not about the 10 things I want to do this week; it’s more about the 10 most important things in my life that I never write on my to-do list.” What makes the site interesting is that when you create your list, you are automatically connected to everyone else within the 43 Things universe who want to accomplish those same goals.

At that point, you can write to those people and they can write to you; you can share ideas, setbacks, and successes. In other words, just by expressing your goal, you join the community. Think of digital media relations as next-generation public relations. It has the same goal as traditional public relations—to engage in and influence conversation in a prescribed channel. In the digital world, these are online spheres of influence, which include reputation aggregators, blogs, e-communities, and social networks.

The approach you use with digital media relations is somewhat different from the approach used in traditional public relations, because the digital channel is, to some extent, disintermediated by the online spheres of influence. In offline public relations, firms have to work through the traditional print and broadcast channels.

They have to get to know the right writers, reporters, and editors, the right analysts. They have to know the people who influence or decide what newspapers and magazines publish and what radio and television stations broadcast. Online the process is similar, but a bit more open.

However, that is becoming less and less true as the online spheres of influence gain in influence. For example, six months or a year ago, you probably could have written an e-mail to the CEO of, say, Tech Crunch—a weblog dedicated to profiling and reviewing new Internet products and companies— and if your message was at all newsworthy, it would have been posted the next day. (Remember that most reporters and editors are always looking for good, new information.)

Now, given the site’s growth, a message like yours might not appear today, tomorrow—or ever. If digital media relations means influencing opinions, attitudes, or behaviors, how you go about it depends on the channel, the goals, the product or service, and the company life cycle. What is your marketing goal? How you recruit community members depends on the business objective for starting the community, both the near-term and long-term business objectives.

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Create That Community Feeling

I writed Tom Gerace, the founder and CEO of Gather.com, about companies starting online communities. Gather.com is a community where engaged, informed adults can connect over everything from food to politics to travel to gardening to health to money to movies and much more. Members can express opinions, ask questions, post pictures, rate articles, and form subgroups. Should marketers expect that if they build an online community, people will show up and participate?

Tom says, “I think in most cases they won’t. It’s not just the technology. The social networking platform is a critical component, of course, but equally important is the community and the quality of the experience that members of the community create for other members. So, when marketers think about launching social networks, they need to ask: Why would people want to form a community around this place, this brand, or whatever it happens to be? There are very few brands that people feel such an affinity for that they want to link their personal identity to the brand in a persistent way. And few people feel connected to other human beings because of their mutual affinity to a particular brand.”

Of course there always exceptions.

Harley Davidson comes to mind as a brand/product around which owners will gather. Another example: Lego Group, which promotes the Lego Ambassadors as a community-based program in which adult Lego hobbyists share their construction, product, and event knowledge with the worldwide Lego community.

They are not employees, but “contribute to the Lego fan community without the promise, expectation, or receipt of compensation. The Lego Ambassadors Program is an officially recognized community-based program of the Lego Group.”3 But does someone who uses, say, a Macintosh computer want to socialize with other Mac owners—online or offline—just because they all own Apple products? Probably not.

They’re unlikely to go out of their way to find other Mac owners unless they’re true geeks, the 2 or 3 percent of owners who absolutely love Apple and its products. Jeep encourages community feeling by trying to get owners to wave to other Jeep owners. “I am actually a Jeep owner myself,” says Tom, “and I love going off-road. But do I want to meet other Jeep owners? No, I want to be with my four friends in the Jeep.” Gather.com suggests that, rather than trying to climb the very steep hill of convincing consumers to form some social relationship around the brand identity itself, agencies and advertisers participate in existing social spaces.

“Marketers need to get their minds around the idea that the social space is inherently different from traditional media,” Tom explains. He points out that in the social space, content comes from trusted, known sources. This confirms your own experience: You know whom you believe for anything from a movie recommendation to book recommendations to introductions to other people to job references. So in a social space, the content is almost guaranteed to be relevant and to be trusted if you believe the people are trustworthy (or you don’t listen to them).

“Because you have exceptionally high degrees of relevance and trust,” says Tom, “other people trust the content you place in the social networks as a result. The question is: Do you feel the same level of affinity or trust or love for a brand that you do for another individual? I think the answer is no. Can a brand build that level of affinity? Probably not. Brands don’t give love.”

In his view, what is driving the social web and why people spend so much time on these sites—a point that many marketers haven’t yet grasped—is that people benefit from exploring the lives of friends, family, colleagues, and strangers with similar interests and concerns. The explosive growth of social media such as MySpace reflects that benefit; they have a huge reach right now and their reach is still growing. As a result, Tom advises that companies get involved not by building a community around the brand but by “going into established, successful communities and creating value, which will tend to attract more people to the community.”

Diane Hessan, the founder and CEO of Communispace Corp., brings up another key issue to consider when recruiting members: “In general, it’s harder to recruit people for a community involving a lowinvolvement product or service than for a high-involvement product.” Communispace develops collaborative online communities for company clients—more than 225 at this writing—as a way to connect marketers and customers and provoke insights that companies can use.

In Diane’s experience, the issue of involvement affects recruiting for all kinds of products and brands. “If a client said to us, ‘We need people who fly on airlines a lot and who want to be in an airline community,’ it would be a lot easier to establish that community than, say, a toilet paper community,” she says. “As it turns out, a lot of companies in the toilet paper business want to build communities and understand their customers, so we finally figured out a number of things that must be done to recruit people to these communities. It’s not rocket science, but you have to be thoughtful. Sometimes companies lose perspective and they think, ‘Oh, wow, what we do is so important and so interesting, people will want to be part of our community.’ ”

Diane also points out that even when people register at your site, they may not actually continue in the community: “Sometimes people will sign up, go in, decide it’s really boring, and not participate any further. In the meantime, the company is saying, ‘We have one million visitors!’ ” To sum up, you’re facing a two-part challenge: recruiting people to the site in the first place and keeping them engaged once you get them there. I’ll be talking about the second part in the next chapter.

Build on Existing Sites and Communities

Instead of trying to form an entirely new community around your brand—which is clearly very tough to do—you might start a community to add appeal to a website you already have. Let’s say you’re in the travel business and you’ve set up a microsite for enthusiasts interested in traveling to sporting events around the world—World Cup Soccer, Olympic Games, the Roller Marathon International in Dijon.

Your microsite would also appeal to somebody interested in going to the World Figure Skating Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden. How could you build community around this microsite? First, link your site to the event’s official website as well as to other figure skating sites such as frogsonice.com, isu.org, and figureskating. com.

A part of the online experience for this target segment is going to be community where people can share content about destinations, content that can be text, photos, and video. Your links will help people find and exchange this kind of information. They’ll also serve to recruit members in an indirect way. Next, locate experts in figure skating and in travel to Sweden. Look for folks who have something material and interesting to say. Maybe they’re knowledgeable about the sport and the skaters, or they’ve closely followed winners of previous skating championships.

Find people who have special—and up-to-date—information about places to stay and eat in and around Gothenburg, Sweden. Your experts should be able to offer advice about getting around the country, interesting side-trips, and so on. It helps to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s interested in the content of your microsite.

If you cared enough about the World Figure Skating Championships or the sport of figure skating, you probably would visit the site every few days or once a week to see what’s new. Maybe someone has posted an interesting comment or quote; maybe another member has reacted to something you posted. And if you spotted special travel offers or other offers on the site, you might check those every now and then.

You might return if you found occasional interviews with athletes or coaches—even with the athletes’ families. Now think about the microsite as a whole, not just the skating enthusiasts. Recruit 10 or 20 experts in each of the several geographies where upcoming international-level sporting events will be held. They’ll be community members but clearly identified as experts.

You must be transparent so that if your experts have a relationship with an event, a hotel, a restaurant, or anything else they discuss, this must be very clear to site visitors. You’ll want to have compelling content for seeding until the site gets enough momentum to meet your business objective. The level of that momentum will differ depending on your business purpose. This is why you’ll need a marketing plan, a course of action, for obtaining content and building momentum to attract and engage your customers and prospects.

Feel the Momentum

One good way to get momentum going is by seeding your community with quality content that inspires people to talk up the information and the site to others. In any community, you’re going to have participants and lurkers—folks who visit the site but never ask a question or post a comment. The lurkers are important, too. A lurker may take an action that is important for the overall objectives at some point—she may book a tour for example—and lurkers may tell friends about the site, encouraging those people to visit and participate actively.

Other ways to recruit are the good old-fashioned ways. Remember the principle of don’t forget what you already know. You want to look at the business case for online advertising, offline advertising, traditional public relations, online public relations or digital media relations, paid search, and more.

Getting people to come to your community and then return again and again means you must have something they care about enough to come back for. It’s as simple and as hard as that. What other sites do you need to go to for recruiting purposes? What kind of paid media should be used? Perhaps you should buy ads on Google to bring people to your community. As I’ve said before, the Web allows you to measure your advertising’s effectiveness and you can see the most important places your customers come from and go to.

Planning for recruitment requires a mindset. Ask yourself: Which are the most powerful media? Where are my customers going? Where are my competitors? Here’s an analogy: When advertisers created a 30-second commercial, the agency had to think about the lighting and the music, the movement, the message, and the logo. For a website, you do the same kind of thing. Y

ou’re developing an environment that will present information, allow for interactivity, draw likeminded people, and create transactions. You’re not creating marketing material, you’re creating a digital environment. Does direct marketing online have a role in marketing to the social web? Does public relations online have a role? Does paid advertising have a role online? Yes, yes, and yes. But the goal of all those tactical, executable things is to create a theater of sales, to bring people to rich, thoughtful, interesting online communities. And once you’ve brought them to your community, what can you do to keep them coming back?

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