Step 4: Engage Communities in Conversation (also helping to spread the word)

Engage Communities in ConversationUp to this point, you’ve observed the field and created a customer map, recruited community members, and evaluated online conduit strategies.

Now it’s time to plan to engage your community (or communities) in conversation.


Approach this as if you were writing a marketing plan with the target audience of customers and potential customers in mind. Your conduit strategies will guide many of the activities you plan. Of course a website (or more than one) will be part of your plan and of course it must have great content—“great,” that is, as defined by your target audience.

How do you engage a community in conversation? Before I talk about the nuts and bolts, I want to show you a company that understands its target audience and has a variety of conversation-starters in its tool kit.

Bubbly Conversation

Jones Soda Co., based in Seattle, Washington, has been building a community conversation for years. First, a little background. If you haven’t seen Jones Soda at your local Starbucks or Panera Bread, you may not know that the company differentiates itself by cooking up some very quirky flavors.

For a limited time during the Thanksgiving holiday, for example, you can buy its Turkey and Gravy, Sweet Potato, Dinner Roll, Pea, and Antacid Flavored sodas. In December, you might sip its Egg Nog, Candy Cane, or Sugar Plum soda.

Year-round flavors include Blue Bubblegum, Tangerine, and Crushed Melon soda. Just looking at the soda is enough to start a conversation because the photos and sayings on each bottle have been submitted by customers (and sometimes by employees).

But how do customers get into the conversation? Check the label, and you’ll see the Jones URL (

Now conversation is just a click away. Jones involves customers in its brand and promotes a conversation in at least a dozen ways. Under the website’s “community” tab are some very good examples. On the message board, for instance, “members” (visitors who log in) can post comments about Jones’s products, its special events, and—gasp!—subjects that have nothing whatever to do with Jones.

The guest book is exactly what it sounds like:

a page where visitors can sign in and leave a quick note for Jones—a simple yet welcoming touch. To backtrack to that label, customers who upload a photo or a saying through the website are more likely to visit regularly so they can find out whether their submission has been chosen.

In fact, Jones encourages visitors to browse an ever-changing gallery of photos and sayings on the site itself. Although this may sound one-sided (customers submit and Jones picks), it actually generates dialogue because visitors get to vote on the best photo of the year.

The website has fun and games to bring visitors back again and again. Not long ago, it featured a Magnetic Words Page, where visitors could move words around to make their own sayings. But Jones also encourages customers to rate and review its individual flavors and to suggest interesting new flavors.

These are good conversation-starters. How about some direct customer feedback? “Survey Yourself and Pimp Your mySpace” is a link where Jones incorporates market research like this: “Are things looking a little dusty in your MySpace corner? Or how about just helping us with our new survey? We’ve got a bunch of nosey questions we need your help on and as a thank you we’re giving away MySpace themes.” When I last visited, the survey was asking about soft drink purchase habits, websites visited, and television shows watched regularly.

Here’s my point: Jones does all this not just to sell soda pop but also to engage customers and potential customers in a dialogue.

A Brand Is a Dialogue

In the era of the social web, branding is the dialogue you have with your customers and potential customers. The stronger the dialogue, the stronger the brand; the weaker the dialogue, the weaker the brand.

Thanks to the Internet, the dialogue can be active 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It includes both the conversations you have with customers and the exchanges your customers have with one another—all related to the strength of the brand.

Apple Computer is terrifically strong in the social web by encouraging conversation around its brand. Apple dominates portable music with the iPod and its little brothers, the Nano and the Shuffle. Some of the iPod-like devices made by other companies are just as good if not better than the iPod, yet Apple owns 76 percent of that market because it keeps the dialogue going with its customers.

Do you want the user experience to be faster? Do you want the machine smaller? Do you want a better screen? Do you want to watch television shows? Movies?

This kind of dialogue contributes to Apple’s amazing brand power. It’s not the only communication Apple has with its community: the company also uses traditional marketing and advertising to bring people into the online conversation.

Apple is good at building dialogue around product enhancement and user-experience, which in turn strengthens its brand. Another way to stimulate conversation is to use a moral purpose—renewable energy, fair prices for coffee growers, children’s health, automotive safety, and the like—as the starting point. Stonyfield Farm, for example, is deeply concerned about environmental issues. Known for organic and natural food products like yogurt, smoothies, and soy milk, Stonyfield mentions its pet causes on product labels and is always posting new content on its website (

It has something to say about global warming, healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, supporting family farms, and much more. And it wants to hear what customers think. The site’s “Ask Our Nutritionist” page answers questions submitted by the community.

The Baby Babble blog not only presents content about the trials and tribulations of parenting young kids, it asks parents to join the dialogue by sharing their ideas. The Bovine Bugle blog, about farm life from the cows’ point of view, also generates its share of interesting comments from the community.

People who gravitate toward the Stonyfield community for its causes can get involved by reading site content, voting on which nonprofits should receive Stonyfield’s donations, and following links to various advocacy organizations. All this for a mass-market consumer packaged good. Controversy is an opportunity to engage even more people in conversation. Stonyfield’s home page recently featured a letter from the CEO, responding to a BusinessWeek article on the growth of organic foods.

“The story generated a surprising amount of Internet activity which included some gross misconceptions and falsehoods about our company and our practices,” wrote CEO Gary Hirshberg. He spelled out Stonyfield’s position, bullet by bullet, asked community members to share their views by clicking to make contact. Even though Groupe Danone has a majority stake in Stonyfield, the brand has a distinct, independent identity because it keeps the conversation going on so many levels.

Let me make another point here: Company executives should stop thinking that they can buy a brand name or build a great brand simply by making big media buys. Neither Stonyfield nor Jones is buying a lot of media space or time, yet each brand has a sizable community of loyal followers. True, most managers in senior positions today grew up with the Super Bowl mentality—buy enough advertising and you create the brand.

Those days are gone; I don’t think any company can buy its way into a brand name anymore.

The increasing importance of social media and social marketing on the Web is, I believe, tipping the balance and will have much more impact than media buys. One more key point about making conversation in a community: Don’t talk about what Merck stands for, or what Coke stands for, or what any brand stands for.

You have to show this (like Stonyfield) and get a dialogue going. What does your company care about—from a social nature, from a moral nature, from an ethical nature? That is the high-level part of a branding dialogue.

Then you have to do the everyday work of carrying on a dialogue about specific issues surrounding the products and services you offer.

Stonyfield did this with its CEO’s letter and its open invitation for the community to share ideas about the issues discussed in the letter. To be sure, advertising has a definite place as a conversation starter. Genmar Industries recently used online, cable television, and print ads to get people talking about its Triumph boats.

Genmar’s agency, Republik, suggested differentiating Triumph on the basis of its toughness. Agency personnel hitched the boat to a pickup truck (no trailer), dragged it along country roads, slammed it into trees, and finally sent it skidding at high speed into the water.

Yet, as you can see on the video at, the boat survived in style— tough, indeed. Why post this “bubba test” video online and seed it on boatrelated blogs and sites? “We can start a conversation with the consumer,” Triumph’s president says, “and it’s measurable.” Not only that, but it got media coverage in the New York Times and elsewhere, extending the audience and earning word of mouse all over the place.

Making Customers Part of the Brand

Customers have always played a small role in the world of the brand, as research subjects, as enthusiasts, and as gadflies. Today, however, because of the Internet, you have to think of customers as transmitters of your brand conversation.

They’re already having conversations with one another about your products anyway, conversations about your cars or your music or your drug’s side effects. It’s up to you to ensure that your organization participates in that conversation and to convince community members that you care about what they think and say about the brand, the products, the services. What customers and potential customers talk about is deeply connected to your reputation and your position as a brand in the social media world.

That’s why you have to part of the dialogue, no matter what brand you market. If you market flat screen television sets—although the product or service could be virtually anything—how do you contribute to the dialogue about, say, advancements in flat panel technology?

One way you might participate is by explaining what makes a good flat panel screen, on your website and in other online forums.

You need to add your voice to the conversation in places where you can participate in transparent fashion, so it’s clear who you are and who you represent. At the same time, you should link back and invite people to your site for more dialogue or an opportunity for visitors to just listen, for instance, to a podcast about the quality elements in flat panel screens (or whatever is meaningful to your audience).

You might offer videos of your product in use or in development, allow the community to see the results of product testing, or have your service people post tips and answer questions.

The more your customers are involved in the dialogue, the more they get involved in the brand. Because a branded dialogue should be multidimensional, think about building a conversation around what you stand for, based on your activities. British Petroleum’s Beyond Petroleum campaign was more than just advertising, as an example.

It was a discussion about renewable energy, a great first step to set British Petroleum apart from other big oil companies. Similarly, Pfizer has stimulated dialogues about different diseases, with the implied message that “we are trying to make a higher quality of life for you; this is what we’re about—not just making money.”

Remove the subject of transactions and profit from the brand dialogue and you actually add another dimension to the dialogue. The dialogue, after all, changes to fit the community’s interest. Does the ordinary customer care if General Motors makes money? Some may, but most care about a new vehicle. Does General Motors offer some good trucks at good prices? Do people like them? Are they reliable? Are they strong? Most prospective customers don’t care what the stock is worth.

A portfolio manager at UBS or Fidelity cares, and they care about a different brand dialogue or brand conversation. The future of the Web is going to be about branded destinations, which include social networks. What do I mean by branded destinations? The Motley Fool ( is a branded destination.

The Fool Community (that’s actually a page on the site) offers a variety of suggestions and advice from community members covering everything from investment strategies to food and drink, financial planning to health and fitness. Members of the community, who must register to participate, can log on and ask for help. is a branded destination; is a branded destination. I would even argue that any site, after it reaches a certain critical mass, can be considered a branded destination.

The next generation of branded Web destinations will be designed as a place to aggregate, supported by advertising. Look at, founded by Jeff Taylor, who founded the job site. Eons is sort of a MySpace for baby boomers. Members (and you have to be at least 50 or lie about your age to become a member) can share life dreams, calculate life expectancy, follow news stories about aging, and much more.

The site carries advertising; recent ads included Royal Caribbean, Fisher Price, Liberty Mutual. People who clicked on the Fisher Price ad were linked to an online sweepstakes; by entering, they agreed to receive promotional e-mails from the company. In addition, remember that the social web filters transactions.

The Eons site is an example of this. People who jump to the Fisher Price sweepstakes site from the Eons site are prescreened; the odds are good that the majority are grandparents or indulgent aunts and uncles who would be interested in children’s toys. Or consider, “the first service within the online dating industry to use a scientific approach to matching highly compatible couples.”

Single members join to find a partner; married couples join to strengthen their marriages. People who visit the site can take surveys and buy relationship books. These—and hundreds of other sites—are social interfaces that may lead to a transaction, versus sites that simply offer transactions, which is where the Web has been for the past 10 years.

It is the difference between going to a site to buy things and going to a site for an experience and then buying. In the future, branding will be built more on experience and discussion about the experience, although traditional advertising and promotion will still have some influence. For some leading brands, the future is now.

Dialogues about experiences are already shaping and reinforcing what community members think, feel, say, and do about these brands. Ordinarily it takes a long time to build a brand, but the social web has shown this is not always true. It took Google about eight years to become a verb.

YouTube did not spend a dime on advertising and became a national brand in less than three years. iVillage has become a brand for information for women. MySpace, Friendster, BlackPlanet, Gather, and more have become brand names almost overnight.

How did that happen?

Through the dialogue on the sites and the conversations visitors have with each other, the brands became strong. Not just dialogue but also the fulfillment of a promise made through that dialogue, either by offering information a visitor wants or by getting to the product through the information.

Brands will become more and more powerful as they fulfill the promise made in their dialogues with customers and the dialogues among customers. Any brand that tries to game the system or has a shoddy product or shady proposal will be found out more quickly and punished more severely on the social web.

The “Wal-Marting Across America” blog, the super-duper Kryptonite bike lock (which someone discovered could be picked by a Bic pen and broadcast how on the Web), and the “Dell Hell” service problems are just a few examples of how Web-savvy consumers can, and will, turn on a company they feel has not done the right thing.


Too Much of a Good Thing

As the social web grows and customers get on board, they’ll vary their participation in what I see as three tiers of communities:

  1. The first tier of communities are built around what customers talk most about, care most about—school, profession, disease, hobby, sports passion, dating service.
  2. The second tier of communities are those that customers will visit now and then. These may not be as important or immediate as the first tier but they’re of enough interest to warrant an occasional visit.
  3. The third tier of communities are where customers go when they have something specific in mind. Maybe they’re thinking about an annual vacation, a refinanced mortgage, a presidential election. Customers aren’t always looking for travel tips, but when they’re getting ready for their one big trip of the year, they might visit three community sites to look for interesting places.

A customer may buy many different branded products, but they’ll only belong to a limited number of communities on the social web, perhaps 10 or 12.

Moreover, many of these communities may have only marginal connection to commerce.

Over time, people will most likely perform triage on their community involvement. Some will belong to subcommunities; they may not be directly in dialogue with the company, but will be comfortable with the company.

For example, someone may trust L.L. Bean or Orvis and will continue to watch the company’s site now and then or dip in and out of the community maybe once a month or so, just as shoppers like to drop into certain stores at irregular intervals.

Once the novelty of the social web wears off, people will become more selective. For example, Aarica Caro, a 28-year-old escrow officer who lives in Morgan Hill, California, has shared enough. She’s shared a list of her favorite television shows and movies, reviews of Bay Area haunts, and she’s been invited to share more.

She was invited to join other online communities such as Yahoo 360, but she didn’t bother to sign up. She said her MySpace page is enough. “It’s getting pretty old,” Caro said. “It makes no sense to have a million of those pages. I have one.” For a while, Caro shared the lives of her three cats on

She kept an online cat diary for six months and each of her cats had about 50 online friends. “At that point, I thought, ‘Who cares?’ ” she remembers. “Who cares if my cats have friends?” That’s when she stopped writing about their adventures.2 So the question is one of engagement, which is all about content. How do you build relevant content that will get people coming, talking, returning to your site? How do you build the mix of professional user-generated, enterprise-generated content to do that? Obviously, no one specific, concrete answer fits all situations.

Companies and communities are far too diverse. The most I can do here is raise the issue and suggest some principles. I believe a good analogy is that of a brilliant magazine editor. The best editors understand their readers.

They know what will interest, entertain, excite their readers; what interests the readers of Car & Driver is different from, say, what interests the readers of Skiing. True, the two magazines’ readership may overlap somewhat; some skiers are passionately interested in cars. But faithful readers would be surprised to find an article about a new ski resort in Car & Driver or a review of a new convertible in Skiing. Enough said.

Ten Rules for Private Communities

Sometimes your best bet is to set up a private, invitation-only community for your conversation. This is the specialty of Communispace, which creates consumer, customer, and employee communities that companies can use for marketing insights.

Diane Hessan, Communispace’s CEO, tells me that Communispace obsesses over how to keep community members returning regularly. Why? If members don’t participate, the community has little value to the sponsoring company.

Following are 10 principles that Communispace has developed from its experience with private communities. While they apply most specifically to that firm’s business model, they can be adapted to other communities, particularly in a business context.

Any company with salespeople, distributors, dealers, franchisees, store managers, or other natural groups in farflung places could profitably adapt these ideas:

  1. Invite the right people, keep it private and small. When you find people who have a common interest and put them together in a community, their energy explodes. Screen people to uncover interests, passions, and willingness to participate, and avoid using only simple demographic and geographic criteria. But keep the community private. More of the right people are likely to participate in private communities than in public communities because they feel more comfortable in an environment where they know what they say will only be seen by other identified community members, the facilitator, and company representatives.
  2. View members as advisors to the company. Think of community members as valuable advisors to your company, not as a market research panel. When you treat community members as advisors they will go to amazing lengths to help your company— and for very little compensation. People in one of Communispace’s shoppers’ communities drove over 100 miles to check out and compare competitive stores despite high gas prices. An important note: Be sure to let your community advisors know how your company is using their ideas. The more you reciprocate, the more people will help you.
  3. Find the social glue, make it member-centric. The more focused the community is on topics of shared interest and relevance to its members, the more involved they are likely to be. Don’t base a community on just your product or company. Rather, find the commonalities among potential members that are also relevant to your business, and ask people for help in better understanding that particular topic or domain. For example, one pharmaceutical client is exploring the emotions behind a disease and how people make treatment decisions rather than just testing drug ads. A financial services client is exploring not just how people feel about their brand or even their category, but how and why members have come to consider themselves consumer activists.
  4. Work at building the community. Communispace has found that, on average, 68 percent of community members are actively participating within 48 hours of joining. One reason for such high participation is that the firm creates communitybuilding activities to help people quickly understand what the community is about, make them feel comfortable participating, and help them get to know one another over time. Some of these community building best practices are creating “rituals” like Tuesday night chats or “random thoughts” weekly polls asking people to post personal profiles, share personal stories relevant to the community’s focus, or upload photos, like pictures of their favorite pet or the inside of their medicine cabinet.
  5. Be genuine, encourage candor. The community’s facilitator should set a genuine, open, and candid style and tone for the community. When a new member starts a conversation, make a big deal about how much you value the comment because this will reinforce the behavior. For example, “Hey, great idea. We want to hear everything so please say what you want.” Or the reinforcement can be a spontaneous award. Make a conscious effort to give people permission to be honest and say what they really think.
  6. Just plain ask. Companies often over-think how to phrase a question or issue to community members. The best way is to ust ask in a simple, straightforward manner. One client came up with a dozen ways to try to understand why African Americans didn’t use their products. Communispace suggested just asking African Americans flat out: “Why?” A retail client was worried about customers’ reactions to a number of store closings. The best advice: Post the press release and ask members what they have to say about the closings. Another technique that is quite successful is to ask members: “What are we missing? Is there something we didn’t ask about that you wanted to share?” Members almost always say something useful.
  7. Pay even more attention to what members initiate. While companies regularly poll members and ask them to take brief surveys and answer questions, the best insights often come from discussions started by members. How members talk to each other about how an issue or product “fits” into their lives can be incredibly revealing, as is how members influence one another. Within 24 hours of launching an investment community, for instance, 11 different dialogue topics were underway and only 4 of those had been seeded by the community facilitators. Members created the rest around issues they cared about. The lesson: Listen more than ask.
  8. Don’t squelch the negative. One of the most common mistakes marketers make is to try to squelch conversations about negative feedback. “We can’t let them talk about that!” is a common reaction. However, some of the best lessons come from hearing about those things that annoy, disappoint, or outrage customers. Encourage members to give the good, the bad, and the ugly.
  9. Don’t ask too much, too often. As marketers get to know their community, many become overly enthusiastic about the ability to ask customers all the time, any time, about everything— new product ideas, advertising concepts, competitor moves. Don’t ask members for too much too often or they will become fatigued.
  10. Use the right mix of technologies and methodologies, and keep experimenting. Make sure the community is built on multiple underlying technologies and methodologies so that people aren’t stuck just answering surveys or posting to message boards, and so you can mine the insights with the right analytics. Engage members through a variety of functions: conduct live chats, create visual member profiles, use icons to classify discussion replies, upload advertisements; ask members to review products, keep diaries. Communispace recommends blending a range of methodologies and modes of expression including ethnographic, storytelling, mystery shopping, role-playing, video diaries, and polling. Similarly, keep experimenting with ways to more deeply involve people, create a richer community experience, and analyze what the community’s conversations mean to marketing strategies.

“The primary reason that people don’t belong to a community is because they don’t think it will be worthwhile,” says Diane. People don’t usually leave a community they’ve joined, but their participation may drop.

Software can track member participation, and when there’s a dropoff, Communispace will send a note: “Hi, how are you doing? What is going on? We see that your participation has dropped.” Many of the reasons why participation drops have nothing to do with the value of the website.

Sometimes members get really busy, or a message may have been screened out by their spam filter, or they experienced technical problems getting into the site. “Given that our communities are pretty intimate,” says Diane, “we have phoned participants to talk about this.

If we think we have the right person and we are doing the right things, we want to know whether there is something we can learn for other communities.

Can we do something differently to capture their imagination?” What if someone doesn’t respond and doesn’t participate? “Because we have private communities,” says Diane, “we control whether people are allowed in. If they are not participating, we replace them, because we have limited space. We don’t take it personally. We just say this is somebody who is not interested and we are going to give somebody else that seat.”

How Do You Pay for It All?

At some point, company management has to think about the expense of creating and maintaining a community. Where is the money going to come from to pay for this? I argue that a lot of this can be done inexpensively with existing website templates, a digital camera, and a little imagination.

A small or local business—a restaurant, craft workshop, specialty toy store—can build a c2cmmunity around its content and include customer reviews and discussions. This lets visitors click into the conversation. Larger companies may have to shift money from other budgets like television advertising—a movement that is already underway.

Among the Fortune 500, the real money has to come from the more than $90 billion these companies spend on television. Let’s assume that consumers are avoiding roughly 20 percent or more of all commercials. (We’ll know better when Nielsen is able to report its measurement figures.) Do the math: 20 percent of $90 billion is $18 billion.

Taking a fraction of the national television advertising budget and devoting it to community building could have a far greater effect on the brand. Moreover, it could actually determine the effect because the social web is inherently measurable.

Marketing on the social web will cost a large company far less and return far more than almost any other marketing activity. Paradoxically, you have to think like a really good television station of the past to be a really good purveyor on the social web.

You have to be constantly thinking about content that will get people talking to one another and returning to your destination over and over. This is your opportunity to polish a reputation as a branded destination where visitors can have dialogues with other interested people. Go out to other people’s parties, and also invite people back to your party.

This is going to be an increasingly important shift in thinking as the social web expands. Marketing budgets can be reduced and marketing departments can spend less time and effort in marketing to the social web. There’s a bigger picture, too, if you look beyond the money angle.

Earlier in this chapter, I mentioned that Stonyfield Farm embraced the environmental protection cause. How do you think its customers feel when they see the company investing to build a community and champion causes that could ultimately affect millions of people?

Even if Stonyfield’s causes aren’t your causes, my point is that money can’t buy that kind of brand reputation. So my last bit of advice about engaging communities in conversation is: Put your heart into it and think about the long term.


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