Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Marketing to Online Communities

A common misconception in the PR industry is that marketing to online communities can be effectively summarised by: going into a group remotely related to your target audience, pretending to be a satisfied customer who cannot resist sharing his love for brand X with the world, posting a “too good to be missed” offer and disappearing, never to be seen again.

This “hit and run” tactic does achieve something: your brand wasn’t mentioned in a newsgroup, now it is. We should therefore assume a level of positive and targeted exposure and if we are lucky, some click-through.

Unfortunately, these “satisfied customers” often get found out as “genuine fakes” and because it is a deceptive technique, it often backfires. Remember that posting a promotional offer in a newsgroup outside the context of a discussion in which you are involved in is considered spam. Community users hate that since it parasite their conversation. They will scrutinise your promotion and tear it apart, then discourage others to join. Community managers hate that too as it deteriorates the quality of their discussion environment and may ban you from the group. Your brand will certainly be mentioned, along a host of criticisms, sneers and negative comments. You may achieve a small spike in traffic but you will suffer a bid drop in reputation.

It is often preferable to work with the community administrator or webmaster as your first point of contact for advice on how to make the best of your interaction with the group. If no webmaster or administrator is available, you should identify opinion leaders within the group. Opinion leaders are the most prolific and referred to community members. Engaging them is usually done by creating an “ambassador” program and incentivising them with exclusive previews, goodies or VIP passes in return for their opinions and help in promoting to the group. If they buy into your program, they will endorse and relay messages for you.

As you would expect, many will take the opportunity of your presence to vent their anger against your company and products. You must be prepared for negative feedback. Whatever you do, always ensure that all your actions embody the brand you represent.

As a rule of thumb, try to get productively involved with the group before, during and after you start your campaign. You will gather valuable insights as to what people say about your brand, uncover the discussion dynamics, identify the influencers and the followers and find a good way to contribute to the group while following your own agenda. Building a lasting network of supporters is more likely to bear fruits over the long term than pushing your brand name to an unwilling and unreceptive audience. The latter is akin to setting a haystack in fire. It creates a spectacular ball of fire and lots of smokes but doesn’t last very long… and if the wind suddenly blows in your direction, you’ll end up badly burnt.

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