And I don’t mean a god-awful “subsite” for some time-sensitive campaign
I’ve been working with some very different companies and organisations of late and some have identified online communities that they should approach and try and work with. Just buying banner ads is pretty much out as it’s very lossy. What we’ve been trying to do is get these communities to take a look at the products and give genuine feedback on how they should be marketed and even what needs to change in the products. Sometimes though these communities don’t seem to exist or are scattered amongs dozens or hundreds of sites. So I’m trying to get the organisations I’m working with to build a space online for these communities and build them the tools and services to allow them to exchange information and just let them at it. No chugger-marketing (get in your way and face), no spamming you with email updates you can’t opt out of, nothing like that.
An analogy would be a skater shop building a skate park for their community, if that community doesn’t have one already. The old-skool business types would of course plaster such a place with ads, loudhailers talking about the latest offers and demand the kids only wear and use the products they stock. Restricting the freedom of your customers isn’t going to work these days. I remember I saw a show before about some athlete and some kid asked him for an autograph and he told the kid he was contractually obliged to not sign anything with a logo of his sponsor’s competitor. All the kid had was a flyer he got at the event. I’m sure his sponsor was delighted seeing that because they probably thought the kid will know better next time and buy some logofied item to get a signature. Or maybe the kid will find another hero. They’re spare these days since the net can connect us with them all.
If the skater park does exist however, just go along and participate as someone who has something to say. Give advice freely, make recommendations but disclose your bias. Go there to help people out and maybe ask for some help back. Be a skater, be a coach.
In the Forrester book Groundswell they gave the example of a group that built a private social network for cancer patients to recount their experiences and exchange information with each other. From talking to these people they saw exactly how patients chose their specialists and what criteria they used. People didn’t actually spend too much timing choosing who they should go to, they left that to their doctors so the cancer specialist centres then started working with Doctors to let them know of their services.
Of course something like a social network is expensive and Ning isn’t that great so you could just build a blog and use it like a community noticeboard, a central source for everything in your business segment. Mention everything that’s going on. Mention your competitors and talk them up. If you build a space online where the people who you want to market to are coming to every single day, have it in their bookmarks and their news feeds then you don’t really need to do the traditional form of in your face advertising or marketing. Brand recognition and trust is there.
Last weekend I spoke to some county and city councillors about whether they should do the whole online thing and do a blog and join social networks. I think for the vast majority they should have a blog and should use it to talk about local issues and explain their reasonings and take on things. However with the local elections pretty much just around the corner, perhaps setting up one now might be seen as a cynical exercise. Two years ago might have been a better time as it will take a while to get momentum going with these things. A blog isn’t a campaigning tool as such and making it one will probably end in failure, it’s a longterm communications tool for the day to day and week to week issues the public and a politician might encounter.
So going back to the skating analogy, build your store next to the skate park and be there dispensing genuine advice at the skate park. Yes, it’s going to be a bigger effort and a lot more work but it’s a longterm commitment that in a way ensures a longterm survival.