Welcome to this, the first in a series of articles about communities, and their implications and opportunities for brand owners. It forms the backdrop to the design of a new MediaVest planning application, and derives from a review of thirty academic, marketing and business journal articles, and discussions with industry and academic thought leaders.
In this article, I look at three different ways of looking at communities - neighbourhoods, shared interest communities, and personal communities – and why the last of these is most useful for understanding communities.
Many commentators have argued that communities and people’s sense of community are in rapid decline. Robert Putnam – one of the foremost thinkers on communities - claims that many people are now ‘bowling alone’, and that many civic activities are on the wane1. For example, the number of people with whom Americans discuss ‘important matters’ has decreased from 2.8 to 2.1 in the span of just two decades2. For some, technology is cited as deeply implicated in this decline. Firstly, the car, which took people away from personal interactions on streets, and more recently the mobile phone and internet3.
In contrast to these pessimistic scenarios, the overwhelming evidence is that communities just look different from how they did during the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Communities continue to be vital components of everyday life. Demonstrating the places given to technologies for maintaining social relationships, people continue to be social when they chat online with friends, keep up with them via their Facebook pages, tweet them, use technologies to organise offline meetings, and then talk again online.
Thus, research even shows that the average number of friends with whom people communicate is increasing. One longitudinal study shows that weekly in-person contact in the US increased by 20% between 2002 and 2007, from 9.4 to 11.3 friends4. In the same study, heavy internet users had a 38% increase in the number of friends during this period (from 9.0 to 12.4) while non-users had a more moderate 7% increase (from 9.5 to 10.2).
Two ways of looking at communities
Communities were once mainly based around neighbourhoods - the first type of community. People were born into them, grew up them, got a job in them, got married in them, and died in them. Whilst it is true these types of communities are in decline, they are being replaced by communities that are characterised by choice about who people connect with.
One way of looking at these communities is to understand them as ‘shared interest’ communities. Another way is as ‘personal communities’.
1. Shared interest communities
Shared interest communities are formed when people come together out of a particular interest or concern, such as around hobbies and pastimes, work, schools, neighbourhood issues, professions, or because of life gaps or events, such as moving to university, getting a job, having children, and retirement.
Implications of shared interest communities
- In many shared interest communities, the interest itself is the ‘social glue’ that binds members together. Brand owners can facilitate the interest by aiding knowledge dissemination and acting as knowledge resources to them. B&Q provides an online database for people to get advice about DIY, the Illinois Institute of Technology offers iPads to all its first-year students, eGether is a social network for pitches, and GSK provides a knowledge resource for Chemists at the University of Birmingham
- Alternatively, brands can be vehicles for people to come together. Waterstones in Watford has a book club that meets at its store each month, SMA and Pampers have online communities for mothers, and Scitable offers a social network for the science world
2. Personal communities
The preferred way of understanding communities is to look at them in terms of people's sets - or networks - of ties5. In this example of ‘networked individualism’, a person has different networks. Each network forms an array of people who focus upon and communicate with each other about a particular interest. Personal community networks may include neighbours, family, co-workers, interest groups, hobbyists and fellow members of organizations. Cutting across many of these are people with whom we form friendships.
Different networks within people’s personal communities mean that people often have to negotiate multiple demands and identities. For example, what a student tells his university friends about what he got up to during his night out may be very different to what he tells his family!
Implications of personal communities
- Focusing on personal communities ties down exactly what we mean when we talk about communities. It is about a person’s networks of people, with each ‘node’ being someone with whom that person communicates and forms a tie
- Focusing on personal communities means that the types of people a brand needs to target become more identifiable
- To intervene in personal communities, brand owners need to know (i) in which networks to intervene, (ii) sizes of networks, (iii) frequency of communication, (iv) how many networks to reach across, (v) how they communicate, and (vi) what are their sources of information
- Depending on what brand owners want to achieve, targeting Conversation CatalystsTM will be essential because of their influence
- Brand owners should leverage experiences with brands (such as through experiential) to drive conversations with personal community members and beyond. For example, Gillette provided an a shaving and massage tent at the 2010 V-Festival, and M.A.C provided free makeovers and make up advice at the same event. From our research, many participants reported they would communicate some of their experience online and face to face with friends
- Multiple identities of people mean brand owners need to know how and when they are relevant and how and when they can intervene in people’s personal communities
In the next article, I look at brand communities.
Steve Smith is Head of Thought Leadership, London. If you would like to discuss anything in this paper or anything else, please get in contact. firstname.lastname@example.org