Should your brand spawn an online community?

Some brands are clearly benefiting from their own online communities. Nike’s community is quite active, with over 57,000 members. The largest Blackberry community has nearly twice that number. Marc Andreessen is betting that more niche brands — as well as sports teams, community groups and hobbyists — will want to reap the same benefits.

I’m thinking he’s onto something, due to the new ways that consumers are interacting with brands, as well as the power of search engines to fuel these connections. It wouldn’t be the first time Andreessen has a winning hunch.

You may recall that in mid-’90, the sweetheart of the internet was Netscape. Marc Andreessen was co-developer of this free web browser. During Netscape’s zenith, he was on the cover of every magazine from Business 2.0 to Time. That’s before Microsoft moved into the browser business, and its Internet Explorer did to Netscape what its Word did to WordPerfect and Excel to SuperCalc. Microsoft has rained on a lot of parades. Andreessen got drenched. But also quite rich.

As reports these past few weeks have declared, he has invested his money in Ning, a way to “launch a social network with a few mouse clicks.”

Ning would take much of the pain out of testing an online community surrounding your brand. But is it a wise decision? Let’s put aside for a moment the legal considerations (liability for bad advice shared on your forum, for instance), as well as the logistics of moderating the thing.

Does this marketing tactic support your brand? I say yes, for the following three reasons:

  1. Your customers experience your brand but could not care less for your company. As David Raab eloquently put it, “Brands are movie stars. Companies own the theater.” An online community becomes a place in that theater to congregate.
  2. People will trash talk your brand regardless of whether you host a community sounding board. Sam Decker of Bazaar Voice contends, and I agree, that it’s better to have them do it on your forum than someone else’s. I’ve quoted him speaking about negative user-generated content (UGC) in an earlier post.
  3. Search engines can’t get enough of the UGC that these forum sites generate. They just love ’em. Isn’t it better for people searching on generic brand features to find content about your brand as opposed to a competitor’s?

Does the prospect of an online forum about your brand scare you? It should. But you need to know more about online communities, and what better way than to launch a simple test? If not for your brand, how about for your church group? Marc Andreessen is preparing a well-stocked marketing laboratory just for you.

Want to check out a sample Ning-driven community? Here’s one on the evolution of broadcast and personal media.

4 thoughts on “Should your brand spawn an online community?”

  1. I don’t see how you can come to such a strong conclusion that an online community is a good idea. An online community works for Nike because people have a strong emotional involvement in the things they use Nike products for.

    On the other hand, Kleenex is a strong brand, but do people need a social network to discuss how they blow their nose (a lot of other personal care products came to mind before I settled on this one).

    Lastly, what makes Sam Decker think that if there are a lot of people out there who are going to trash-talk a brand, that they would do it on the brand’s site? That’s ridiculous. People who hate Wal-Mart are NOT going to visit Wal-Mart’s OL community, they’ll post on

  2. Yes, you do need a brand that inspires “community.” But many brands do and their stewards are still reluctant to try this tactic.

    As for trash-talking on your site versus a negative one, of course many will choose the site, to use your example. Those are people who you’ll never attract to your community. Decker was referring to the mix of positive versus negative comments on your UGC site. His point was (if I understand his comments correctly) that you should open your community to all points of view as long as they aren’t destructive. Give those who are not irredeemable haters of your brand a chance to vent. You may earn a convert.

    Alternatively, if they vent on a site of haters of your brand, there goes a potential convert, and now the negative noise is even louder.

  3. Any company that should set up and OL community — but doesn’t because it’s afraid of negative comments — is being stupid.

    One of the unintended benefits of an OL community is that the people who participate are sending a signal — a signal that they are more engaged with the [product/brand/company] than other customers.

    And if they have something to complain about, then a company is just plain stupid to suppress that, for [at least] 2 reasons: 1) these people’s opinions matter more than other customers, and 2) since they ARE more engaged (and therefore, likely to be more loyal customers), then one (or two) negative comments is NOT likely to result in their switching their brand loyalty.

    It’s funny — I had that exact experience lately. I can’t remember what site it was, but somebody was venting about a bad experience they had, and bitching about the company. My impression — which was seconded by somebody who emailed me to discuss the post in question — was that the guy who posted was a jerk, and that his experience was not representative.

    Of course, if your product sucks, your service sucks, and your overall customer experience sucks, then maybe you have a few higher priorities than establishing a social network.

  4. As someone who markets an online community platform to a wide variety of brands, I couldn’t agree more with your points. The number one objection I have faced so far in the business development process is fear of “trash talking” as you put it and how it will be moderated. I think I may respond with “it’s better to have them do it on your forum than someone else’s” next time it comes up!

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