It’s time for round two of the co-blogging series that I’m doing with my friend and word-of-mouth marketer Eric Dodds. In our first entry we tackled how marketing communications impacts connections with customers. This time around we’re talking community. Let’s get going.
Co-bloggin’ goodness, round two: One is a seasoned corporate marketer working for Best Buy. The other is a small-agency young-gun in a constant quest for his spurs. Both are passionate about making positive change in the industry, and they want to share their thoughts with you. Jamie Plesser and Eric Dodds bring you the second post in a monthly co-blogging series that tackles tasty marketing topics from both sides of the line. Meet the crew.
This month’s menu: “Scaling community online and offline: is online easier to scale than offline? If so, how? What are the main barriers to scaling offline?”
Ah, the online versus offline community discussion. I’m passionate about figuring out what role each plays for companies, so thinking through this month’s topic with Jamie has been really great.
In the past two years I’ve actually had the privilege of being involved in both types of projects – one with a gigantic offline component, and one whose goal was online growth. For the offline project, my job was to beat the bricks to grow a grassroots community of both employees and customers. (Good times working with Jamie.) The other project focused on helping a company grow their online fan base, primarily through Facebook.
When I think about both of those experiences, the simple answer to the question, “is scaling community online easier than offline,” is, absolutely. Why? For starters, it’s easier for both the companies and the customers – especially the customers. Click, click, done. Almost nonexistent barriers of entry.
Looking past simple answers, though, that this question about scaling begs an even bigger question: what is the purpose of scaling?
Answering the purpose question is critical because online and offline are a [hack saw and a razor blade – come up with a different example?]: they both cut things, but they work best in very different situations, and produce very different outcomes.
Here’s are some of the differences I learned working on those projects:
Without question, the work I did offline, which was for a relatively short time period compared to the year I put into Facebook for the other client, the connections that people made through the program were extremely strong. Far stronger than anything that developed online in the same project. I remember single offline events where meeting and working with people produced hours and hours of unsolicited investment in the community by members, hard-working promotion of the program by members, and actual friendships that lasted long after the program ended.
I remember getting emails about the program from members 6 months after I’d met them, asking how I was doing me and updating me on their life / their involvement with the brand. That kind of strong-tie connection, though, doesn’t come without blood sweat and tears:
Barriers to scaling offline:
- Time: Building things offline is much, much slower. It’s a long-term investment that needs time to build and grow. From my experience, face-to-face relationships mature much more slowly than online relationships, and forging those bonds takes time. (How many ‘friends’ can you make online in a day?)
- Money: Building community offline is much, much more expensive. Offline events and programs can drain budgets with surprising speed. Traveling is expensive. Offline collateral is expensive. Coordination is expensive. Personnel are expensive.
- Manpower: Executing awesome offline programs takes a lot of manpower, and a lot of man hours, and in my case, sleeping on the floor of a band’s touring van for a few weeks. Depending on the type of event, you’re looking at setup, tear-down, staffing, support, and more. It’s a handful, and it can take a lot of hands to do it well.
Online (social media)
The social media team that did the work of building an online fan base was only two people: me and someone from the brand. We had tons of amazing support from our managers and internal teams, but as I look back, the amount of growth that the two of us achieved by being the brand’s voice on Facebook is pretty amazing. Using content alone, we were able to almost triple the number of fans in less than a year.
We fostered as deep of relationships as we could through that content and online conversation, but here’s what really struck me: the deepest relationships and strongest word of mouth that developed were a small number of instances where an initial online conversation led to an offline surprise and delight for the fan.
Through some rather sticky situations, we also figured out that for this brand, social media was a really good way to disseminate important information about events at lightening speed, or keep people up to date on play-by-play happenings they might be interested in. It’s amazing how quickly information can move on the Internet.
Lastly, we determined that for certain types of customer service, Facebook was simply more convenient and effective for both us and the customer.
Like offline, though, all of the progress we made didn’t come without lots of hard work, but there were also some barriers that are unique to the medium:
Problems with online scaling:
- Measurement: Proving return on investment for social media is just plain hard. Not that it’s easy for other mediums, but since online is a different tool, it requires different reporting, which can be hard to sell.
- Ease of coming and going: Since social media relationships are heavily weak-tie, your fans can leave at a moment’s notice, and they do. Or they just ignore you. In my experience, few brands ever ‘earn the right’ to be a regular part of a customer’s social media landscape, mostly because the real goal is selling something to them.
- Monetization: It varies by industry and company, but in my experience, sustainably monetizing social media beyond coupons, giveaways, and short-term promotions is very difficult.
- Customer service investment: Online customer service is still takes an incredible amount of investment – it was the most laborious aspect of anything we did on Facebook – and in some ways, it wasn’t ever as good as human-to-human offline service.
Successful scaling of either online or offline grows out of solid, measurable goals, and my guess is that many companies will use a smart combination of both.
The idea of brands building communities always brings a wry smile to my face. Why? First off, I believe that the majority of people within companies don’t have a good understanding of how brands should think about consumer communities and how they can help solve marketing challenges. I’ve been in more meetings that I can count where the idea of building a community was suggested as a solution to a business or marketing challenge. When in these meetings, I ask questions and seek to understand why there is a need to do something community oriented. I usually get an answer that has to do with “connecting with the influencer” or “getting to the mommy bloggers.” I’ve found that if I hear these rote explanations it’s pretty much a red flag that the people aren’t really sure of what they are talking about.
Now I’ll admit that I’m being a bit facetious here. I know that brands do spend legitimate money on developing digital experiences, spend media dollars on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and invest resources on teams of community managers. But my point is that it costs roughly the same amount of investment to build a digital community presence for one person as it does for 100,000 people.
While digital tools represent the ability to get to scale cheaper and easier, my perspective is that automatically going with this approach may overlook what I think is a very important component to communities: the power of personal connectedness. If you look at data from Keller Fay, you know that far and away the majority of word-of-mouth conversations happen offline. If you look at data from Nielsen, you know that active social media users are even more social offline.
To me, this signals that there are benefits for brands to build offline connections with consumers that may not translate automatically to communities in the digital space. This doesn’t mean that it cannot happen within an online environment; rather, it may not have the same depth as it does offline.
For brands to be well served in community efforts, I believe they require groups of kindred spirits to come together and connect. Certain brands have this happen innately in their consumer base and those folks aggregate together naturally – both offline and online. For these brands, it’s easier to go with a strict digital approach and let the offline connections foster on their own.
For other brands where this connection with consumers is not quite as organic, then honest discussions need to take place about what the brand is looking to achieve through the creation of a community, what the expectations are, and whether those expectations are achievable through a strictly digital approach to the program.