“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” ~ Abraham Maslow
That golden hammer mentality can be seen in the use of community platforms by many brands. Broadly, there are three common business goals and uses for community platforms. (Again, broadly – there are many more specific uses.)
- Support – enabling users to help and support each other.
- Research – gaining consumer insights and feedback.
- Marketing – generating awareness, buzz and word-of-mouth.
Each of these goals have unique requirements. Yet most companies use the same community hammer for all three purposes. Many of the community platforms can indeed be used effectively for each purpose. There are several impressive platforms with both broad and deep feature-sets. But there is a fundamental problem with existing community platforms when the primary goal is marketing – word of mouth marketing, in particular.
The problem is these platforms create what I call destination communities. Users have to navigate to a specific site/destination and interact with other users within the confines of that site. In the physical world, this is analogous to gathering customers at a corporate campus or conference center. That is commonly done and is appropriate for support (training), research (focus groups), and the awareness component of marketing. But, to be effective, word of mouth has to be encouraged and enabled everywhere – especially off-campus. Otherwise, your members are just preaching to the choir.
The real value of word-of-mouth comes from influencing others outside the loyal customer base. You want passionate customers and brand advocates to influence friends, family, peers and colleagues wherever they are having conversations. Most of those (online) conversations are not occurring within the confines of a brand’s destination community. They are scattered across multiple blogs, forums, social networks and other social mediums.
Word of mouth is the most effective and, appropriately, the fastest growing marketing segment. Unfortunately, it is not well served by existing tools. Assembling, engaging, and activating a community of brand advocates is an important component of a word of mouth marketing strategy. In that context, implementing a “traditional” community platform may seem logical.
In fact, most community platforms do provide relevant features to help community managers inspire members and motivate participation. Usually this is in the form of a reputation system. Reputation systems are prevalent on many forms of social media because they are highly effective at encouraging desired behaviors. A great exploration of the reasoning behind this can be found in a research study by Sarah P.W. Sheik and Choon-Ling Sia, of The University of Hong Kong, entitled: Using Reputation System to Motivate Knowledge Contribution Behavior in Online Community. Ultimately, they suggest that reputation systems play on the belongingness and esteem motivations described by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Reputation systems are powerful tools provided by most community platforms, but their scope is still restricted to a single destination community. Therefore, they are of limited value to word-of-mouth marketing initiatives. Community platforms have attractive features and seem almost right for the marketing job. But their confined scope is a significant marketing barrier.
Marketers need a new set of tools for building marketing and brand advocacy communities. They need to be able to assemble, engage, and activate advocates across all the advocate’s communities and social networks and through all social mediums that the advocates use. They do need features similar to existing community platforms (reputation systems, for example), but that can be applied to a broadly distributed community of advocates. They need an alternative to the community golden hammer.