Something's bugging me: Increasingly, I hear marketers using the words "community" and "network" interchangeably.
But a community is just one type of network. My working definition of network is: a group of people who have something in common and who have a motivation for connecting. For example, a bunch of people who all buy the same brand of toilet paper, but have no desire to meet, are not a network. Another type of network is a mob (commonality: enraged about something, motivation for connecting: aggregate power to use against something). Yet another type of network is a clique. It's not all warm and fuzzy.
It's easy to recognize different types of connected groups offline. But as marketers wade into the less familiar universe of social computing, a lot of people assume that any type of online network associated with their brand is an online community.
What other types of online networks are there? Using the working definition above, I'm going to take a rough crack at teasing out some distinctions:
- Emotive networks (e.g., CarePages, PreludeDriver.com) — Commonality: a powerful emotional experience, like being diagnosed with an illness or loving a particular type of car. Motivation to connect: find people to share your experience with.
- Advice networks (e.g., Berkeley Parents Network, del.icio.us) — Commonality: you're trying to do an activity like parenting in the Bay Area, learning about emerging technologies. Motivation to connect: get suggestions from someone whose perspective you value.
- Dating networks (e.g., Match.com, Yahoo! Personals) — Commonality: you're single, maybe you share similar social values. Motivation to connect: meet a sweetheart (not a community).
- Blog networks (e.g., Micropersuasion, Greg Mankiw's Blog) — Commonality: the ideas that you're interested in. Motivation to connect: affect the public dialogue about the ideas.
- Wiki networks (e.g., Wikipedia, CarGurus) — Commonality: you want the unvarnished, comprehensive truth to be free and available. Motivation to connect: get the whole picture.
- Linkedin — Commonality: you want to leverage business relationships. Motivation to connect: get a sales/deal contact, recruit someone, find a job.
- Facebook — Facebook is a tool, not a network, although that may be changing. Existing offline networks use Facebook to socialize. Commonality: having gone to the same college. Motivation to connect: Socialize or build relationships with people of social standing. (I'm going to dodge the class bullet on this one — Dana Boyd has kicked off the discussion here:http://www.danah.org/papers/essays/ClassDivisions.html)
- Myspace — There is a strong commercial dimension to the networks forming on Myspace. Commonality: anything. Motivation to connect: be found by anyone, share. This open-door, hello-world atmosphere is especially conducive to small biz commercial activity (e.g., if I'm an unsigned band, I want anyone anywhere in the world to find me, buy my music, and come to a show).
Some preliminary thoughts on what it means for marketers to recognize these distinctions:
Marketers invariably want to build branded social networking sites, expecting that a bunch of users will materialize and start emoting about their products. The thing is: not all of the networks you're associated with online are brand-advocate communities. For example, big companies like Eli Lilly and Wal-Mart have to contend with activist networks using wikis to "tell the whole truth" about their products or using blogs to shape the dialogue about the way they do business. Other companies may find they're connected with networks of people who use their products in odd ways they wouldn't want the rest of the world to know about (no examples here).
To create an effective social computing strategy, I think you need to do an analysis of the networks, not the individuals, that you're associated with:
1. List the offline networks your brands/products are associated with. Describe their points of commonality and participants' motivations for connecting. Then identify the role your brand plays in those networks — are you the point of commonality? Do participants connect to share their love of your products or to make plans to tear down your call center?
2. List your online networks, their commonalities, motivations, and the role of your brand. Describe how they're using SC to accomplish their goals.
3. Strategize — Is there offline networking that supports your brand that you could cultivate with online tools? Is there online networking you want to counter? Choose technologies or Web properties that facilitate the types of interactions or actions you want to take place.
That's it for now. Suggestions welcome!