Building Stronger Brands through Online Communities

Reading Time: 31 min 
Permissions and PDF

The popularity of communities on the Internet has captured the attention of marketing professionals. Indeed, the word “community” seems poised to overtake “relationship” as the new marketing buzzword. So-called “community brands” like the Geocities Web site (“home” of more than three million community members “living” in 41 “neighborhoods”) provide communication media for hundreds of thousands of individuals who share common interests. As consumer-goods companies create online communities on the World Wide Web for their brands, they are building new relationships with their customers and enabling consumers to communicate with each other. Many famous brands host online communities through bulletin boards, forums, and chat rooms, such as CNN (, Disney (, the Shell International Petroleum forums (, Pentax (; see the discussion group in the U.S. section), and the Bosch tools forum on Heineken ( allows individuals to establish their own virtual bars, where, as bartender, they can chat with other visitors or meet their friends; similarly, Nescafé has a café (

In fact, the number of companies hosting consumer-to-consumer communication is escalating. Forum One, a West Coast U.S. consulting firm that specializes in monitoring consumer community sites, currently catalogues more than 300,000 online topic-based discussion boards (up from 96,000 in September 1997). Some 85% of these are operated by commercial organizations (i.e., they do not have .edu, .gov, or .org as the final suffix in their Web addresses), although many are small businesses and online retailers.1

The desire to create online communities based on brands raises many questions concerning commercial corporate objectives and their implementation, as well as issues about consumers’ willingness to participate. “Is there some power to be had in claiming a word like ‘community’?”2 If there is, and if companies can harness it, will their creation of online communities necessarily reinforce their brands? The problem is that no one can guarantee the outcome, but the potential for success is there.

To extend the brand relationships established with their loyal customers into communities of brand consumers, strategists need to examine the long-established user communities, in order to learn what makes them thrive. Strategists must also address the many issues surrounding brand-based online communities and incorporate the leadership and communication skill sets necessary to manage such communities.


1. See:

2. N. Watson, “Why We Argue About Virtual Community: A Case Study of the Phish.Net Fan Community,” in Virtual Culture S. Jones, ed. (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1997), pp. 102–132.

3. For examples of consumer cynicism about relationship attempts on behalf of consumer services companies, see:

S. Fournier, S. Dobscha, and D.G. Mick, “Preventing the Premature Death of Relationship Marketing,” Harvard Business Review, volume 76, January–February 1998, pp. 43–51.

4. See research based on the Market Research Corporation of America quoted in: G. Hallberg, All Consumers Are Not Created Equal New York: John Wiley, 1995). For similar European studies, see:

M. Uncles, K. Hammond, A.S.C. Ehrenberg, and R.E. Davies, “A Replication Study of Two Brand Loyalty Measures,” European Journal of Operational Research, volume 76, 1994, pp. 375–384.

5. A.S.C. Ehrenberg and M. Uncles, “Understanding Dirichlet-Type Markets” (London, South Bank University and Sydney, University of New South Wales, working paper, 1999).

6. S. Munger, “Leveraging New Technology To Build Brand Loyalty,” Direct Marketing, volume 59, December 1996, pp. 58–60.

7. T. Duncan and S. Moriarty, Driving Brand Value: Using Integrated Marketing to Manage Profitable Stakeholder Relationships (New York: McGraw Hill, 1997).

8. R. Hurst, Net Profit, May 1998, p. 11.

9. For an extensive discussion of online codes of behavior, see:

M. McLaughlin, K. Osborne, and C. Smith, “Standards of Conduct on Usenet,” in Cybersociety, S. Jones, ed. (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1995), pp. 90–111.

10. “Internet Communities,” Business Week, 5 May 1997, pp. 64.

11. C.L. Harrington and D.D. Bielby, “Where Did You Hear That? Technology and the Social Organization of Gossip,” Sociological Quarterly, volume 36, number 3, 1995, pp. 607–628.

12. E. Dyson, Release 2.1: A Design for Living in the Digital Age (Broadway Books, 1998).

13. A. Muniz, Jr. and T.C. O’Guinn, “Brand Community,” unpublished manuscript, August 1999 (contact

14. Quote from the Team MacSuck Yahoo listing, February 1999.

15. J. Hagel and A.G. Armstrong, Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997).

16. M. Leibovich, “eBay, Cyburbia’s New Subdivision, Stokes a Boom with an Emphasis on Community,” Washington Post, 31 January 1999, section A, p. 1.

17. A. Harmon, “Worries about Big Brother at America Online” New York Times, 31 January 1999, p. 1.

18. “A Site for Sore Heads,” Business Week, 12 April 1999, p. 86.

19. For a discussion on people adopting multiple personae in Web communities, see:

R.C. MacKinnon, “Searching for the Leviathan in Usenet,” in Cybersociety, S. Jones, ed. (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1995), pp. 112–137.

20. L. Armstrong, “Daewoo: Big Car on Campus?” Business Week, 31 August 1998, p. 32.

21. See, for example, the advice given by: Dyson (1998); and

K. Shelton and T. McNeeley, Virtual Communities Companion (Scottsdale, Arizona: Coriolos Group, 1997).

22. J. Hagel and A.G. Armstrong, Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997).

23. Harmon (1999).

24. “Former Volunteers Sue AOL, Seeking Back Pay for Work,” New York Times, 26 May 1999, p. 10.

25. For an example, see:

the bots on

26. B. Reeves and C. Nass, The Media Equation (Stanford, California: CSLI Publications, Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1996).

27. Ibid.

Reprint #:


More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.