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 (http://community.cnn.com), Disney (http://family.go.com/boards), the Shell International Petroleum forums (www.shell.com), Pentax (www.pentax.com; see the discussion group in the U.S. section), and the Bosch tools forum on www.boschtools.com. Heineken (www.heineken.com) 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 (http://connect.nescafe.com).
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.