Never before have the thoughts and opinions of so many people been so readily accessible. Never before has it been so simple to find and communicate with very specific types of consumers: dog owners, adventure travelers, Hispanic moms, Civil War buffs--you name it, there's an online community for it.
Never before has it been so expedient to open a continuous, ongoing dialogue with consumers, as opposed to herding them into a room for a one-off "study" or focus group. And best of all, these dynamic, ad-hoc online communities are global, free and unrestricted, and open to everyone with a network connection.
But here's the thing. Today's connected consumers are firmly in control of who participates in their online communities and who doesn't--and they're fine with leaving marketers out of the loop.
In fact, many online communities are highly adept not only at shutting out marketers, but also creating an instant backlash against those who attempt to usurp the community for commercial gain. Woe to the marketer who attempts to hype a new "eco-friendly" product on a green-themed Web site or tries to transform a kayaking community into a focus group!
Does this mean that there's no way for marketers to leverage these communities for creative marketing? Quite the contrary. There are plenty of opportunities for creative marketers to participate and draw fresh insights while actually adding value to these communities.
Online communities offer a chance to collaborate with target consumers and create breakthrough products; to respond to new trends as they emerge; to use integrated research to quantify the potential of new ideas and product concepts; and to gain insights that might otherwise have been missed.
Here are a few suggestions, ideas, and real-world examples for interacting with connected consumers and online communities.
Be non-intrusive and authentic. Customer communities give you exposure to the universe of authentic voices that comprise a target group--but only if you're authentic and genuine with them. If you initiate communication with the community, ask your questions honestly and expose your motives openly, using your real voice, not marketing-speak.
It helps to be "one of them," but if you're not, at least do your homework and know where their interests lie. You'll build trust only through authentic interaction--and once you have trust, you can pose questions, call for ideas, introduce concepts and reward participation. Without trust you're nowhere.
Invite them into an environment of your own creation. You don't have to stay on the community's turf and under its control. Build and host a privately managed community and bring together consumers who share a passionate interest: pet owners, organic food consumers, cycling enthusiasts, etc.
For example, MarketTools created an online community of 10,000 mothers called the Moms Insight Network, where mothers can come together online and exchange opinions, tastes, preferences, tips and advice, with each other and with marketers. One of our clients tapped into the Moms Insight Network and observed a high level of interest in games and toys that involved more physical exercise, and actually harnessed the creative energies of the group to find specific ideas. Dozens of ideas poured in--including several concepts that are now in the testing and development phases.
Find creative ways to use "Web 2.0" or next-generation tools. Whether you call it Web 2.0, the next-generation Web, or some other moniker, there are plenty of interesting new possibilities out there for connecting and interacting with consumers.
For example, more than 50 million blogs are now online--many of which have extended networks of readers and responders--presenting an easily accessible source of consumer feedback. The results can be in aggregate with a broad demographic sampling or extremely narrow monitoring of niche points of views. This can be considered "discovery"--the place to find the questions that marketers need to ask, but might not be aware of.
Similarly, you may find creative ways to leverage Google's OpenSocial initiative, Facebook brand pages, or the "Social Graph" web of connections between family and friends to get closer to your target consumers. Or you could draw on the rating and reputation systems now commonplace on social networking sites to derive new product possibilities or innovation opportunities.
For example, one of our clients, a computer manufacturer, regularly invites its customers to submit ideas and product concepts and then vote on those they think are the most important or promising.
Harness the "wisdom of the crowd": With all the participation, contribution and collaborating going on, the question remains: how does a marketer distill the river of information into an actionable insight or hard data for decision making?
There are a few options emerging as technologists approach the challenge through algorithms. On the very simple side, there are the ranking systems mentioned earlier, where members weigh in by voting on a point of view or idea using a 1-5 scale. Prediction markets are another tool that has been used to accurately predict the outcomes through the wisdom of crowds.
Examples include elections when traditional polls have failed, predicting outcomes of world events, etc. Via wikis, message boards and so on, the crowd becomes more informed--and can replace their investments in the outcome as the body of input is refined.
The era of the connected consumer holds boundless possibilities for marketers who want to tap into the wisdom of the community for feedback, guidance, and new ideas and innovations.
But if you really want to know what your target consumers are thinking, you will have to evolve your own thinking about how you interact with this new breed of consumers and how you use the new generation of online tools and technologies. For forward-looking marketers, this is a tremendous opportunity, not a threat.
Go where your consumers are going: online. Join the community. Participate in the conversation. Get a deeper understanding. And do so with honesty, openness, and integrity. The inevitable result will be greater market success.
Jeff Tidwell is the director of panel and community products at MarketTools, and is responsible for defining and overseeing the development of interactive panels and community products for clients. For more on this topic, see his white paper, "Reaching Connected Consumers," at www.markettools.com .