Word of mouth communities and networks using social software are increasingly spread over regional, national, and international borders, making them much more important to those who market branded products and services, online and off. The recent buzz around the concept of social business points to the growing importance of social networks and communities to the evolution of business practice. Whether companies are in fact closing the community gap or the engagement gap remains an open question though.
As Rachael Happe of the Community Roundtable notes in commentary on the Community Maturity Model:
in the stages before a company becomes truly networked, metrics are isolated to supporting one business process vs. in a networked business the whole business becomes social and the communities are set up to support cross-functional goals.
In other words, customer communities approaching maturity produce value for the business, or organizational enterprise, rather than only a specific functional area — such as research and development, product management, customer support, or marketing. Rachel’s overall point receives validation in a recent article in the September (2009) issue of the Journal of Marketing that reports on long term ethnographic research on brand communities by Professors Hope Jensen Schau, Albert M. Muniz, Jr., and Eric J. Arnould, “How Brand Community Practices Create Value .” The most interesting thought in the article for me is their point that customer competencies are a valuable resource for building co-creation opportunities in brand communities.
Unlike earlier discussions of customer competence, Schau, Muniz, and Arnould contend trying to co-opt customer competencies is the wrong strategy. Rather, their research findings suggest community management benefits from developing opportunities for customers to grow their competencies with the brand. They make it clear that their research indicates,
Companies wishing to encourage co-creation should foster a broad array of practices, not merely customization.” In other words, don’t try to keep the community focus only on what benefits the brand as you define it. The important point to keep in mind when discussing value in brand communities is that members create value for themselves through producing cultural capital distinguishing their status relative to the community, aside from the ROI and business value gained by the company owning the brand. Making sure members are provided opportunities to grow their competencies encourages them to reinvest their cultural capital in the brand community.
I discussed co-creation in several posts this past year in relation to eLearning 2.0 generally as well as Nokia and, back in 2005, its overall importance to the challenge of creating successful innovation, including the relevance of customer communities to innovation outcomes. The concept of customer competencies captures the overall significance of co-creation for efforts to produce value through engaging customers. However, Schau, Muniz, and Arnould offer the additional insight that the competencies critical to brand communities are developed through community practices. By practice they mean the linked, implicit way people understand, say, and do things. The term is further used to refer to the activities, performances, and representations (video, graphics, etc.) or talk of community members.
Experience designers can use the concept of customer competencies to inform choices about how to manage practices in customer communities.
Grounding Community Insights in Research
The article by Schau, Muniz, and Arnould reports on long term qualitative research involving participant observation (the shortest was 20 months, the longest 23 years), netnographic research, and in-depth member interviews for nine brand communities (3Com Audrey, Apple Newton, Garmin, Jones Soda, Lomo and Holga, Mini Cooper, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, StriVectin, and Xana: Warrior Princess). Those interested in brand communities and social business will find confirmation of much recent discussion in the research findings. The researchers offer the following claim about the significance of the study.
we have endeavored to move the unit of analysis away from the individual consumer and individual brand community, to the practices common across individuals and communities.
The importance of isolating common community practices is difficult to overstate. Rachael Happe’s discussion of the Community Maturity Model of the Community Roundtable recognizes a need for descriptive traits and validation points relative to the model. While I don’t think the research study discussed here provides such an assessment, it does offer an overview of the array of practices used in customer communities formed around brands. In fact, a couple of the brand communities studied (the 3Com Audrey and Apple Newton) exist around products no longer sold by the companies that made them. As such, those communities are no longer supported by the creators of the brand, having evolved beyond such reliance to exist on their own.
The research also shows that some customers belonging to brand communities move past the brand while retaining membership in the community. For example, they note that longterm members of the Mini community sometimes remained active in the community after selling their Mini because their family needed a larger vehicle. Regardless of whether the marketer deserts the brand, or the consumer moves on to other brands, the practices that mold such brand communities can persist, making them especially interesting to anyone focusing on product/service co-creation and customer communities.
The research by Schau, Muniz, and Arnould specifies common practices in brand communities across several traditional product categories. The practices they find across the brand communities studied include:
- Greeting new members, beckoning them into the fold and assisting in their brand learning and community socialization.
- Lending emotional and/or physical support to other members, including support for brand related trials (e.g., product failure, customizing) and/or for non-brand related life issues (illness, death, job).
- Articulating the behavioral expectations within the brand community.
- Sharing the brand “good news,” inspiring others to use and preaching from the mountain top.
- Deploying rationales generally for devoting time and effort to the brand and collective to outsiders and marginal members.
- Recognizing variance within the brand community membership. Marking intragroup distinction and similarity.
- Milestoning refers to the practice of noting seminal events in brand ownership and consumption.
- Badging is the practice of translating milestones into symbols.”
- Detailing the brand relationship journey in a narrative fashion. The narrative is often anchored by and peppered with milestones.
- Caring for the brand (washing your MINI) or systematizing optimal use patterns (clean skin before applying StriVectin).
- Modifying the brand to suit group level or individual needs. This includes all efforts to change the factory specs of the product in order to enhance performance.
- Distancing/approaching the marketplace. A valenced behavior regarding the marketplace. May be directed at other members; e.g., you should sell shouldn’t sell that. May be directed at the firm via explicit link or via presumed monitoring of the site; e.g., you should fix this; do this; change this.
They note that the common purpose of the practices they detail is to “enable brand use and encourage deeper community engagement.” As they summarize it,
By providing opportunities to demonstrate competencies, practices allow members to accrue cultural capital through adroit performance which creates value for the consumer. Specifically, evangelizing creates value by enlarging the brand community and its human resource base, while simultaneously enhancing the brand perception outside the brand community. Empathizing creates value by providing affective resources within a sympathetic social network. This support system acts as a significant switching cost for consumers who come to depend on it. Grooming creates value by preserving the brand’s performance and appearance. Customizing creates value by offering unique yet reproducible solutions to user challenges. Milestoning and badging create value by providing a motif with which to build brand meanings associated with the use journey. And so on.
Schau, Muniz, and Arnould do not claim that all brand communities employ every practice. However, it is difficult to see how a customer community organized around a brand can exist without the first three at least. The researchers do contend that an increase in the mix of practices evinces more brand community vitality. In my mind, the key point to take away from this research is that the competencies of one customer may in fact align with one or more practices in the community, whereas those of another may align in a different way. Managing that mix is the challenge for co-creation efforts.
One of the overall shortcomings I see in the research relates to its focus solely on active participation in brand communities. Although the researchers don’t explicitly say so, it does not appear that they interviewed any passive members in the brand communities studied.
Posted by Larry R. Irons
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