In the late-90s one of my first agency clients was a Web site called Mall.com. It was the mall, online. What could be easier, right? The client vehemently defended the point that it was more than a Web site. It was an “online destination” – a virtual respite on the quest for the latest Gap seasonals or Dell discounts. We’ll let history debate the validity of Mall.com’s e-commerce business model, but I mention them because Mall.com provides a good test case when looking at the the migration patterns of of the early consumer Web against those of today’s social Web.
As I work with clients today on their social media strategy, one of the things that’s most interesting and with the most potential is the promise of online communities moving offline. The easiest example of this is Twitter, where community is created based on the collective sharing of experiences, events and emotion within the context of a 140-character post. The connections made on Twitter are easy to carry offline and often are.
Where the early days of the Internet were focused on driving the offline online, today’s Internet gives companies the ability to create a forum for conversation and interaction and a reverse migration to the offline world. From Twitter to Facebook to a company’s own micro site, wherever companies can facilitate a discussion, they have an opportunity to harness that conversation offline.
The key to the success of this migration is for companies to be enablers of the discussion, built on the understanding that the community participants own the content, tone and direction of the conversation – with the company benefiting by playing the role of facilitator. You also have to make a natural connection between the online and offline discussion.
Few companies have tapped into the potential to create affinity for a brand in this way, but some are getting close. A company like Starbucks has the ability to take advantage of this. The Starbucks brand is already ubiquitous offline, there is strong customer loyalty and the brand is about community – the community of coffee. A strong online community like the one that Starbucks is working to develop could be driven to offline retail in a purposeful way, strengthening the community and the brand in the process. Starbucks has begun to do this through their customer feedback site online and in stores through comment cards.
Others that also fit this mold and that are working to elevate their online conversations include Popeye’s Chicken and Jason’s Deli. Although all of these that I’ve referenced are consumer-facing companies, I’m compiling a list of B2B companies that are doing a good job of creating community for thier business brand.
It’s important to realize that there are a few major enablers of this phenomenon. 1) Volume – the more people online, the louder the conversation gets, yet the easier it is for niche communities to form. 2) The increase in use of social tools. While Twitter is still relegated mostly to early adopters, and even if the function of Twitter doesn’t live on in it’s current state, the impact it has on introducing people to shared thoughts and discussions online will live on. 3) The mobile Web. This is the most important of these enablers and will be the area where the most progress will happen. The mobile Web is also the third dimension in this online/offline world, or a quasi online/offline world. As the power of the mobile Web is harnessed, it will solidify a location-agnostic existence and further enable the offline migration of online community members.
As more people go online and use social tools, the potential to harness the online conversations naturally increases, you’ll see more of this migration – with the end result being a more engaged consumer with greater brand loyalty.