Brands and online communities: Start listening, stop marketing

The Sookio Podcast tackles the often overlooked topic of online communities, forums and message boards. We discuss Reddit and forums run by Lush, Games Workshop and the BBC and ask: Can your brand get any value from these gatherings of strong opinion and, more importantly, should you?

With the recent furore surrounding the resignation of former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao dying down, the digital world is left to pick over the remains of the controversy. What makes this case stand out is the way it thrust back into the spotlight a form of online communication which rarely attracts much scrutiny nowadays: The internet forum.

In the latest episode of the Sookio Podcast we explored the past, present and future of forums like Reddit, how brands can use these gathering places to explore what their audience is really saying… and how they shouldn’t use them.

The rise of online communities

It’s no exaggeration to say that online forums have undergone an odyssey from their humble beginnings in the mid-70s. What started as topical offshoots of gaming or academic communities grew into hundreds, sometimes thousands of likeminded individuals.

We’re not talking about Facebook, Twitter or anything that falls under the umbrella of ‘social media’ here. We mean message boards, forums, chatrooms and the like. The distinction is subtle but important. Online communities, for example, might come together to discuss great pizzas in general. The same conversation on Facebook would start with ‘I’m eating a great pizza, me me me.’ Google+, of course, would just be ‘I’m a Google employee trying to sell you a pizza.’

Back in 2003, our Director Sue was working as a host on the BBC soaps forums. It was a very different environment back then. She likened it to hosting a dinner party, making sure everyone is having a good time, stimulating conversation where required and politely showing any ne’er-do-wells the door only when they’d thoroughly outstayed their welcome. Anyone with any passing familiarity of internet forums will know how civilised this sounds compared to today!

Who still posts in online forums?

Our Web and Social Media Editor, Deepa, has been a long-standing member of several forums over the years and was able to chart their progression (or demise) from something more free-flowing to established communities with tighter structure. It doesn’t always work out.

She touted cosmetics company Lush as an example of forums ruined by over-moderation. What Lush had back in the day was what most brands would kill for now; their forum was the online focal point for discussion on an entire market sector. By cracking down too hard on discussion of other brands or unrelated topics, they chased people away from their community in droves and cost themselves a powerful market research tool.

It’s a familiar story. Miniature wargaming giants Games Workshop once had their entire industry cornered with the online buzz to match. Obsessive focus on intellectual property and heavy-handed moderation meant that it was taking more resources to police their forums than they felt worth it and the boards were shut down. This sent people straight to competitors, where backlash against their brand festers to this day.

How to NOT use online message boards

The message is that online communities don’t want to be marketed at. The difference between forums and social media is important, with those who stick with the forum format often doing so in order to escape from the relentless marketing assault you see on Facebook and Twitter.

So how can brands interact with these communities? Forums today tend to congregate around ideas, sectors or topics of interest rather than brands. Health, technology and music are all areas with a sufficiently broad scope to encourage in-depth discussion without even needing the free-for-all approach of Reddit. However, if you boil it all down, the running theme is always the same.

Forums today are large gatherings of strong opinions, with all the honesty that comes with internet anonymity, and the most trusted opinions clearly highlighted by reputation or ranking systems. Does that not sound like the type of qualitative market research brands fork out thousands for in focus groups and surveys?

Brands need to listen to what people are saying, rather than marching in and derailing the dialogue with a big injection of marketing. Nothing is more likely to get you mocked, ignored or just banned from a forum. It might take a little while to get a feel for the conversation and it’s difficult to break this down into metrics and graphs, but honest, worthwhile feedback on your brand isn’t easy to find wherever you chase it.

The perils of online communities

There are drawbacks, of course. Long-running forums of a certain size can be notoriously cliquey. In-jokes, memes and strong personalities can make the length of time it takes to engage with the conversation prohibitively long. Conflict and trolling are inevitable, and engaging with that is never a good idea.

If you’re lucky enough to run or acquire an established forum yourself, the temptation to try and monetise it can also be overwhelming. Don’t. There’s nothing more likely to get members to vote with their feet than making them feel like a commodity. Like any conversation between a brand and its customers online, things should be authentic, natural and never forced.

Has your brand had any experience with online communities worth sharing? Leave us a comment! In the meantime, be sure to check out our YouTube channel where you’ll find bite-sized snippets of the podcast for you to enjoy on the fly.