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Online communities – it’s about connection (and is the new virtual Coronation Street)

All year we’ve been talking to customers about real ways to build online communities to really engage with their customers. We knew we might be onto something when we saw their eyes light up and their interest well and truly piqued. So, with a hot iron and a need to strike it, we decided to bring Andreas Stjernström from EPiServer Sweden to New Zealand and Australia to talk about how companies in the Northern Hemisphere have been doing this successfully for years.

The events drew huge crowds, and fired the imaginations of budding social mediaphiles in all centres.

Organisations that have successfully launched online communities know more about their customers than ever before, and this opens up a world of opportunities unlike anything we’ve ever experienced until now.

Every organisation wants to connect. With customers or constituents. With their own people. With the world around them. And the internet is completely redefining the way in which we can do this.

And this is where I digress.

It’s not just organisations that want to connect. As humans we’re hard-wired to crave company, connection with those around us. It’s how we make sense and meaning out of the world. It’s how we protect ourselves. It’s what gives us the greatest and deepest sense of happiness (think of falling in love, or your wedding day, or the moment you first held your child). It’s sociology 101. No man is an island, as John Donne once said.

I remember a conversation with my mother, probably about 10 years ago, where she expressed concern that along with the technology revolution would come an increased disconnection or borderline antisociability amongst young people, holed up in dark rooms with their curtains closed, staring bug-eyed at a screen for hours on end.

A lot has happened in the last 10 years, and no one can argue that we’re not spending a lot more time in front of a computer than we did back then. So, that much is semi prophetic. But something interesting happened along the way, which significantly changes my mother’s projected picture. We harnessed the almighty great expanse that is the internet, and we used it to connect. There will never be a substitute for what has come to be glibly referred to as ‘face time’, but now, with the internet as a conduit, we can connect with people all around the world, unimpeded by distance or time. The only barrier to entry is an internet connection.

Hence the proliferation of online communities. Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo, and the list goes on. It’s a global phenomenon. And the one human need that underpins these runaway successes: our desire to connect.

We may all need to step away from the computer a bit more in this day and age, but, if anything, online communities have actually helped increase our sociability. To give just one example, I have a friend who made his way around Europe and the States for a number of months, and he could count on one hand the number of nights he had to resort to paid accommodation. For the rest of the trip, by and large, he was put up by people he had met online. This wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but it just goes to show how connected we can be if we give ourselves wholeheartedly to the cyber realm.

And now back to my mother. Her favourite television programme is Coronation Street (we don’t have this in common). As I was preparing to write this, and pondering the marvel that is Coronation Street, I drew some parallels with the whole community thing. It strikes me that people follow their soap of choice, get caught up in the action and, as the years roll by, they get to feel like they’re close personal friends with people they’ve never actually met in their life. Nowhere more so than Coronation Street. It’s a televised community, complete with cobbled streets, the Rover’s Return and Audrey’s hair salon. And remember Neighbours? You get sucked right in and – for a moment in time – the boundaries between your world and theirs blur (don’t even get me started on Second Life). And for urban dwellers that only know their neighbours well enough to wave vaguely at in passing, or for those who know everyone in their quiet cul-de-sac, but nothing interesting ever happens, you can see how a ready-made community, replete with salacious gossip, might appeal.

So, it seems to me that online communities are not that dissimilar. Okay, they probably look wildly different, each with varying amounts of scandal, but they’re borne out of the same impulse: to connect, to be a part of something, to keep up with the things you care about.

And that’s about as far as the analogy stretches.

Back on topic… if you missed our Building Online Communities seminars and would like to know more about it, email marketing@intergen.co.nz


Throwing some ideas around before writing this, I searched Google for the central image on the Sistine Chapel – Creation of Adam – where God extends an index finger in Adam’s direction, narrowly missing Adam’s outstretched hand. It seems to me to be the perfect visual expression of the human need to connect (and how often have we seen those two hands wrenched out of context and used to advertise various things, usually with a ‘keeping in touch’ message?). I then discovered that the entire Sistine Chapel has been recreated in Second Life.

You can get closer to the works of art online than you can in person. As someone who came to the Sistine Chapel with my own eyes one hot Italian summer’s day, and who has only been introduced to the internet in the last third of my life, I can’t truly get my head around this. But there will be (and probably already is) a generation where the virtual world is pretty commonplace, and not just for a minority. Where not only communities, clubs, shops and virtual worlds are heavily frequented online, but also galleries, museums, whole libraries with virtual books… and no doubt a whole lot more that I can't even begin to imagine.

Posted by: Katy Sweetman, Marketing Director, Empired Group | 07 November 2008

Tags: EPiServer, Online Communities

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