Online Communities — The New PR Challenge

community6On the edge of San Francisco’s Presidio, 130 people gathered on July 27 to hear how four companies — Digital Places, Edmunds.com, CivicSpace Labs and QuickBooks.com – are using discussion forums to serve their customers and online users. SofTECH and SDForum, two non-profits that host regular speaking and networking events for the local technology community played host.  Ron Lichty, director oftechnology at Avenue A/Razorfish, produced the event. He kept a running progress report in his Weblog leading up to the event just to show that he practices what he preaches.

Introducing the Panelists

Moderator Eugene Eric Kim, co-founder and principal of Blue Oxen Associates, prefaced the evening’s events by saying that he doesn’t believe in online communities. Actually, he just has a problem with the term. He
stressed that communities are about the people, not the tools that are
simply a means to an end to bring people together. His company markets
itself as “a think tank devoted to studying and improving
high-performance collaboration.”

Scott Wilder, group manager of Intuit’s QuickBooks.com community,
talked about how community forums can be a low-budget way to create
content for corporate Web sites. His experience spans SGI, America
Online, Borders.com and KB Toys. It was at KB Toys that he first
encountered “Tina the Toy Mom” and saw this enthusiastic (and
well-qualified) user morph into a paid online collaborator. Tina,
mother to nine, built a name for herself as she and her kids reviewed
toys online. Wilder then went on to Intuit where he discovered that
Intuit has “a lot of passionate customers that want to talk about
Intuit.” This was a good thing because he only had a small budget to
create a community forum, and Intuit did not plan to provide content.

Sylvia L. Marino, community manager of Edmunds.com,
a Web site with interactive forums for car shoppers and enthusiasts to
chat about cars, told the audience how her online community provided
information that helped fix a member’s software problem after the
member’s Toyota Prius locked up. The woman found herself stranded with
her two kids after her Prius got what the forum members dubbed “the
blue screen of death.” When she tried to explain to a Prius mechanic
what had happened, “he told her she was crazy” because he hadn’t heard
of this happening before. Marino explained that information had not yet
filtered down from corporate headquarters to the mechanic shops. Yet,
others had experienced this problem too, and they rallied around the
Edwards.com message board to tell the woman how to fix the problem. It needn’t be said, but this is the point where Toyota’s PR machine ought to weigh in.

Tony Christopher, founder of Digital Places,
a consultancy that plans and implements Internet and portal Extranet
services, talked about how he is helping the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) architect an intranet to communicate with their
400,000 employees. The FAA uses something called the Knowledge Sharing
Network Center. According to Christopher, this communication tool has
already resulted in a significant cost savings because people don’t
have to jump on a plane to communicate with each other face-to-face
anymore. He noted that portals can reduce departmental silos within
organizations.

Zack Rosen, founder and director of CivicSpaceLabs.org,
a site that is an online peer support community for users of CivicSpace
software, explained that his site is an open-source platform. People
can commission work on their Web sites. When asked by Kim how customer prospects could be sure they would stick around, he replied that his non-profit is mission-based not profit based. This is the guy who sparked the “DeanSpace” volunteer open-source development project for the Howard Dean campaign.

Lessons on the Fly

So what did we learn from this group? Here’s a grab bag of tips – and some conclusions – from the evening’s discussion:

— Edmunds.com and Intuit use Web Crossing as their community software;
— Don’t bother dictating topics or content to the community, users will define their own. Just give them their space;
— Community forums provide cheap content for corporate Web sites with enthusiastic customers;
— Communities are not about entertainment, they are where people go for support or information;

Corporate PR needs to engage in the discussion when the company’s
reputation starts to go south (The “Blue Screen of Death” thread on the
Toyota Prius is a case in point);
— Corporate
writers/editors need to be coached on how to communicate with users,
who are after all, what the community is all about;
— Users can become online collaborators or “answer people,” but they are rarely paid;

As community collaborators grow more prominent due to their expertise
they want to be compensated by more than rating systems. Subaru is said
to have flown community leaders “Bob” and “Juice” to one of its events
in Las Vegas, thus paying homage to their star status;
— Subaru PR knows how to work the community. Their product PR people are even featured guests in the online chat forums.


Community managers worry that they are exploiting their valuable
“answer people, and will consider some form of compensation;
— Groups anoint community leaders;

Good community managers are protective of their users, and implement
policies to prevent press and market research people from coming into
their sites and asking questions or spamming their top folks;

“No Solicitation” policies can be tough medicine for entrepreneurs who
are tempted to use the community to promote or build their small
businesses;

— Active monitoring of discussions results in high quality discussions;

It’s a time-consuming job to monitor appropriate language and content
on community sites. Edmunds.com hires freelancers to scour the site day
in and day out;

— Always take the time to tell people why their post has been removed;


There are different tolerance levels for profanity depending on the
community. Not surprisingly there is low tolerance for it in the
minivan community forums with their family orientation;
— Expect some death threats if you are a community manager.

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