Online Communities and Why You’re Better Off Without ‘Em

A headshot of Leisa Northcott

by Leisa Northcott

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As great as online communities are for brand engagement, product creation, insights gathering, and a myriad of other important marketing, innovation and research tasks, they are not without their faults. It seems a harmless endeavour, but bringing people together in a community opens up your business to a veritable smorgasbord of risks. Here’s what you need to know about the hidden threats of an engaged and productive community before it’s too late.

First off, consider the terrifying new body of research suggesting that people are getting smarter. Thanks to a troubling combination of better nutrition, better schooling and increased early childhood stimulation, IQ scores around the world have been steadily increasing for decades. If individuals are becoming more intelligent, consider the hazards of giving them a platform to share ideas, explore possibilities and combine knowledge without limitation. Not only will they be better able to identify and solve complex problems, but they will also be able to accomplish more while gaining confidence in their abilities – creating an insidious cycle of collaboration and advancement. The repercussions of this kind of unchecked human excellence are numerous – and serious.

Trust us, growing your business is a headache nobody needs.

From R&D to marketing, you pay a perfectly good roster of employees for their skill, expertise and dedication to good ol’ fashioned trial-and-error. It only takes a little bit of surprisingly well-reasoned consumer input to undermine all of that. Sure, it starts as a simple forum, but next thing you know you’ve got Frankenstein’s monster on your hands. Suddenly, the community is coming up with better ideas than your fresh-faced marketing team and now River and Devon are feeling terrible about themselves. They’re millennials. They can’t handle that kind of rejection.

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What if the community members help each other solve problems, and then your customer service team ends up twiddling their thumbs? What if they invent awesome products and then you have to go about building those products? That’s a messy, tiresome business. When demand for these highly desirable products starts to outpace your production capabilities, you’ll have to force your now rusty and demoralized employees to work double time, or, hire more people. Trust us, growing your business is a headache nobody needs. Worst of all, having an online community where you can test things and get feedback from your biggest fans will take all the fear away. And everybody knows that the sleep-stealing fear that you might be wrong is half the fun of launching new products or marketing campaigns.

As a sensible businessperson, there’s no need to put yourself or your team through all that unnecessary trouble. So let’s pump the brakes on this community craze and get back to some tried and true tactics.

It just takes focus

Focus groups are the gold standard for taking the pulse of your current and potential customers. You just take a huge and almost impossibly diverse consumer base and distill it down to the smallest, most homogenous group you can find. It works because most people know their own unconscious minds and are also very good at articulating personal opinions in forced group situations. Don’t worry, even people who are totally disinterested in your brand will almost certainly stick it out for a crisp $50 and some free sandwiches. The most common process is to conduct 2-3 groups with 6-8 participants per group over the course of a week or so. You can then take this streamlined feedback and apply it to hundreds of thousands of global consumers. Talk about bang for your buck!

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In his influential book, How Customers Think, Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman notes that 80% of new products or services fail within six months when they’ve been vetted through focus groups. That gives you a solid one in five shot to thrive. In 1985, New Coke launched after $4 million worth of extensive taste tests of a “new and improved” formula. The product lasted less than three months before the company reverted to the old formula, renaming it Coca-Cola Classic. In the late 1990s, Coke’s then Marketing Vice President Sergio Zyman reflected on the New Coke experience:

“Yes, it infuriated the public, cost us a ton of money and lasted for only 77 days before we reintroduced Coca-Cola Classic. Still, New Coke was a success because it revitalized the brand and reattached the public to Coke.”

It’s a slow play, but provided your company can withstand a massive loss and weather a public relations hellscape in the short term, it’s definitely what we in the business call a win.

Keep it in the family

You’re the expert, right? Nobody knows your business better than you do, so why would you outsource your identity or innovation to the uneducated masses? People in general may be getting smarter…but smarter than YOU, in particular? Ha! We didn’t think so.

Some of the most memorable product launches and innovations have come from deeply insulated internal teams who just went for whatever they felt was right. With print magazines floundering, Playboy scrapped their six decades strong business model and did away with nudity altogether. That bold experiment lasted one remarkably boring year. Since our brains are already in the gutter, how about those WOW! Chips? Made with Olestra, the chips were fat-free and low calorie. Sadly, Olestra’s laxative effect sent more people running for the bathroom than the cash register, but who could have seen that coming? McDonalds spent $150 million to promote the Arch Deluxe which graced the menu board for 4 full years before fading into oblivion. Not quite the same run as the 20-year old bestselling Big Mac, but, I mean, those are pretty big shoes to fill.

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And so what if nobody actually wanted clear cola, a fashion doll who told little girls that “math class can be tough”, or purple and green ketchup? Sometimes you’ve just gotta do you, you know?

PepsiCo knows. They made a big splash with some daring work from an in-house creative team. In a 2017 ad starring Kendall Jenner, they opted to appropriate imagery from important social protest movements to hawk soda. PepsiCo global beverage group president Brad Jakeman, who headed up the brand's Creators League Studio, left the company just six months later—surely to pursue bigger and better leadership opportunities as his star was clearly on the rise.   

Stick to the plan

It takes a boatload of time, resources and energy to create a globally dominant brand. The last thing you want to do is deep six all that investment by bending to every trend that comes along. Our advice? Stay the course. Fads will come and go, but sticking to your business model no matter what is the only way to keep your ego and legacy intact.

Sure, Blockbuster could have changed its business model as the world migrated to online services and streaming but what would they have done with all their brick and mortar locations? Had they accepted a $50 million buyout offer from Netflix back in 2000, they wouldn’t have eked out another 13 years. Today, a single location remains open in Bend, Oregon. No doubt those 100,000 residents count themselves lucky that Blockbuster stuck to their guns.

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Speaking of film, you may have heard of a little company called Kodak? At its peak, Kodak captured 90% of the US film market and was one of the world’s most valuable brands. As such, Kodak stayed on top of relevant market research. They understood perfectly well the looming threat digital photography posed to silver halide film – the lynchpin of their business model. Which is exactly why, when one of their own engineers invented the first digital camera way back in 1975, they promptly squashed it. We wanted to speak to somebody from the company about this enviable act of foresight but sadly, their reps have been unavailable for comment since 2012.

Just say no

The policy worked great for America’s war on drugs and it can help you come out on top in the business world too. You may be tempted to launch a customer community to build engagement and loyalty, test messaging, and learn all about your customers. While lovely in theory, we have to remind you that online communities are full of people. Messy, chatty, real life people whose genuine wants and needs can only muddy the waters of the crystal-clear brand strategy you can develop in a sterile boardroom. Naturally, there may be some risks associated with keeping customers at arm’s length (please see all of the above examples) but it has to be better than embracing them as key partners in your success. Right?

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