When We Gather on the Web

Recently, the Content Marketing Institute released their commentary on this year’s Buyersphere Report. Their headline read: Is Social Media the New Word of Mouth?  The blending of our social and actual lives is a rather fascinating topic. While the argument that social media is the new word of mouth may be viable, my mind transitioned to the idea of community formation. The Web is rich with forums, support groups and communities where people have access to their community 24 hours a day. Are we able to form the same connections that satisfy our desire to join them in the first place- online? Everyday I am finding more examples of online communities that are able to mirror the functions of real-world communities.

Robert Putnam has written extensively on the decline of civic participation*. People are not as active within their actual communities nor do they feel the community is a focal point in their lives. Inherently we want to form groups. In an experiment on adolescent group formation, Muzafer Sherif, provided evidence regarding our desire (even early on) to form groups that contribute to our own identity formation. Aside from identity formation, we form groups due to our desire for connections, support, recognition, respect and admiration**. Can this decline in community formation in our actual lives be the reason we seek them out in our social lives? Can we find this concept of Rosenberg’s social cure online? Do we find the same behavioral-reinforcement that actual communities create?

In Join the Club, Tina Rosenberg, provided multiple examples of behavior change through social pressure (called social cure) in community groups. Once a person self-identifies with a community or group they start to develop relationships that have the ability to influence and contribute to the establishment of certain (possibly new) behavioral cues. Rosenberg described how peer pressure, through the inclusive behavior of groups, helped to curve AIDS outbreaks, overthrow an oppressive government and inspire the small-group-movement in the Church. When looking to effect behavior, societal pressure can increase self-efficacy through group identification***. Programs such as Weight Watchers and Alcohol Anonymous operate under this same concept. The group is formed and with its formation, new social cues are reinforced within. For support, members are matched with others struggling with sobriety and a sponsor. Oddly, staying sober is more likely for the sponsor than the new member.

Similar groups are being created on the Web. Sproull and Patterson (2004) found that there is a positive correlation between social participation in online communities and behavior-change in the actual community***. On reddit, followers of the r/loseit thread have been successful in forming weight-loss communities. These web-communites seem to be able to foster the same support structure as Weight Watchers. It would appear that online communities can cultivate an environment that reinforces positivity and success. In turn, many of those who found weight-loss success do not leave the community. Many members stay and become mentors. This form of membership and then investment into the growth of the community, reminds me of the badge-craze on social platforms.

Online communities also have the power to skew societal norms. Roughly 30 people die each year through forums devoted to group-suicide. Because the Web can provide highly personalized information, finding access to like-minded individuals (making identification more likely) is an easy process. Once a person identifies with a group, social norms become reinforced. Soon the idea of contemplating suicide is thought of as normal.

The Takeaway 

Communities can be both powerful for those involved and a powerful mechanism for brand-advocacy. As we have seen, identifying with a community can provide people with purpose and can translate to action within one’s actual community. On Mitch Joel’s blog Six Pixels of Separation, Joel examined this idea of scaleability. Does social scale? Olivier Blanchard (The BrandBuilder), wrote that in order to accurately begin to think about how social scales, you must view it as a lateral process-not vertical. Blanchard writes:

Leverage your community to build scale. Your community is layered. Most of the people who follow you (customers or not) are passively involved with your products and brands. They’re observers or occasional question-askers. But at the top of that ecosystem is a small nucleus of super-engaged people who happen to be experts in the use of your products. You can usually spot them in discussions, on forums, etc. They’re already answering questions and dispensing advice. Reach out to them.

Social is scalable, but it puts the burden on the brand. The community must encourage interaction and a way for that top-percent to identify. Both Ed Keller and Brad Fay’s new book, The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace and Brains on Fire’s Igniting Powerful, Sustainable, Word of Mouth Movements provide examples of brands who managed to leverage their community to change behavior. People have this fear of how connected our lives are becoming. Perhaps it is those not born into digital, who are apprehensive about this blending of our social and actual lives. Our web-experience is becoming more personalized. As the Web is forming around us, so to are the processes of communication and relationship-building.

* Robert D. Putnam Better Together and Bowling Alone

**Tina Rosenberg (2011)  Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World

***Sproull and Patterson (2004) Making Information Cities Livable

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