There is a lot of talk right now about a paradigm shift in media consumption away from editorial content to content that is created by users of online communities such as MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, and the blogosphere at large. That shift in consumption has many people asking how advertisers can tap into this new form of media and the large, influential audiences that power it.
To date, most of this talk has centered on consumer-based advertising. But the same principles changing the way media is created and consumed in the consumer space are driving a similar shift in the business space.
How can B2B advertisers safely tap into social media concepts and this shift in media consumption? The first step is to understand the difference between communities of interest and communities of practice. The next step is to explore how this difference is important to B2B marketers.
Here are three key terms:
Online community: An online community is a group of people with a common interest along with an online infrastructure that allows its members to create value for themselves and the group as a whole. Examples include eBay, MySpace, Wikipedia, Flickr, and ITtoolbox. Online communities are the primary enabler of social media, providing an audience, motivation and system for users to create and distribute content.
Community of interest: A community of interest is an online community where the primary value is based on the personal or social interests of its members. Examples include MySpace, YouTube and Flickr.
Community of practice: A community of practice is an online community where the primary value is based on professional interests and is created in the course of members performing their jobs. Examples include ITtoolbox and LinkedIn.
Before advertising in either type of online community -- interest or practice -- it is helpful to understand the similarities and differences of the two.
Similarities: Users create the content and determine how and when it will be consumed. Marketers must participate in a way that is welcomed by users. Operators of online communities who understand their audiences can provide convenient ways for this acceptance to take place.
- Users are highly empowered and can express their views. While this makes many marketers nervous, with the right approach it can be used to their advantage, engaging users with a level of involvement previously unattainable.
- Extreme targeting is possible. Online communities produce content at a level of granularity and at a volume that is neither practical nor possible through editorial means, producing powerful ad targeting opportunities.
Differences: Communities of practice focus on professional topics, are generally more structured, and may have a higher degree of moderation. This allows them to remain professionally productive, and this can result in a safe and predictable advertising environment.
- Communities of practice produce content that is aligned with a professional function, which is often easy to match with the desires of a B2B marketer.
How do you advertise within communities of practice to achieve performance that is equivalent or superior to traditional online advertising campaigns?
Almost all ad campaigns are measured by their performance. That is especially true with online advertising, where clicks, leads and conversions are increasingly subject to analysis and optimization. To win approval, campaigns in online communities need to be held to the same performance standards. Advertising in communities of practice can be approached at increasing levels of sophistication, with the chances for achieving superior results increasing with each level.
Standard advertising through communities of practice
The professional nature of communities of practice allows them to deliver advertising inventory equivalent in value to any other form of online media. Email list rentals, rich media units, text ads and sponsored white paper campaigns that run on editorial sites can also be run in these communities with equal success.
Optimized advertising through communities of practice
Online communities create extraordinary volumes of very granular content through active user involvement. This allows operators of online communities to create ad targeting systems that can supercharge their online inventory for an advertiser.
Communities of practice offer a unique opportunity to optimize advertising, since topics of interaction within the community often cover products that marketers wish to promote. For instance, ITtoolbox uses a proprietary contextual matching system that listens to conversations users are having as they make decisions in the workplace. This system can match a sponsor's white paper to that conversation and bundle it into the user interaction. Users discussing spyware might be presented with a white paper on spyware removal-- at the right time and in the right context.
Such an approach adds value to users who appreciate timely content and to advertisers who collect lead information when their papers are downloaded. Through systems such as this, advertisers are able to benefit and be welcomed by the community. Other ad formats and systems can be used to take advantage of the unique attributes of professional online communities to deliver supercharged performance.
Innovative advertising through communities of practice
The recent emergence of social media allows for experimentation with unique ad campaigns in an effort to achieve superior results. Innovation should focus on optimizing the unique benefits online communities present, such as targeting and user involvement, while staying sensitive to the unique user experience that includes substantial user empowerment.
The ideal campaigns will integrate ads and brands into the community experience in a way that users respond to and interact with.
A good example of an innovative advertising campaign through a community of interest was run by Aquafina through MySpace. In this campaign, Aquafina created a contest that challenged users to create the winning Beastie Boys video to win a trip to the Sundance Film Festival. This campaign targeted MySpace's large group of users with musical and creative interests and allowed Aquafina to participate in a way that users welcomed.
Although experimental, such campaigns have specific performance objectives that match up with the community experience. If successful, they may allow advertisers to exceed their expectations while taking advantage of the internet's fastest growing form of media.
While most of the buzz surrounding social media has focused on communities of interest and consumer-based advertising, the same concepts apply to the professional media space and B2B marketers. Understanding the basic concepts outlined above should provide you with enough information to navigate these new waters and engage with professional communities to achieve your advertising objectives.
Dan Morrison is co-founder and CEO of ITtoolbox, an online community where professionals share knowledge about information technology. Read full bio.