Everything you always wanted to know about web community, and then some

It's been a long time since I posted, and I apologize. In addition to doing a bunch of work for clients at Rubicon, I have been preoccupied with a big strategy project we just finished, on online community. We released the results today, and I think you might find them interesting, so here's a summary.

In our strategy work with tech companies, we're frequently asked about web communities -- how they operate, what they can and can't do, and how a company should work with them. The companies we deal with generally fall into three camps when it comes to community:

--Many companies are still learning about online community and don't know what to do or what to expect.

--Some companies have already tried some online community activity, but were disappointed -- often because they attracted only a few enthusiasts rather than the masses of end users they expected.

--And of course some companies run successful web communities, either as a sideline or as their core business. They're very hungry for information on how other communities operate, and insights on what they could do better.

To help deal with all of those questions, we conducted a study of online community in the US. We surveyed more than 3,000 US web users on their overall internet usage, and then dived deep on their use of online communities and what impact those communities have on their lives. I know some of you will be disappointed that the survey is US-only; we'd be delighted to repeat the research in other parts of the world if anyone wants to sponsor it ;-)

Meanwhile, here are some of the key things we learned:

--Small groups of enthusiasts dominate most online conversations, but that doesn't mean online communities matter only to a narrow segment of people. Most web users read community content rather than contributing to it, and are strongly influenced by the things they see there, especially product reviews and recommendations. Those reviews are now second only to word of mouth as a purchase influencer for web users.

--Because most web users are voyeurs more than contributors, if you're running an online discussion, you should think of it as theatre -- it's a performance in which the community leader(s) interact with a small group of contributors for the education and amusement of the rest of us. All the web's a stage, but we're not all players in it. At least not equal players.

--This means companies that turn away from web communities because they're populated mostly by enthusiasts are missing the point. They've mistaken their fellow actors for the audience. If you're running a community, you need to take care of the active participants in a community so that the rest of the audience will watch and learn.

--If a company needs more incentive to work with the Internet, it turns out that the web has also become the number two source of product support information for web users. After checking the manual, web users are more likely to check a company's website for information or search the web than they are to take traditional steps like calling the manufacturer or asking a dealer. That will be comforting to many companies that want to reduce their support costs, since phone support is very expensive. But how many of those companies have bothered to put detailed support information online, and make sure it's well indexed by the search engines?

--There are an enormous number of tidbits in the study regarding web use. A few items that stood out to me include:

  • -About a quarter of US web users say they have dated someone they first met online.
  • -Although Twitter and SecondLife get a lot of press, their audiences are very narrow when you compare them to major social sites like MySpace, Facebook, and even LinkedIn.
  • -Yahoo is the second most valued website in the minds of US web users, after Google. It's ahead of major web properties like YouTube and Facebook. All of the negative press about Yahoo sometimes makes people forget how strong its user base is.
  • -The major social networks are much more satisfying and useful to teens than they are to adults. In fact, satisfaction with the social sites declines steadily after age 14.
  • -Since we're coming up on an election in the US, it's interesting to look at political ties on the Internet. Democrats are more active online than Republicans, and say the web has a greater influence on their behavior, including voting.
  • -Young people dominate online conversations, with people 22 and under producing about half of all user-generated content and comments. So if you sometimes feel like you're dealing with kids online, it may be because you are.

A full report on the findings is available in PDF format here (link). I know many people don't like to read PDFs online, and besides you can't easily comment on them or link to sections in them. So we've also posted the report online, cut into several sections for easy reading:

Part one summarizes the report, and gives detailed information on the use of community online, and what that means for business (link). This is the section that gives information on community usage rates and the "most frequent contributors" who dominate online conversations.

Part two discusses the leading web destinations in the US, measured in several ways, and discusses the role of community in them (link). This is where you'll find learn about the remarkable membership rate of Classmates.com, the #3 social community site in the US when measured by profiles. We also answer questions like: "Is Facebook more popular than MySpace?" "What do web users value more, Wikipedia or NYTimes.com?" and "What are the top five most-visited types of website?"

Part three talks about the role of community sites in the social lives of Americans (link). This is where we compare Republicans and Democrats online, and look at how different age groups use the social networking sites. We answer questions like: "How many young people lie about their age to get access to websites?" and "How many web users create fake identities online?"

What does it mean to mobile?

I always get that question when I post something that's not directly related to the mobile industry. In part, my answer is that I think this information's useful to anyone who's interested in technology. You're soaking in the internet, and it's good to understand how it works.

But community users don't limit themselves to only PC access, so online community will have a big effect on the mobile industry. It's important to understand what's really happening in the wired internet so you can sort out which mobile web opportunities have the best prospects. For example, I saw a presentation by someone senior at a mobile company the other day, and he was touting the importance of Twitter as a driver for the mobile web. I almost laughed out loud, because I had just been working on our report, and I knew how tiny the Twitter audience is. It's a classic case of people in the tech industry assuming something they use a lot is also being adopted by the masses.

That's not to beat up on Twitter specifically; they have a great base of users. But mainstream they ain't.

The other thing mobile people should think about a lot is the huge role that young people play in the generation of online content. As a group they are vastly more active online than older people. We aren't sure exactly what the cause is. Some of it may be that high school and college students just have a lot more time on their hands, and they spend some of it posting to the web. But probably also some of it is generational. Whatever the cause, it's likely that young users will be some of the heaviest drivers of use of the mobile web, especially the uploading of content and comments.

Not that Apple needs another advantage, but that probably plays to the strengths of the iPhone, because Apple has such a good franchise with young people in the US. It also helps to explain why RIM is trying to reach out to young people. In Europe, I think Nokia and SonyEricsson have a better chance at those users, because their brands are strong with young people. But they'll need the right products as well, which is a subject for other posts...


Phil Hodgen said...

Your analogy -- stage and actors -- rings true for me. I spent quite a while on treocentral.com participating loudly. (Sigh, I loved my Treo 650, problems and all. The Windows Treos? Not so much. And now the G1. 'Bye Palm. But I digress).

Your comments also align with the Seth Godin Tribes book I'm listening to right now.

I think the reason so few companies do well in these web communities is because the people inside the companies are afraid to be real, or are managed away from being real people. There are a few exceptions (yah, sure, on Twitter of course). But you and I can _act_ (to use your analogy) or be raving Enthusiasts (cf. my Treocentral days).

And yeah I probably personally sold 10 Treo 650's for Palm. So this stuff matters.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article Mr. Mace, I'm going to write something about it on my blog (PoderPda.com). I believe that virtual communities and their potential is currently completely unexplored by the big media companies and should be treated with lot of more importance, as they represent a big leap in the social Internet, not only for 22's and below, but even for 25's - 35's.

Reda EK said...

*quote*...he was touting the importance of Twitter as a driver for the mobile web. I almost laughed out loud, because I had just been working on our report, and I knew how tiny the Twitter audience is. It's a classic case of people in the tech industry assuming something they use a lot is also being adopted by the masses.*end of quote*
I guess you are also laughing at the iPhone because the audience is tiny compared to Nokia's audience (sarcastic tone here)...Regarding twitter (which I personally don't use so cannot comment much), I think you are not considering the greater focus of its content which might be more valuable than the size of the userbase

Anonymous said...

Great article... Very complete. Web communities raise a lot of questions for people who don't understand what they are about. I just read the book "Tribes" by Seth Godin, you touch on many of those principlesl here.

Zec Online Journal said...

This online mob / gang dominates conversation so much we often loose focus about real values and problems facing mobile industry