Online Communities: PR Exec ISO Friendship, New Business


While the past year has been a Golden Age of sorts for online communities to grow and prosper, one popular site last week witnessed perhaps the first official coup d'etat against the institution itself. Facebook (http://www.thefacebook.com), which counts millions of people among its members, served as an open forum for rabid protestors to protest ... Facebook. The users were up in arms about the Web site's decision to introduce News Feed, a new feature that allows members to track their friends' Facebook movements on a minute-by- minute basis. Viewed as intrusive, the change has prompted users to form groups and sign online petitions (as a result, the feature has since been removed). But, despite the negative mojo of late, Facebook didn't have much reason to get too defensive; the site, which was available only to students since its inception in February 2004, recently opened its cyber doors to corporations and has benefited (in terms of advertising and sponsorship revenue) accordingly. Facebook is not the only online social network to gain traction among users that are outside the usual demographic - that is, 15-year-olds with learner's permits and curfews. Myspace (http://www.myspace.com) began as a site for musicians to network with one another and display their work, but it is now a juggernaut with more than 100 million members. Plus, in response to the explosive popularity, business-networking sites began springing up in cyberspace, including LinkedIn, Ryze, Ecademy, Spoke and OpenBC. Thus, the burgeoning medium may be somewhat of a Wild West for PR professionals but, if used to its full advantage, could open up unprecedented opportunity in the world of communications. They enable companies to: Market job openings Enhance branding and brand loyalty Advertise effectively despite the increasing fragmentation of media Check references of potential employees by reading the candidate's personal page, should they have one Target audiences with tailored messages Gain customers Respond to negative publicity Despite the relative novelty of online communities as communications vehicles, some pioneering companies have already begun harnessing their power, and to great effect. For example, according to a BusinessWeek cover story last week on online communities, JPMorgan Chase uses Facebook to target college students as potential credit card users. Burger King's new, ubiquitous "King" mascot has his own Myspace page and, with more than 120,000 friends, he is rather popular (though that number may be skewed by Burger King's decision to offer free access to episodes of Fox shows like "24" and "American Dad"). "Consumers respect us more as a brand if we are giving them something they can use," Gillian Smith, senior director of media and interactive at Burger King, said in BusinessWeek. Meanwhile, Mini USA and Intuit both use such sites to develop and maintain brand loyalty, and Chase created a Facebook campaign to reach younger consumers after finding that they prefer to interact with brands in a familiar setting. But, with all the buzz surrounding the most effective way to use blogs still underway among PR professionals, how can they capitalize on yet another techie trend and see it through to its fullest potential? Use it or lose it: Establishing a presence on an online community cannot be done in piecemeal; the ideal audience must be established and understood, and the profile must reflect this understanding. For example, while the 25-54-year-old demographic is the fastest growing one on Myspace, it still makes sense to use that site to target primarily young people - or at least people who are tech-savvy enough to have a presence online. Develop a thick skin: As is the case with blogs, online communities are subject to harsh criticism by any viewer who wishes to wax vitriolic. While a communications executive's initial reaction may be to shy away from putting his or her company in such a vulnerable position, it serves as a forum to hear what consumers want and act accordingly. Unnecessary or over-the-top criticism will be recognized as such by almost everybody. In Burger King's case, the mascot has been desecrated in various video clips where he was made to do less-than-friendly things. However, instead of responding, the page's owners take the "humor" with a grain of salt and let the derelict friends of the King carry on with their creative dissonance. Be clever, creative and credible: Just as online-community users may not be the "traditional" constituents of yore, PR executives who use the medium as a communications vehicle must think outside the box to connect. Dull language and lists of facts and figures do nothing but incite ennui; instead, executives must get creative with the profiles, while still remaining credible and transparent. Otherwise, the page may find itself with a short list of friends - the equivalent of social suicide among users. It can be a blessing - and a curse: These online communities - especially the business-centric ones - are a perfect was to seek out qualified candidates for job openings. For example, LinkedIn hosts seven million users from 130 industries, and basic profiles can be set up for free. However, these sites can be a double-edged sword for job seekers who, should they have a personal account with an online community, must be careful not to post any "unprofessional" information about themselves. It is becoming more prevalent for employers to search the sites for background info on potential candidates, and unbecoming hobbies are an instant strike against them. But, as is always the case, unique opportunities always come with their own set of challenges - a lesson Facebook learned the hard way. The good news, though, is that just as the medium gave users a chance for empowered protesting, it gave its executives a forum to respond. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote the following on the Facebook blog (that's right, a blog within an online community) on September 8: "We really messed this one up. When we launched News Feed and Mini-Feed we were trying to provide you with a stream of information about your social world. Instead, we did a bad job of explaining what the new features were and an even worse job of giving you control of them. I'd like to try to correct those errors now." The entry continues on, addressing users directly with honesty and respect. It's a perfect example of how a company can commit a misstep and then move to rectify the problem, all while using the network to reach out to the affected constituents. It's true that in this age of technology, PR professionals no more than begin to master one thing and it is replaced by something newer, better or faster. If blogging is still the of-the-moment technique, then online-community marketing is the wave of the future. It's an impetus for action to communications executives, who must jump on board or risk being left to eat lunch in the cafeteria at that long, narrow table, alone.

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