First of all, I think the question itself is not framed properly. While many social media bloggers are addressing the question of "build vs. join," I think the real question is slightly different: Should a company join, or should they build and join? The third option--to build and not participate in existing social media outlets--provides no benefits and has one enormous drawback: What is to be gained by avoiding the communities in which consumers already spend their time? Assuming the goal of any community strategy is to engage consumers, why ignore the tens of millions of consumers and billions of discussions that are already occurring?
Having reframed the question as whether to "join" or "build and join", here's the answer: It depends upon the strength of your brand. To suggest there is one answer for every brand and every enterprise is to ignore the vital importance of brand strength to community-building efforts. A one-size-fits-all approach to community building fails to account for whether the brand has sufficient affinity with consumers to encourage them to join, give up their information, commit time, and engage with others.
Open your refrigerator--how many brands do you see? Twenty? Thirty? More? What would it take to encourage you to join thirty or more communities, each one dedicated to a food brand? While there are compelling reasons for consumers to share information with each other about the food they consume--health, diet, safety, recipes, etc.--is it reasonable to believe consumers will go through the effort of signing up, visiting, participating, and engaging in separate communities for their preferred brands of milk, soda, cheese, bacon, corn dog, butter, sour cream, yogurt, ice cube, ketchup, banana, salsa, water, apple, and baking soda?
As if the brands in your refrigerator aren't demanding enough, open your closets, your kitchen cabinets, your garage, your toolbox, your laundry room, your cosmetic case, your wallet, and your purse. How many brands are part of your world? How many communities can you join? As you consider the question of a hundred branded communities all vying for your attention, do you hear that little voice in the back of your head? It's saying:
"To heck with all you brands thinking you're so darn interesting and expecting me to be part of your community. I'm not going to join you; you can join me!"If you're reading this blog, chances are you are juggling too many social networks already. You may be trying to figure out why you need a profile on both Facebook and MySpace. Professionally, must you update and check both Plaxo and LinkedIn? And if you're like me, you're questioning your participation in the three or four different microblog sites to which you subscribe. And as if monitoring and participating in social media hasn't become complex enough, now our brand of broccoli wants us to join its private branded community?!?!
Although many recommend every enterprise launch its own branded community, its important each brand first assess whether consumers have sufficient awareness and trust, if the brand offers a compelling point of differentiation, and if they can furnish a reason for consumers to want to engage and stay engaged. These are tough questions that require objective self-assessment, and marketers have to fight their natural tendency to believe their brands are beloved.
I don't believe, for example, that the average dairy brand has a very compelling reason to nurture it's own community. I like my milk, but I have a functional relationship with the brand. Having my milk brand ask me to join a milk community is like having my dry cleaner ask me to go to dinner. I rely on both my preferred milk brand and my dry cleaner, but I don't really have a "relationship" with either; nor do I want one.
This isn't to say that some dairy brands don't have an opportunity to create a community, but it depends upon the strength of the brand. A small local dairy that appeals to a rabid fan base of consumers who "buy local" might create a community around how neighbors can support area producers. A different milk brand that has successfully fostered a strong and recognized point of differentiation around healthy children might foster a community of parents concerned with the health and safety of their kids.
In my opinion, a brand that is strong enough to draw a sizable audience of consumers into a community sufficiently active to sustain itself is the exception and not the rule. And with consumers actively engaged in open communities available to marketers, why invest in the tools to create a community and the promotion to seed the community with members? The future of marketing isn't about how to get consumers to be part of your brand but how your brand can be part of their lives.