Monday, July 14, 2008

Maslow's Hierarchy: Why People Engage in Online Communities

Yesterday on this blog, we explored how online communities are not created but instead must be nurtured. As a result, marketers and publishers who wish to create a community must approach the challenge in much the same way a gardener approaches his or her annual planting--with careful planning and the knowledge that less work is required to prepare the garden than to maintain it day after day until harvest time.

Of course, a garden can fail for a variety of reasons, but perhaps no decision is more important than where to locate the garden. A site must be selected with appropriate water and drainage, the right combination of sun and shade for the type of plants, physical protection, and above all, fertile soil. If the soil is lacking, the gardener must bring in more or must work harder to achieve desired results.

For marketing-oriented online communities, the equivalent to a garden's soil is the brand. It is the foundation into which a potential community is planted. The brand can provide a solid basis upon which a community can sprout and can nourish the community as it grows. A strong brand with great awareness, positive consumer perception, and an emotional bond with its target audience can produce a community that flowers readily.

But even for strong brands, building a vibrant community takes more than merely linking together a bunch of social media functions. It is vital that community-building strategies be based upon an understanding of why humans join communities, what draws people to one community over another, and what motivates consumers to become ever more active and important members of the community.

Gaining this understanding is important so that online marketers don't repeat the mistakes of the past. This isn't the first time in the history of the Internet that "Community" has become a hot buzz term. Back in the late 90s, marketers took note of the first successful online communities (Usenet, Web-based ones such as The Well, and forums on AOL and Prodigy) and decided their brands needed a community to thrive. The rush into branded bulletin boards and industry portals helped to contribute to the dot-com bubble that crashed so painfully in 2000.

Avoiding past mistakes isn't difficult, provided we take care to understand why people want to be part of communities. We don't need to consider this question from the perspective of new media; in fact, we don't even need to consider the idea of community unto itself. Because communities exist to satisfy human needs, all we need to do is look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to understand how and why virtual communities can be built. (Isn't it great that psychologists have done so much research for we marketers?)

Early human communities formed primarily to provide for people's Physiological and Safety Needs, which are the most basic of human needs according to Abraham Maslow. It was easier for groups of people to specialize in growing or hunting different types of food than for an individual to do it all himself or herself. Also, one's belongings and family could be kept safer when banding together with others.

Online communities don't provide satisfaction for our Physiological needs, but social media-like tools are providing more Safety protection than most of us probably appreciate. Much of the software we use to keep our PCs safe from viruses, spyware, worms, and adware shares information about the malware it finds in order to keep other subscribers safe. And if you've ever had an infection on your PC and went to Google in search of assistance, chances are you ended up on a forum where people with similar computer issues share tips, ideas, and solutions.

These examples of safety-oriented social media don't represent true communities because once our safety needs are quenched, we don't continue to linger in this level of Maslow's pyramid. Instead, Maslow tells us we proceed up the hierarchy to the third level, Love and Belonging.

Once our physiological and safety well-being is assured, we strive to feel loved and part of something larger than ourselves; thus our Belonging needs explain why we visit and join online communities. These needs are satisfied by gathering with people who share common experiences and interests. Finding these people online, listening to or reading their thoughts, and recognizing others share our beliefs, ideas, and values provides us a sense of belonging and acceptance.

The commonalities that draw similar-minded people together may include a sense of altruism, a desire to network for career purposes, or a belief in a higher spiritual power. But since altruism, employment, and faith are not drivers available to most brands, what is available to marketers that can bring people together? The answer is to provide the sorts of experiences that people find they cannot stop from sharing and wanting to repeat.

Is there a better example than Harley-Davidson? Once people straddle a Hog and roar down the road with the wind in their hair, they find they have a set of physical and emotional experiences to which current friends and family may not relate. The powerful and unique Harley-Davidson experience is what drives Harley riders to join Harley Owner Groups with others who understand the shared experience. (Just this weekend, Harley-Davidson's new museum opened in Milwaukee. A good hint that a brand provides the sort of experiences upon which a community can be built is when they can open a museum to itself, charge $16 per person, and expect 350,000 visitors per year.)

The HOG phenomenon is an excellent one to study for those in search of community case studies. It predates the Internet and demonstrates how, although communities can be fostered, they occur organically rather than being forced into existence. As noted on Wikipedia, "Harley-Davidson established the Harley Owners Group in 1983 in response to a growing desire by Harley riders for an organized way to share their passion and show their pride." (Emphasis added.)

It is important to note that prosperous branded communities are sparked by great experience with the brand and not vice versa! It is the experience that motivates consumers to share and to join, and the brand can then leverage this to create an even more powerful experience that drives loyalty, further differentiation, and additional sales.

This doesn't mean that communities cannot be used to build brands, but to do so you must first offer a differentiated and powerful experience. You can see this recipe of community success not only with Harley-Davidson, but with Disney, Starbucks, Dell, Zappos, sports teams, political candidates, movies, bands, and video games.

While it's easy to see how the experience of riding a Harley may spark the sort of reaction that makes people want to share, it doesn't take heart-pounding, engine-roaring excitement to trigger a consumer's desire to belong. Zappos has built a base of fanatical fans and a sense of community through nothing but stellar customer service. Zappos fans paste "Do you heart Zappos, too?" messages into their Facebook sites and join the company's president for drinks (in response to an invitation broadcast on Twitter!)

Maslow's Belongingness explains how people first enter communities. They don't join as a fully-engaged and contributing members, but instead as lurkers (who visit and read the contributions of others but do not participate themselves) or as totally or partially anonymous members (with profiles that are private or that mask their identify).

Visiting and joining a community--even without contributing--provides a sense of shared and communal interests, thus satisfying our needs for belongingness. But the Belonging stage doesn't really explain why people go further, revealing more about themselves, blogging their personal observations, opening themselves up to public criticism, sharing praise and reviews of current events or pop culture, critiquing others' comments, and becoming the sort of formal or informal leaders that every successful community requires. These actions aren't necessary to gratify our Belonging needs; in fact, these actions can put at risk one's sense of belongingness should other community members disagree with the ideas, remarks, and judgments.

Tomorrow on Experience: The Blog we'll explore how the next stage of Maslow's hierarchy provides the basis for online communities not merely to attract new members but to thrive with the sort of sharing, discourse, and connections that a successful community requires.

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