Communispace: Imitation community and the future of this space

Fake Elvis

Did you know that a ripe banana has more than 150 taste components? And beyond that, “taste” is influenced by the visual appearance, the aroma, and even source of purchase. It’s no wonder that when scientist head to the lab to recreate “banana”, what they develop is something far different than a fresh, ripe tasty banana.

In his book, Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser described his experience with flavor chemists at International Flavors & Fragrances:

Before placing each strip of paper in front of my nose, I closed my eyes. Then I inhaled deeply, and one food after another was conjured from the glass bottles. I smelled fresh cherries, black olives, sautéed onions, and shrimp. Grainger’s most remarkable creation took me by surprise. After closing my eyes, I suddenly smelled a grilled hamburger. The aroma was uncanny, almost miraculous — as if someone in the room were flipping burgers on a hot grill. But when I opened my eyes, I saw just a narrow strip of white paper and a flavorist with a grin.

But it wasn’t a hamburger. Or cherries. Or black olives. It was a trick, a technically impressive trick, but a trick nonetheless. Schlosser might have truly believed he was smelling a grilling hamburger… if only he’d just kept his eyes shut.

At Community 2.0 two weeks ago, Dan Comenduley from United Airlines presented an overview of the community project he’s running for frequent fliers. Communispace is powering the project, and the focus is on gathering insights from frequent fliers. This group is limited with only 600 (exactly twice as much as Communispace’s suggested and typical 300) and has little to no connection with the rest of the company, according to Dan. He talked a great deal about how the project was “creating relationships” with customers and about how they’re building “long-term community”. But it’s not community, it’s a marketing research focus group. When he closes his eyes, it’s easy to envision that this is more than insight gathering but that ignroes the smiling vendor and the narrow strips of imitation community.

At that same event, Communispace client Andy Hessabi from Network Solutions presented a similar session about working with Communispace. He’s generating customer insights, yet believing he’s creating long-term community.

Back in November, I saw another Communispace client speak about another project at the WOMMA event. Hilton Hotels’ research director shared the success they’re having with “community” too, with their goal also being research insight gathering. Specifically, Hilton wanted to find non-loyalists to talk to them about what Hilton could do to transition them into loyalist activities and mindset. After about 6 months of interacting with the company, however, these non-loyalists had actually started to become bad non-loyalist test subjects. Hilton’s research director said something to effect of “… it’d be really great to have a ‘retirement community’ for these folks to go once we kick them out of the program, but it’s just too expensive”. That’s not community Hilton is creating, it’s better donuts on the refreshment table at the focus group. But to hear her talk about the project, it was “community”.

This isn’t a rant about Communispace as much as a rant against the idea that we can find easy, quick solutions that are easily outsourced when we decide we want to “build community”. Communispace is, at its core, a market research tool provider and they’re pitching the solution they have, like we all do. They do what they do very well and are certainly generating insights for clients. There are others in the space, but no one seems to have generated the level of attention, at least at the events I attend, as they do.

The real question is this: Is their success actually blurring the lines so dramatically between real community and imitation community that we’ll soon see no real distinction between the two?

Agencies and vendors alike are building solutions for clients that allow them to write a check and have instant community. Marketing folks are looking for the quick and easy ways to leverage community interaction for the betterment of the short-term bottom line. I fear the unintended consequences of this desire to skip the hard, long-term work of building honest relationships.

History shows us that unintended consequences are all too common. Prohibition was establish to reduce drinking, but in turn lead to the explosion of organized crime. Pro football added modernized pads and the sport became more dangerous rather than less. The creation of low-tar cigarettes drive smoking rates up significantly. It was hoped that the digital office would reduce or even eliminate the use of paper, but instead drove paper consumption through the roof.

It’s not unrealistic to think that there may be a significant long-term effect on business by these short-term, marketing research driven community efforts. After all, social media, customer communities, and the demand for consumer control has largely stemmed from the mass marketing approach of past decades.

Will we look back in 5 or 10 years and wonder why customers are rejecting “community” like they are currently rejecting “marketing”?