The Value of Online Communities

The following is a quote from Sean O’Driscoll’s blog. Sean is the General Manager of Microsoft’s MVP program, of which I am a 10 year vetran (a third of my life…scary!). Since I run online communities for a living, community is something that’s always on my mind. Sometimes people have a hard time grasping what online communities are, how they come into being, and why for many companies they can create massive opportunities – but also many challenges. Sean’s take on community was particularly interesting as he used an example from his own life:

“One of my hobbies (obsessions according to my wife) is BBQing. I won’t get into the passions that surround debate on this subject here, but be assured they are as strong and deep as any topic I’ve ever seen. So, here’s the story – and yes, it is 100% true (these must be for it to work). A few years ago, my wife bought me a BBQ for Christmas, technically a smoker ( One of the first things I did was go online to register the product. I immediately discovered an online community hosted at the site. By the end of the day, I was reading post after post from a guy named “smokin’ okie.” I was lurking like crazy all the time (and slowly starting to post). As the months went by, I didn’t really give this a lot of thought relative to my day job on communities at Microsoft. But, one day it hit me. I was using this BBQ WAY more frequently than the average person uses a BBQ. I was buying accessories for it. I was recommending it to others (I can name 5 people I recommended it to who now own one). I was using it in non-standard ways – things you won’t read in the manual (by the way, this really builds loyalty as you’re not sure you could do it with a competitor.)

It also dawned on me that my motivations for being in that community were very diverse. I sought recipes, trouble shooting, tips and tricks, product recommendations, social connections, and on and on – I was really forming relationships. Since then, that cookshack has become a center piece of a full outdoor kitchen I had built to extend my addiction to bbqing. So, how did this relate to Microsoft for me? Well, let me tell you, software and computers are not a lot different than BBQing. What does every company want? They want you to use their products more. They want you to use a richer set of its features and capabilities. They want you to add onto it. They want you to recommend it and they want it to become a focal point in your life. It’s really the dream scenario – if communities could do that for me with BBQ, couldn’t we do the same with software – another topic with massive passions!! Now, don’t use BBQing (unless it’s true for you), but do figure out what your “bbq story” is. What you are trying to do is create a vivid story that helps others discover their own story – then you’ve got them.”

That’s what online communities are all about: people with a shared interest coming together to trade information about their passion.

Messenger Live: Where’s the Download Link?


It’s funny how marketing people think sometimes: they’ll focus on all sorts of minute details, but when it comes down to the most important one, they forget it. Windows Live Messenger alerted me today that there was an update out – version 8.1. I declined to do an auto-update, so I clicked on the “More Info” link to (I thought) get taken to a page where I could download the setup program for 8.1 and install it at my leisure. I was taken to this site, a promotional area for Windows Live Messenger. I was expecting to see a “Download Now” link somewhere on there…nothing. I thought maybe it was a Firefox thing, so I loaded up the page in IE. Same thing. I clicked around to various pages and not one had a download. Lots of promotional material telling me how great the product is? Check. A download link so I could see for myself? Nada. I saw a feedback link, so I thought I could at least submit some input that a download link would be helpful. Clicking the link simply took me to the top of the page. Lame. I ended up having to manually edit the URL to get to a page with a download link. Doesn’t anybody check these things before they put it out for the whole world to see?

Offshore Hiring

The ‘Net has sure allowed for some very interesting ways of doing business. My primary designer/developer for Thoughts Media lives in Italy. I just hired a developer in India, through Elance, to develop a script to allow me to upload and manage wallpaper images over at Zune Thoughts. Offshore hiring might be a problem if you’re the one getting underbid by people doing devleopment for $10 an hour, but if you’ve got a small business like mine and you have a limited budget, but have big goals, hiring help from other spots in the world – where your dollar goes further – is your only option. And it’s not like this is new – before companies started going offshore, they’d use interns or students for less expensive workplace help. I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out…

Clever Use of the Word “Neener”


It’s not often you see the words “Neener, neener, neener” in ad advertisement, but that’s exactly what I saw in the bottom of a Windows Live Messenger chat window. I clicked on it, and was taken to a Web site about DLP technology (they don’t burn in like plasma TVs can). Well done marketing person – it got me to click. Too bad I already own a DLP. 😉

Does Sex Sell Domains?


Leading up to CES, I was bombarded with a steady stream of communication, some from talented, relationship-building professionals, and some from cheap PR flaks who are an insult to the industry. One such cheap PR stunt came from a company called Dotster (no links, I don’t want to give them any more publicity than I have to). Dotster is a Go-Daddy wannabe, offering domains, Web hosting, etc. Somehow they thought that, rather than offering innovative services that customers would want and building their business on that, they’d instead use the oldest marketing trick in the book: sex. So they launched a nation-wide “talent” <chuckle> search looking for “ambassadors” <chuckle> near the end of 2006. Just before CES they picked the best “talent” and sent everyone a press release about it – complete with a link to download an image of the new “ambasadors”. Morbidly curious about the results, I downloaded the image and it was exactly what I thought: five “babes” in sexy poses. Check out the 57 megapixel version (yeah, that’s right 50-freaking-7-megapixels, 9526 x 6029 pixels). They say there’s no such thing as bad PR, but although I now know the name of the company, I know they’re more interested in cheap marketing tricks than focusing on their services. In the interest of fairness though, I should note that GoDaddy isn’t exactly above similar tactics – but at least they make no pretense of their advertising model being an “ambasador”. They hired Danica Patrick for that – she might be pretty to look at, but the lady also has skills!

Product Placement: It Will Be Big in 2007


Marketing people have been saying that product placement is the next “big thing” in advertising, but up until recently it’s been fairly subtle in most instances. Sure, there are the blatantly obvious “pass me a can of Coke” shots in TVs and movies, but most of the things I’ve seen have been noticing a Dell logo as the camera passes an LCD monitor in a CSI episode, or seeing a brief glimpse of a Nikon logo as the characters use the camera to take pictures (also in CSI). The image above was taken from a recent episode of Smallville, and it was probably the most blatant product placement I’d seen in years. The camera must have stayed on that shot of the Sprint logo & phone for a good two seconds – far longer than the user needed to grasp that it was Chloe that was calling. Is this the future of advertising? Some would say yes – we live in the era of the PVR and Tivo, where commercials are irritating distractions that we all want to skip past (I fall into this camp – I loathe real-time TV now). Advertising is what pays for most of the shows we want to watch however, so eventually there’s going to be a fall-out with advertisers who know no one is watching their ads. Until that happens, there will continue to be experiments with product and brand promotions inside our TV and movie content. How bad will it get before we start to feel like we’re watching one long commercial? That’s a topic for another day…