Rob Kozinets on the origin of online communities

October 14th, 2008

people are just building stuff - by themselves!

When it comes to online communities, the "community" side came first. That was my key takeaway from a presentation by Professor Robert Kozinets last night at the University of Auckland .

Online communities are part of a larger trend, one that Kozinets calls the "tribal movement" that started several decades ago. On a graph, he showed us societal trends from the 1940s until now.

The importance of education: up.
Media & consumer culture: up.
Traditional community: down.

The upshot? We seek community in media and consumer environments. We also, because of our greater levels of education, want to know more about the things we consume.

This combination has led to what the professor calls the "geekification" of culture. Our knowledge and search for meaning combine to lead to movements or tribes like:

  • Harley-Davidson owners
  • Coffee snobs
  • Trekkies (Kozinets did his thesis on Trekkies!)
  • Grateful Dead fans

When the internet came along, it simply allowed these tribes to find each other. Which, interestingly, is what I’ve been saying all along. It’s not about technology, it’s about people. It just means the end of the mainstream.

Kozinets identified eight key points about what he calls "Etribes". In fact, these eight points all start with E! (As Andrew Long tweeted to me, Kozinets is a pure marketer!) Here they are:

  • electronic (duh!)
  • entangled – the old boundaries between, say, people I know at work and people in my family, are starting to overlap, as anyone who’s on Facebook can attest
  • enculturating – these communities quickly create cultures that educate/socialise certain behaviours
  • emotive – from coffee to Star Trek, these communities elicit a high emotional connection.
  • experiential – there’s a lot of creativity going on in these communities.
  • empowered – for example, the hummer-humping community . There is power in numbers, and some people really know it!
  • evangelical – "people want to get other people into stuff" … it’s "kinda spiritual". Even coffee!
  • emergent – these communities tend to emerge on their own, and don’t do well when tightly controlled by a company (even if the company started the community!)

Kozinets then took us through some action steps, which involved marketers harnessing online communities for:

  • insight – mining the wealth of unsolicited opinion and information on your brand, your category, your world
  • innovation – new product development, for example Dell’s Ideastorm site.
  • intensification – in other words, spreading of ideas. One warning: the ideas will change as they spread. Can your brand handle that?

Prof. Kozinets had some excellent turns of phrase throughout the evening, but I believe his best one was:

"We are just beginning to understand how marketing must change."

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