In this article, Simon Mielniczuk, former editor of the OHPE Bulletin, asks us to stretch our thinking and perspectives, and look at how the familiar processes of community mobilization are being adopted by companies using the Internet. He challenges us to use our community development principles, "go to where people are gathered and interact with them" and bring a much-needed health promotion perspective to these online communities.
In past issues of the OHPE bulletin we have looked at using the Internet for social activism (#117 Aug. 6/99), for community networking and self-help (#64 Jul 24/98, #80 Nov 13/98) and for developing electronic resources (#103, May 4/99); and we have looked at community mobilizing and social marketing. Here, some provocative new directions are suggested for health promoters to jump in and be heard as this new phenomenon of 'online communities' is being redefined. Your comments are welcome! Send to [email protected] or directly to the author - [email protected]
A. Community Organizing & e-Commerce
When was the last time you heard of a community agency deploying a 'Community Organizer'? For the past several years, the only social change organizations still actively engaging professional organizers are unions, until recently. Community organizers are now the darlings of e-Commerce. The value of community organizers and the communities they organize can now be expressed in precise economic terms. Virtual communities are essential to successful e-commerce. Until they become some form of community, commercial
sites on the Internet are just places. It is the combination of people, their interaction with each other and with the content of the site that
makes for a successful online community and successful commercial venture. The new Community Organizer weaves these together through combinations of outreach, engagement, participation, leadership development, services and sustainability.
B. The Business Case for Online Communities
Hagel and Armstrong (1997) translate these activities into the business case for online communities. Early stages of the process will resonate with those familiar with community organizing, development or social marketing. The 'pay-off' of later stages may appear different, but I will suggest ways in which there can be shared interests. The first stage requires attracting members to the online community through a combination of free services, interesting content, and extensive marketing. Content and enriched ccommunication is the second stage. Guest speakers and writers provide specialized content of interest to the growing community. Community member
loyalty is the goal of the third stage. Mutual support among members, responsiveness from the community organizers, special services supporting individual and small group interests are all important to keep people in the community. The value of all this community organizing comes in the fourth stage when members start purchasing and following the banner ads to suggested items and services. By following the interests and the navigation behaviour of community members it is possible to make personalized recommendations. At this stage, enhanced versions of the free services command fees.
The economics of this process revolve around the cost of getting members into the community, the value of these members as measured by their direct purchases, their viewing and following of site ads, and their mobility. In summary, the goal of e-commerce sites is to attract as many people as possible and to get the right kind of person staying around as long as possible.
C. Building An Online Community for Health Promotion
Online communities and online users are growing in numbers. Competition for attention and participation is also increasing. Much of what I've written so far can be applied to both commercial and non-profit online venues.
Organizing and development processes are almost identical. Growth and sustainability are similarly important. What I would like to do is stimulate thinking about the potential of this competition for community for the quality of life concerns important to the readers of OHPE.
There are various models or approaches for building online communities. OHPE itself is an example of a strictly non-profit approach. From its beginnings as a shared vehicle for collecting and distributing contributions from the health promotion community in Ontario, it evolved into a format of more specialized feature content acquired by guest contributors. The next version will see the addition of select searching. The use of that search capability can be logged and analyzed to provide insight into the concerns of the user community. It can also be used to serve up special announcements on areas of related interest. Similar thinking went into my earlier work on the Canadian Health Network [http://www.canadian-health-network.ca].
D. Commerical Models of Online Communities - Broad Public to Specific Populations of Interest
Commercial models are everywhere on the Net. The vary in their focus from broad public audience to specialized industries and highly focused personal and professional communities. Most of the big directory and search engine sites moved quickly to establish online communities. Lycos now runs Tripod (http://www.tripod.com/). Excite offers a directory of online communities (http://www.excite.com/communities/directory/). Yahoo works with Geocities (http://geocities.yahoo.com/home/). Each of these attempts to aggregate as many people as possible into defined areas of interest. Joining is free and setting up discussion groups, shared files, home pages and other features is quite simple. Some create online communities by focusing on shared application features. Visto (http://www2.visto.com/login.html?), eGroups (http://www.eGroups.com/) and e-Circles (http://www.ecircles.com) offer free
private spaces into which the user can invite others. The functionality of these spaces in impressive. Within each of these areas the community member has many opportunities to view ads, establish gift registries, or set up free mass distribution lists for the price of an attached advertisement. In each of these instances the combination of volume of users and group profiling based on registration details, community selection, navigation and searching on the site establishes the commercial value of the community.
At the other end of the spectrum from the general internet public sites are the portal sites serving identified interests. Vortals, that is, vertical portals, create business communities of people and organizations who regularly buy and sell from each other. Among the most notable of these is VerticalNet (http://www.verticalnet.com/). Visiting a few, one can see that a common format and infrastructure provides industry and profession specific services. One can see the latest news and research, find a job, download an RFP, and set up links to a storefront.
These are only a select few examples. Those interested in exploring online communities or maybe looking for a new application of their community building skills should visit the Online Community Report site.
E. Implications for Health Promotion
What are the implications of these developments for health promotion? Many of the health promotion organizations and professionals reading this bulletin are already working differently. The growth of online commerce, community and content will change these again. People in communities will be getting their information in different ways and spending leisure tiem differently. There are concerns about its impact on participation (Blanchard and Horan, 1998). They suggest that these venues are good ways to disseminate community information. The advanced personalization features of these system can direct people to both virtual and face to face community venues.
One of the first principles of community work is to appreciate the community as it is. These new virtual communities are changing our very understanding of the word community. They blur the distinctions between commercial and social exchange. Once the meeting place for a small, usually well-educated, minority of the population, they are now expanding into mainstream culture. Health promotion, for the most part, is funded by public funds applied to geo-political units. Practice and research innovators will get beyond these restrictions, perhaps by teaming up with other such units, to explore and exploit these new venues.
Commercial developers are hungry for content and interaction. Health promotion is a source of both. We have not yet explored the possibilities for collaboration with commercial sites or for the appropriate use of sponsorships and advertising to support online social marketing efforts. There are many new community organizers on the Net. They travel in different circles from health promotion practitioners. Both their interests, the size and focus of their communities provide opportunities for new ways of engaging people in healthy change.
A. Simon Mielniczuk - Director
MarketLink - improving performance through strategy and technology
416.260.2800 x277 / 416.260.2893 F
Blanchard, A., Horan,T. (1998). Virtual communities and social capital. Social Science Computer Review 16, pp. 293-307.
Hagel III, J., Armstrong, A. (1997). Net gain: expanding markets through virtual communities. Boston, HBR Press.
Online Community Report - http://www.onlinecommunityreport.com/ - best location to stay up to date on social, economic and technical news related to online community organizing.