Once upon a time, Nike was in the business of selling athletic shoes.
And sell athletic shoes, they did – capturing 50% of the market by 1980, before beginning large-scale advertising or even going public. But success attracts competitors and creates depressed margins, and as other companies got into the shoe game, Nike branched out to apparel, dress shoes (via an acquisition of Cole Haan), and niche sports (hockey, skateboarding).
But with the introduction of Nike+ in 2006, the company began selling something radically different: it began offering users a social platform, a place to connect with like-minded people from around the world. Sure, that platform will sell an awful lot of shoes – but for the thousands of Nike+ members, the social experience is the product and the shoes are an afterthought.
Beyond the platform itself, which remains extremely impressive from a technical perspective, the Nike+ community was an ingenious social marketing move by Nike: for those who bought running shoes from the company in the first place, it was an opportunity to reinforce the brand relationship on a daily basis; for those who didn’t, it was a chance to get a piece of Nike hardware in the shoe anyway. As an avid runner, I’ve performed shoe surgery on several occasions to fit a sensor into a non-Nike shoe.
We’ve noted this trend playing out across the consumer space: players in industries from music to kitchen appliances are hoping to leverage the power of their userbase to create positive switching costs. But there’s a big risk in putting your brand in the hands of a broad community: people aren’t always nice or helpful, they occasionally act in illegal or unethical ways, and even the majority who act in good faith can be thrown off by poorly-aligned incentives or bad design.
If social platforms are the products of the future, it stands to reason that community designers and managers are the marketers of the future – the ones who make interaction with the brand a useful, fun, and safe experience.
So what makes a great community manager? Academically, a background in social science or humanities helps. Personality-wise, tech savvy, patience, understanding and meticulousness (for enforcing, to the letter, what can be arcane rules that govern interaction on the platform) are all important. A strong eye and brain for how people communicate on the web is essential.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more on how to design optimal user communities. In the meantime, MLC members can check out our social media resources and our work on radical innovation, which includes information on social platforms as lock-in devices.
Interested in other emerging marketing roles? Get a free copy of our profile of the New Media Ringmaster in Harvard Business Review.