Community marketing destroys shareholder value.

Two articles on Metafilter, apparently unrelated: identical messages of support for Ashlee Simpson have appeared online in about fifteen message boards, all signed mandyc19, leading some to speculate that a viral marketing company is trying to start a “groundswell” of support for the once-lipsynching, now known to be just-bad singer—Ashleeturfing, if you will. And AOL has confirmed it will discontinue its AOL Newsgroup interface, ending eleven years of easy participation of AOL customers in Usenet (to the chagrin of many old-time Usenet users; see Eternal September). The connection: commercial actions that damage online community.

Communities anywhere are fragile things, born of the tension between their members’ self interest and their recognition that there is value in sharing a common place with other people. The catch is that communities have enormous value, both to their participants and to others outside them. It’s commonly recognized, even outside Cluetrain circles, that users talking to users about your products can have a far greater impact on purchase and use decisions and brand perception than your own marketing efforts.

This value is a double edged sword for both participants. For marketers, authentic user buzz and word of mouth can make or break your product—look at the buzz around the Tivo vs. the (negative) buzz around copy protected CDs for instance. For users, recognition of that value by marketers can lead to increased value for the community. Look, for instance, at the contributions to Usenet usability brought about by first DejaNews and then Google, or the benefit to the blog community from the New York Times’ RSS feeds.

The negative edge of the sword for users is the insidious part. Look at Usenet in 1993 for instance. AOL made an apparently calculated decision that there was value for their members in being able to participate in the Usenet community, which at that time was a vibrant functioning place with social norms and thousands of users. I got one of my better jobs, my gig at the Electronic Text Center at UVA, through a recommendation from a grad student I “met” in a UVA newsgroup.

After September 1993, a lot of that value was destroyed. First, the influx of new AOL users were unaware of the social protocols (read the FAQ; no flaming; every discussion in its proper place) that allowed Usenet to function, and they were coming faster than the existing Usenet users could educate them. Forums like comp.fonts, where once design professionals talked about the future of digital type, deciphered industry announcements, and critiqued type and print designs, turned into echo chambers for the endless “where can i find a free download of this adobe font kthxbye” messages that started to stream in.

And of course, once there was a large audience on Usenet, advertising was only a matter of time. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Canter and Siegel’s infamous green card spam, widely seen as the first commercial spam on the Internet, happened only seven months after AOL opened the floodgates.

Today the Usenet community is all but extinct. There’s still plenty of traffic, but a lot of it—as of August 2003, the last time Microsoft’s Netscan project rendered the treemap, is in porn and binaries, rather than discussions. Faced with the combination of declining value and increasing liabilities (such as the Harlan Ellison lawsuit over the availability of copyrighted works through Usenet), what else could AOL do but shut off the tap?

Or, to look at it another way, once you’ve removed the top of the mountain and stripped out everything of value, there’s no reason to stay there.

So what is the connection to Ashlee Simpson? Take the points in order:

  1. Online user community resource (chat rooms and message boards)
  2. Recognition of value and attempt to exploit (viral marketing)
  3. Destruction of value (i.e. Simpson’s career)

This isn’t new; it’s been going on at least since 1999, when an Internet marketing firm started talking up a young Christina Aguilera’s debut single online (see the WSJ article). But it doesn’t seem to be getting any less clumsy.

What’s the lesson? Community can help a company’s bottom line, but it’s a living thing, not a resource to be exploited, and any attempt on the part of the company to interact with it has to be done honestly and with integrity. If there’s a good example for this, it might be Robert Scoble’s blogging on behalf of Microsoft. Scoble makes his biases clear, but he listens, and he participates in the blogging community according to its norms. Or look at He’s a participating member of the community. That makes all the difference.

(Disclaimer: I worked on online community at Microsoft in 2001, helping to shape the company’s strategy toward working with independent online communities, and in 2004, helping to launch the company’s blog portal. Therefore, there’s a pretty good chance I’m biased in favor of the Microsoft’s efforts.)