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By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

No, I am not about to present a sociological treatise here. I want to talk about what it feels like to be a member of a community -- a research community. We quite literally ask questions of a good deal of community members. Most of the time we don't give much thought to them, as long as they are there ready to do their job. Is that fair? Is that short-sighted?

What brought this to mind was that a number of months back, the manufacturer of the car I drive asked me -- ME! -- to become a member of its users' group. I was honored and excited. Now, I would be able to find out what the latest models would look like before anyone else. I could explain why I liked its most recent, smaller engine. I could have a real impact on the next generation of cars.

Not!

Since that time the manufacturer has indeed had questions for me. What are my favorite social media sites? Where do I see automobile advertising? Am I adventurous or conservative? Do I adopt new technology before most of my friends?

I've morphed into "sample."

Apart from my incredible naivete at not recognizing that this would happen, what is there to be learned from this experience? There are several lessons for us:


  • It didn't take me long to become annoyed. I am much less likely to respond to my manufacturer's entreaties for help. In fact, I am less likely to even open the e-mail from "owners group." I know I am no longer special; I know my thoughts on future cars are really not important.

  • And, my opinion of the manufacturer has taken a hit. I used to regard it as seriously at the forefront of engineering excellence. Now, I hesitate to say, they are just another marketer.



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When we build communities with the intention of creating a captive sample, we are entering into what has to be a reciprocal relationship with consumers. They expect to help us; we need to ask questions they consider relevant or else they will turn on us and the brands we represent.

Focus group facilities used to have little signs at the front desk -- "Your Opinion Counts!" When we build communities, we need to be sure that those opinions count for something consumers regard as relevant.