Cybercommuning: Global Village Halls

Susan Dann, Griffith University
Stephen Dann, Griffith University
[ to cite ]:
Susan Dann and Stephen Dann (1998) ,"Cybercommuning: Global Village Halls", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 379-385.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 379-385

CYBERCOMMUNING: GLOBAL VILLAGE HALLS

Susan Dann, Griffith University

Stephen Dann, Griffith University

INTRODUCTION

Many misconceptions persist as to what marketing is and what impact it has on society. This situation is not helped by the fact that, to date, most marketing related writings on the Internet have concentrated purely on the potential for commercial exploitation. Less prominent in the literature and popular media is the potential of the Internet in the field of social marketing. Social marketing, unlike commercial marketing, is not profit oriented. Instead it uses marketing tools and techniques to increase the effectiveness of socially beneficial campaigns aimed at changing people’s ideas and behaviours. Crucial to the success of social marketing is the acceptance by communities of new standards and behaviours. From this perspective, the computer mediated community or cybercommunity is like any other community-a group of individuals with shared values and standards of behaviour. This paper explores how the concept and existence f cybercommunities can be integrated into social marketing practice to more effectively reach key target audiences.

CONCEPT DEFINITIONS

For the purposes of this paper, several key definitions have been outlined to facilitate understanding, if not necessarily agreement, regarding the key concepts underpinning the paper.

Computer Mediated Communication

Computer mediated communication (CMC) has been defined by Kaye, (1991:p.5) as:

The use of computers and computer networks as communication tools by people who are collaborating with each other to achieve a shared goal, which do not require the physical presence or co-location of participants and which can provide a forum for continuous communication free of time constraints

CMC is the operationalisation of communication paradoxes. It is a composite of written technique with spoken expression, offering both near-immediate interactions along with time shifted communication. In this manner, CMC offers many advantages and disadvantages for the cybercommunity.

The ease of interaction, in conjunction with the immediacy of response, through CMC has resulted in a distinctive informal writing style, which reflects conversational communication rather than formal written exchange. At the present level of technology, the majority of the interactive communication has been conducted in text only environments. Whilst the technology for video conferencing is available, it has yet to match the diffusion of text based communication. Consequently, the focus in this paper is on text based communications.

The most significant advantage of text based communication is the absence of the social cues afforded by face to face communication. As the Internet urban legend states: "in cyberspace, nobody knows you’re a dog" (New Yorker, 1996). Interpersonal communication is punctuated by series of non verbal cues, covering aspects ranging from personal emotional disposition to social status. Within the cybercommunity, the absence of these cues removes many of the barriers associated with perceptions related to age, race, gender or disability (Burgstahler, 1996). In particular, the emphasis moves away from the worth of the communicator, and towards the value of the communicated message. Herein lies the first paradox of the text based medium-the advantage of removing the messenger from the message is in itself a disadvantage. In space, no one can hear you scream. In cyberspace, nobody can see you smile.

Text only interfacing is limited in the extent to which it can express emotion, intention and inflection. Whilst some users of the text based medium have learnt to create metalanguages to convey their feelings, not everyone is either willing, or able, to include their emotional subtext into their wrtten exchanges. The nuances of spoken communication can be represented in text, but these are dependent on the writer recognising their own emotions, and marking them as such. Context plays a major part in the creation of meaning in all forms of communication. The difficulty faced in cyberspace is deriving the author’s context from the text alone, without the benefit of the visual cues associated with face to face communication.

Further, the reduction of social barriers can create an unexpected downside associated with the absence of physical proximity-an atmosphere where social restraint is reduced or removed. It is one thing to type an aggressive statement to a widely dispersed cybercommunity, it is a completely different proposition to make the same statement in a crowded bar. In this sense, the text only environment removes many of the social barriers found in the physical world.

The second paradox of CMC is the availability of both instantaneous, and temporally independent communication. Certain functions of the Internet, such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and multi user environments, offer real time interaction with other individuals. However, the Internet is also capable of delivering time independent communication through newsgroups and e-mail. In these environments temporal and geographic boundaries are eliminated as community members can engage in discussions that are not dependent on the simultaneous presence of all concerned parties. The technology of the Internet has created a twenty-four hour village notice board for cybercommunities. People can talk to the other community members present at the notice board, or leave messages for those not available. In essence, the mixture of immediate and delayed communications can assist cybercommunities in defining a shared virtual territory

The Concept of Community: Two’s company, three’s a community

Definitions of community arise from combinations of shared tangibles such as property, geography and kin, and shared intangibles such as religion, language and knowledge (Burgstahler, 1996; Gottschalk, 1975; McWilliams, 1996). As a result, the community concept underpins many aspects of contemporary civilisation. Government, law, commerce, and society are founded upon the notions of individuals gathering into groups sharing common geographies, areas and common interests.

Prior to the advent of mass communications physical contact defined the boundaries of the community. With the introduction of reliable long distance communication tools, community became less dependent on physical contact, and began a long journey from geographic limits to technological constraints. However, before cybercommunities can become defined, or definable, the components of the real world communities must first be examined.

Components of Community

In terms of identifying communities, both on and offline, several basic 'components’ have been noted as recurring themes, or structures. Rheingold (1993) proposed a method of identifying communities by looking for 'collective goods of value’-the elements that bind a group together. To thisend, the following list is not so much a checklist of values, as a guideline for the type of 'collective goods’ that have been identified as the basis for communities: shared suffering, experience or belief; a common or unifying interest; participation and involvement; sense of belonging, or 'sense of community’; social network capital; and shared knowledge basis (Bell and Newby, 1972; Burgstahler, 1996; Gottschalk, 1975; McWilliams, 1996; Rheingold, 1993; Wild, 1981). Rheingold (1993) defines social network capital as the preexisting social ties or connections between individuals within an established electronic group.

Cybercommunities

Cybercommunities predate the Internet (McWilliams, 1996). Telephone chat lines or party lines have been used as cornerstones of rural communities for several decades. Regular multiple user telephone conversations became the basis for electronic gatherings, particularly in areas where geography prohibits easy access to other people. In industry, teleconferencing and video conferencing have facilitated business communities developing without community members having actually met face to face. The historical development and evolution of the cybercommunity concept is beyond the scope of this paper, and will not be discussed.

Cyberspace is a Place: The Technicalities of Cybercommunities

As outlined, part of the core concept of the notion of community is the shared environment or 'geography’. For electronic communities, there are several 'cybergeographies’ in which communities can develop. There are two types of online geographic locations, structured artificial worlds such as MUDS (Multi User Dungeons), Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and newsgroups (USENET), and the more nebulous electronic social spheres, such as electronic mailing lists. The differentiating feature between the two locations is the aspect of permanence-MUDS, IRC and the USENET have defined structures that exist independent of the users-for instance, once installed on a server, a multiuser dungeon continues to operate and exist, even when there are no users logged into the system. Similarly, IRC channels and newsgroups can be fixed locations that develop distinct 'features’ akin to environmental landmarks. In this manner, these environments have an almost physical presence. In contrast, electronic social spheres are created by interaction between members. These environments are not dependent on location for existence-rather they exist when and where social interaction in a non structured environment (ie e-mail, or mailing lists) occur.

Cybercommuning Defined

For the purpose of this aper, cybercommuning is defined as the seamless integration of communications technology with social interaction between members of a cybercommunity. Cybercommunities arise where cybercommunication-computer mediated interaction between individual people-surpasses pure information exchange to become a social support network. The support network does not exclude information exchange which can still be present, and often remains the dominant reason for communication. The differentiating factor is the tacit understanding of shared experience, care and community present in cybercommuning. Cybercommunication on the other hand is based on the exchange of information between individuals.

The unique advantages of Internet communications, which combine anonymity with two way, 24 hour access, information and communication, have given rise to cybercommunities and it is within this context that social marketing could have the most impact. Cybercommunities have emerged as a consequence of Internet based newsgroups and e-mail listings. When a user joins a special interest group, such as a newsgroup, they communicate directly with a number of other users with a particular interest. Many of these newsgroups revolve around hobbies or television shows, or discussion topics such as rec.arts.television. However, there also exist support groups for people who have specific problems or issues that they want to resolve or on which they need more information. For example, there are support newsgroups for young homosexuals who are having problems in coming to terms with their sexuality such as alt.teen.gay and alt.teen.lesbian. Such groups allow the user to communicate directly with other people who have the same issues to resolve yet avoid any concerns about being recognised. By not being constricted by standard geographic and time constraints, it is possible to meet a wider range of people with similar experiences through the Internet than it would otherwise be feasible to do. For example, it is unlikely that two people living several thousand miles away would ever meet under normal circumstances, and much less likely that they would be discussing intimate problems within a few minutes of any such meeting taking place, although they may both be experiencing similar problems. Through the access and anonymity afforded by the Internet and cybercommunities, however, it is possible for these people to "meet" in a different context and provide mutual support.

While the creation of cybercommunities was a spontaneous outcome of the spread of the Internet, recognition of their importance in bringing together people who are socially or geographically isolated has resulted in the rise of planned communities. For example, in Australia, the Department of Social Security ran an experimental program, the Community Information Network, which went out into rural areas, and provided public access to the Internet, in places such as in the local libraries and even public bars, to encourage isolated towns to become part of the Internet community. Key benefits for rural users of this program related to access to information and services which would not otherwise have been available. For example, while many basic preventative health issues are not currently adequately addressed in isolated areas relevant information for individuals and rural medical workers can be accessed through the Internet. One particular beneficiary of this experiment were women’s shelters where the cybercommunity concept was used in conjunction with an existing shelter and support scheme to provide abused women with a safe, anonymous means of joining an online support or social group. The safety of the Internet provided these women with a sense of empowerment in taking control of the relationships formed in cyberspace, a benefit which, for many, flowed on to other, face to face encounters.

SOCIAL MARKETING

An understanding of what social marketing is, and just as importantly, what it is not, is crucial to its effective use in cybercommunities. Confusion as to the boundaries of social marketing exist both from the perspective of the marketing traditionalists who consider social applications to be beyond the scope of traditional marketing practice and those who claim social marketing is a framework for all socially based campaigns.

Over the past twenty-five years the definitions of social marketing have become increasingly complex. From the simple concept of broadening marketing’s uses to sell changes in ideas and behaviours, social marketing has become a social change management technology (Kotler and Roberto, 1989; Andreasen, 1995). Before offering a succinct definition of social marketing, the following paragraphs, which have been derived from Andreasen (1995), Dann (1996) and Kotler and Roberto (1989) outline the key elements which need to be considered.

First and foremost, social marketing differentiates itself from other social change techniques through its association with marketing. As part of marketing, social marketing must reflect the underlying principles of the discipline. Marketing is not simply a set of tools, it is an underlying organisational philosophy based on consumer sovereignty. In the same way, social marketing campaigns are more than just the use of marketing specific tools and techniques. For a campaign to be considered social marketing it needs not only to show evidence of using the basic tools of market research, segmentation and the marketing mix, it must use them with a consumer or client focussed orientation. Without the underlying philosophy of marketing driving the organisation, any social campaign using these tools is simply sophisticated information dissemination.

Social marketing is unique because it is client needs driven rather than expert driven. Solutions to problems are developed as a result of consumer input rather than as a consequence of knowledge imposition. By recognising that marketing is a philosophy not simply a set of techniques, the tendency to classify campaigns as being social marketing based on a check list approach is avoided. In other words, a social campaign is not social marketing simply because it demonstrates the use of a critical number of marketing tools or concepts. There is no theoretical check list of techniques that can be used as the basis for classification.

Second, although the key issue as to whether or not a campaign is social marketing is whether or not it takes a consumer oriented approach, it must also use the tools which convert that philosophy into practice. Specifically social marketing needs to employ market research, segmentation, strategy, the marketing mix and clear implementation and control strategies (Kotler and Roberto, 1989). Like other recognised subdisciplines such as services marketing, it is not always possible to directly import tools and techniques which were specifically developed to design and sell tangible goods. Consequently, social marketing involves the adaptation, rather than full scale adoption, of marketing tools. This is most clearly demonstrated when addressing the fundamental issue of product definition. While a traditional commercial product such as a pair of shoes can be examined, tried on and evaluated before purchasing and using, social products, such as family planning, are more complex. Although often a social product will involve a tangible component, such as sunscreen in the case of skin cancer prevention, the basic product being sold is a change in behaviour in relation to the sun. Social products, even where a tangible component is involved, go beyond the intangible to the conceptual.

Third, in keeping with the marketing basis, social marketing must involve exchange. Without an exchange, however broadly defined, a marketing transaction or event has not taken place. In simple terms, people and organisations must give and receive with the result that some type of mutual benefit flows. While the benefit may not necessarily directly flow to the marketer, it should ultimately benefit the marketer as a member of society. For example, giving up smoking as a result of a social marketing campaign benefits the individual smoker directly and the social marketer indirectly through a reduction in second hand smoke, cleaner environment, lower state medical bills and so on. Also implicit in the exchange paradigm is the expectation that the exchange will be voluntary. Coercion as a means of achieving a social objective has no place in social marketing theory or practice.

Fourth, the ultimate desired outcome of social marketing in the 1990s is more than a change in ideas or attitudes but also a change in behaviour. These changes in behaviour, while taking place at an individual level, should have some broader social benefit as outlined above in the case of smoking cessation. In effect, social marketing conceptualises social behaviour as being the sum of individual behaviours. Consequently it relies on changing individual actions to achieve direct or indirect social benefits.

Throughout this discussion, the concept of using marketing to achieve socially beneficial outcomes recurs. Before any social marketing campaign occurs, extensive marketing research needs to be carried out particularly where that campaign is being developed for citizens of a country other than that of the social marketer’s origin. What is self evident as socially desirable for one organisation or group of individuals may be socially or culturally abhorrent to another. Social marketing inevitably involves personal values impinging on the direction, content and application of a campaign. Although this cannot be avoided, it must be acknowledged.

A final point about social marketing relates to the difficulties inherent in portraying benefits. Benefits which accrue from social marketing campaigns tend to be long term in nature, not necessarily directly felt by those who make the lifestyle changes and are often uncertain and difficult to conceptualise. In contrast, the costs, both financial and psychological, of adopting the new behaviour promoted by social marketing are immediately felt. The intangible and long term nature of social marketing benefits combined with the immediate and obvious costs to the adopter make the facilitation of exchange through social marketing particularly problematic.

In summary, and based on the preceding points, social marketing can be defined as being:

the simultaneous adoption of marketing philosophy and adaptation of marketing techniques to further causes leading to changes in individual behaviours which ultimately, in the view of the campaign’s originator, will result in socially beneficial outcomes. (Dann, 1996)

SOCIAL MARKETING IN CYBERCOMMUNITIES

Cybercommunities are the area where social marketing campaigns could most benefit from using the Internet. They offer the same benefits as one to one communication yet at the same time overcome the problems of potential embarrassment encountered in the discussion of many social marketing issues through the anonymity offered by Internet communications. Discussionsand information available on the Internet, at this stage, are more open than are usually possible through other channels. This is due, in part, to the anonymity aspect but is also influenced by the international nature of the Internet which means that it is not as readily subject to the same types of censorship regulations which limit freedom of speech in any given country. Attempts have been made to censor the Internet, and this point is discussed in the limitations section below. An important point for social marketers to note, however, is that the Internet has evolved its own culture which involves certain etiquette in terms of information distribution. As with any other culture, social marketers need to be aware of what is acceptable, and unacceptable, within this culture before embarking on any type of Internet based social marketing campaign.

The success of social marketing campaigns is based on a community acceptance of changed values prior to adopting a new behaviour (Andreasen, 1995). The speed of adoption of new ideas is dependent on a range of factors, some of the more important being the extent to which the new ideas are consistent with existing social values, the acceptance of the ideas by key figures in the community (or opinion leaders), the relative complexity of the issue, the homogeneity of the group or community being targeted and the ability to communicate with potential adopters of the new behaviour.

In traditional social marketing one on one personal communication is usually the most effective means of communication while advertising is the least effective but has the highest exposure (Andreasen, 1995). Much social marketing to date has concentrated on third world countries, particularly in the areas of family planning and nutrition. In situations where a relatively close knit community, in many cases relatively small villages or towns, already exists, an effective and cost effective approach is to use what is known as the contagion model of behaviour adoption (Kotler and Roberto, 1989; Bass, 1969). Under this model the idea is that as people adopt a new product, in this case a behaviour, they will spontaneously recruit their friends and relatives to change. Consequently the use of the new product (idea or behaviour) will spread through the target audience in much the same way as a disease, hence the name contagion like diffusion. In this way, social marketing uses peer group pressure for positive outcomes to change the norms of behaviour within a community.

Cybercommunities create, for the social marketer, an almost ideal set of conditions to promote changes in behaviour. Communication on the Internet offers a unique blend of personalised mass communication with the option, at the request of the user, for one on one interactions with either the social marketer or like minded users of the site. As stated previously, social products tend to be highly complex and their benefits difficult to portray. Advertising limits the time and space available for information dissemination and can lead to misunderstandings on the part of the potential purchaser. The Internet can reach a mass audience with a single, broad message as does advertising but does so through the medium of a Webpage. It has the added advantage, however, of having any number of hypertext links which allow the issue to be more fully explained. This also allows for mass customisation, as the concerns of one potential user will differ considerably from another. To prevent the problem of too much information, these links can be accessed as desired to give as little or as much information as necessary. For example, in the case of family planning, the information needs of a young person becoming sexually active will be significantly different to those of someone who may have specific concerns about a particular type of contraception which they have been using, such as an IUD. Planned Parenthood Federation of America (www.igc.apc.org/ppfa/index.html) offers a range of education resources designed for both health professionals and individual community members.

As well as the communications benefits of mass customisation, the Internet goes further in having the potenial to implement one on one communication within the context of the overall message. This is most commonly achieved by adding an e-mail address to the Web page whereby interested people can obtain further information or answers to specific questions. The cybercommunity concept takes this idea one step further and provides linkages between a group of like minded individuals with similar problems or needs.

The potential for cybercommunities as support networks operating in conjunction with social marketing campaigns, particularly those aimed at increased public awareness, is valuable in a range of contexts. Some of the key social advantages of the Internet as a whole are that communications are not temporally nor spatially dependent. This is particularly important in situations where the problem being addressed is not common to the whole community but severely impacts on a geographically dispersed minority. For example, parents of a child with a genetic health problem such as Marfan syndrome that affects only a small percentage of the overall population may not have direct physical access to other people in the same situation. Although the general population may be aware that the condition exists, is not contagious and so on, an awareness campaign is insufficient for those who are experiencing the problem and their families. Through the implementation of the cybercommunity concept it is possible for geographically dispersed parents to support one another, offer advice on how they have dealt with problems such as starting school and access up to date information on medication, treatment and so on. The National Marfan Foundation website (www.marfan.org) combines traditional education and education dissemination with support groups and community contacts. In particular, the site has a specific page (www.marfan.org /people.html) of social contacts of people with Marfan syndrome, many of whom explicitly state their reason for being part of the contact list is to offer support and advice to others who have the syndrome. Alternatively, communities of those affected can also be developed to provide mutual support and advice. In addition to the NMF’s social contacts page, it offers referrals to other online discussion forums, websites and mailing lists concerning Marfan syndrome.

Another general benefit of the Internet that is of particular importance, in the social marketing context, is the anonymity the medium provides. Many issues covered by social marketing are highly personal and potentially embarrassing for the individual when seeking advice on a person to person basis. Hence the anonymity of the Internet offers access to advice without having to reveal identifying details. For example, women who live in isolated rural areas are who are experiencing problems of physical or sexual abuse in the home do not have access to confidential, anonymous advice in a community where everyone knows each other and, in many cases, families have done so for generations. The use of the Internet and creation of cybercommunities gives such women access to support and information which may otherwise be denied them. In Australia, Women’s Infolink (www.qld.woman.qld.gov. au/owa/) is a government run group which emphasises the availability and accessibility of the Internet to women. Similarly, young homosexuals in rural areas may need access to support networks not ordinarily available due to the small size and close knit nature of their communities. AOL (America On-line) offers several chat, discussion and support forums for young homosexuals. In addition there are web based sites such as Cyberqueer (www.cyberzine.org/html/GLAIDS/Frames/frontpage.html). Cyberqueer utilises an integrated cyber-environment consisting of information web sites, e-mail discussion lists, and 'The BackRoom’ semi-permanent MUD-style virtual environment.

One of the key weaknesses of the Internet from a social marketing perspective is also one of its key strengths. Although the use and reach of the Internet is increasing in the wider community, the demographics are still skewed towards young, educated, white, males. While this limits to a certain extent the usefulness of Internet based social markeing programs to those who do not fit the profile, it gives marketers an already tightly defined market with specific needs and problems. Cybercommunities further refine the segment making customised communications more relevant. Also, within the context of a cybercommunity some users are more active and vocal than others. These people, the group opinion leaders, can be specifically targeted through one on one e-mail communication to help facilitate the spread of the message.

Social marketing is a planned approach to social change. Cybercommunities with a social marketing purpose need also to be planned. It cannot be assumed that they will spontaneously appear in response to a need even if the framework is available. In general social marketing’s use of the Internet should complement existing campaigns in the traditional media rather than being reliant on a single medium and, in particular, take advantage of the unique concept of the cybercommunity. An alternative approach would be to try to access existing related cybercommunities with a potentially relevant message. This, however, is fraught with difficulties as acceptable behaviours within different communities will vary in much the same way as cultures vary in different parts of the world. To impose a social marketing message on an existing group may be considered inappropriate and do more harm than good.

Limitations

While there is clearly great potential for the cybercommunities as a means of increasing the effectiveness of specific social marketing campaigns, the medium has several fundamental limitations-its limited access, the effects of recent efforts towards censoring the Internet and paradoxically, its global nature.

Limited Access: As mentioned previously, one of the disadvantages of the Internet is the still relatively limited demographics of its users. For most people in the wider community it remains outside their experience and even for those with experience using the Internet, it is not their primary source of information. Other limiting aspects of the demographics are that the Internet is predominantly an English language based medium with most users concentrated in the USA. The majority of other users are located in industrialised, affluent nations such as Canada, Europe and Australia (ABS, 1996). A major limiting factor even within affluent countries, however, is the cost of setting up a connection. Not all households own a computer and those that do will not necessarily have a modem, access to a provider and so on. In Australia, only 23% of homes had access to a private computer, behind the United States (37%), Germany (28%) and the United Kingdom (24%) (ABS 1996). A final consideration which limits both access to the Internet generally, and full participation in a cybercommunity, is the fact that the medium is text based thus requiring a high level of literacy skills to gain full benefit. From the social marketing perspective this limits the number of causes for which it is an appropriate medium.

Censorship-Restricted, Chilled and Frozen Speech: Recent media concerns regarding pornography on the Internet have resulted in a range of country specific regulations and censorship of material which can be downloaded from the Internet. Given the nature of the issues social marketing deals with, in particular problems relating to sexually transmitted diseases, drug misuse, contraception and so on, many are within the boundaries of what is considered legislatively to be inappropriate. Where a social marketing campaign attempts to address an issue which falls within censorship categories problems arise as to how explicit the materialavailable can be and how frank discussions within cybercommunities can be without incurring penalties.

Probably the best known example of how censorship legislation has acted to the detriment of a socially important issue is the case of AOL’s decision to include the word breast on its taboo list thus depriving breast cancer patients and survivors of the opportunity to contact and support one another. Although this particular problem was rectified, the principle has ramifications for social marketing. For example, what is acceptable to discuss within the context of drug education? How can accurate and detailed information on the symptoms and spread of various sexually transmitted diseases be disseminated?

Conflict in Cyberspace: Finally, the global nature of the Internet is, at the same time, a major strength and a major weakness. Laws, cultures and significant issues vary between countries. What constitutes an important issue worthy of a social marketing response in one country may be completely irrelevant in another. Also, when searching for specific information, the advice given on international pages may conflict with local law. For example, a search on abortion gives the names and addresses of clinics, as well as the capacity to make appointments. This is only relevant, however, to those people in the country of origin. For those people seeking more general information of what is involved, health issues and so on these pages would be perceived as irrelevant clutter which may obscure them from finding out exactly the information they were seeking.

Many of the limitations associated with social marketing on the Internet can be minimized, if not overcome, by conceptualising the medium less in terms of an information distribution network and more as a potential community. If the Internet is seen primarily as an alternative promotions channel then its value to social marketing is severely limited. Planned cybercommunities offer an opportunity to create a social space with new social standards and norms that are not necessarily reflective of the external community. In so doing, the potential for changing behavior for some socially beneficial reason is maximised through a shared sense of common interest and purpose.

FUTURE RESEARCH DIRECTIONS

Based on the elements of success for off line social marketing campaigns, in particular the importance of shared community values and interpersonal communications, the extension of social marketing into the realms of cybercommunities is logical. However, before social marketers can make effective use of these new on line communities more knowledge is needed regarding the formation, continuation and extinction of cyber groups. In particular, further research into the behaviour of potential adopters at different stages of the cybercommunity’s life cycle is needed.

Research Proposition 1

On line social marketing campaigns will be more successful if they concentrate their efforts in cybercommunities rather than simply disseminating information on lie.

This proposition forms the basis of the paper. Cybercommunities provide the social marketer with tightly defined market segments bound by common interests or needs within the broader on line community. Successful social marketing relies on the ability of the social marketer not only to disseminate information, but to facilitate individual behavioural change. Cybercommunities provide a means whereby social marketers can become involved in detailed one on one or one on many exchanges to assist in achieving their objectives. As previously discussed, cybercommunities provide an apparently ideal set of conditions for promoting changes in behaviour based on the contagion model of product adoption. Future research comparing the success of on line social marketing campaigns which rely primarily on the mass communication aspects of the Internet with those that are based in cybercommunities would be valuable in testing this proposition.

Research Proposition 2

Membership of a cybercommunity is not evolutionary but the result of a distinct decision making process

Membership of a cybercommunity differs from membership of most traditional social groups in that it occurs, not as a result of broader social expectations and "normal" lifestyle, but because of a conscious decision by an individual to seek out, and join, the new society. Not all people with a common need, for example having the same health problems, will join a cybercommunity for support and information. Further, membership of such groups can remain confidential and is not apparent to those with whom the member shares their day to day "off line" existence.

It is important for social marketers to have a clear understanding as to the motivation behind the individual’s decision to find and join a cybercommunity if they are to effectively address the concerns of specific cyber groups. Similarly, more information as to why individuals choose to leave a cybercommunity is important in understanding the dynamics of a cybercommunity. The best ways to facilitate change and provide support may vary considerably between on and off line groups with the same concerns and issues. It will not be until a deeper understanding of the motivations and expectations of cybercommunity members is reached that detailed advice can be given as to the optimal means of reaching these potential adopters.

Research Proposition 3

Cybercommunities will evolve through a distinct lifecycle, similar to the product lifecycle.

All products, including social products, go through lifecycles of relative importance, magnitude and relevance to the community. It is expected that, while some social marketing campaigns and concerns such as family planning are enduring, specific cybercommunities attached to these issues will be constantly changing and evolving. In particular, for those issues of cyclical concern, such as specific fields of environmenal concern, the associated cybercommunities can be expected to go through a form of the product lifecycle. The primary implication of this for social marketers is the need to constantly research the community for change and to modify the proposed social marketing mix and programs accordingly. Longitudinal research which tracks the development of specific communities and issues would contribute to a greater understanding of how such communities evolve, what the characteristics of enduring communities are and how the social marketing needs of community members change over time.

CONCLUSION

With every new frontier, there are both formidable obstacles and familiar terrain. Social marketing has found familiar ground in the cybercommunities. As a marketing practice, social marketing has primarily relied on low budget operations, focusing on personal interactions and micro level communication rather than macro level mass media advertising. The new medium of cyberspace allows the cost effective implementation of both mass communication and interpersonal communication. Cyberspace is an ideal environment for social marketers to facilitate communication with, and between, specific target groups. The emphasis of social marketing’s move into cyberspace is been the focus on the people using the medium, rather than the medium itself. In essence, social marketing online has been more about personal level interaction than the "advertising billboards on the roadside of the information superhighway" approach adopted by commercial sector. The cybercommunity presents social marketing with the opportunity to adapt the techniques of personal communication strategies to reach a geographically diverse audience of potential adopters with common social marketing needs.

However, despite the great promise for cybercommunities, there are many factors still limiting their effective use in social marketing. At present, the skewed demographics of the Internet, combined with difficulty of access and availability in many non Western, and non industrialised countries restricts its viability and value for many campaigns. There is a significant difference between a web site espousing the value of clean drinking water and the availability of clean water. You can not download freedom of speech from a web site. Despite the limitations, social marketing in cybercommunities, as an adjunct to traditional campaigns, has the potential to be one of the greatest social gains from the Internet.

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WEBSITES

Planned Parenthood Federation of America

(www.igc.apc.org/ppfa/index.html)

National Marfan Foundation website (www.marfan.org)

Cyberqueer (www.cyberzine.org/html/GLAIDS/Frames/

frontpage.html)

Women’s Infolink (www.qld.woman.qld.gov.au/owa/)

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