Why Community is the Answer

Zapnito asked me to speak at their annual Community Insights event on the Changing Landscape of Media and Marketing – and the Growing Power of Community within That. I explained that today’s landscape has been fundamentally shaped by 10 things that came out of the dot.com boom and bust. Publishers, associations and commercial event businesses can harness the power of community to drive their marketing ROI – but only if they stop mixing up product with promoters, get their pricing models in order and think strategically about the content they produce and share.

I was asked to speak at the Zapnito Community Insights Annual Event on the Changing Landscape of Media and Marketing – and the Growing Power of Community within That. Here’s what I said:

Thanks Charles. Good evening everyone.

As I was doing my research for putting this speech together (or to be more accurate, procrastinating putting it together), I was reading Ashley’s excellent article on the return of community in B2B publishing. If you haven’t read it yet, you can find it here https://community.zapnito.com/users/206116-ashley-friedlein/posts/53806-the-return-of-community-in-b2b-publishing-media-part-2 on the Zapnito site and on the Guild website (lesson one in the changing landscape of media and marketing – SEO is so important that we multiple place to improve our discoverability). Back to the blog though, it begins with saying, “if you’re old enough to have been around in the dot.com area of the late 90s then you may remember the famous “3Cs” that were meant to characterise the web: Content, Commerce, Community.

This made me wince. For two reasons. Partly, because not only am I old enough to remember the late 90s, when I first worked with Charles, I actually started my marketing career at the end of the 80s, a time of shoulder pads and mobile phones like bricks.

Mainly though, I winced because that time frame and mantra was peak internet bubble and a disastrous mix of belief in, and misunderstanding of, the 3Cs fundamentally changed both the media industry and how we market today – making it, frankly, a whole lot harder.

At the height of the boom, everyone was so in love with dot.coms that the Wall Street Journal suggested that investors ‘re-think” the “quaint concept” of profits.

These were the companies who were spending a fortune on marketing, offering their services for free with the expectation they could build sufficient brand awareness to charge profitable rates for their services in the future.

In January 2000, there were 16 dot.com commercials during Super Bowl XXXIV, each costing $2 million for a 30-second spot.

The Nasdaq Composite stock market index peaked in value at 5,048.62on March 10, 2000 before crashing. In its trough on October 9, 2002, it had lost 80% of its value. Trillions of dollars in wealth vanished almost overnight. It took until March 2015 for the Nasdaq to reach its 2000 peak. In Silcion Valley alone over 200,000 people lost their jobs.

I share this with you not just so you can bask in how young and fabulous you are (and perhaps think carefully about investing in WeWorks) but because…

the stonking hangover from that time wasn’t just financial. It fundamentally changed the media landscape and how we market in 10 ways:

In its obsession with the first of those 3 Cs, content, the dot.com boom turned everyone into a publisher, creating a blurring of the lines between authoritative content and UGC. If anyone can publish their version of the truth, how do people know what is fact? It seems that it depends on whether you are part of that tribe or community or not. Because whatever you think of Donald Trump (and I am firmly in the Dear God how is this possible, camp) his followers – “his community” believe everything he says and unsays. Because that is the other thing that digital content enabled – a blithe changing of the story. The more reputable papers note on their websites if a story has changed but even blogs that should know better, like the media industry’s Flashes and Flames, have been known to completely change, for example, acquisition prices, without noting it. So your understanding of a deal outcome is completely different based on the day you read the blog.

The other thing that became blurred was the difference between content which was a marketing tool, and content which was the product / service. If McKinsey is going to give a 100 page report away for free, why should a reader pay £1k for a report by a professional publisher?

People’s perception of the value of content has changed irrevocably.

Google is now 21 years old. When free information is everywhere, and Google has become a verb, then we have trained a whole generation to believe that information is not something you need to pay for.

So started the slow tortuous death spiral of print publications. Marie Claire just announced it would be going digital only after 30 years in print.

A few years ago Lloyds List (one half of the Lloyds List and IBC merger which formed the now mighty Informa plc) which had been published since 1734, became digital only. Good for the trees. Not so good for the printing industry and for the designers and sales teams at magazines.

To add insult to injury. Not only have (a worryingly large number of) people stopped paying for content but advertisers have changed the way they buy too. Value and pricing models for both the consumption of digital media and for advertising on and in it has changed dramatically and publishers are still finding their way.
Unlike the FT and the Economist who were early defenders of the value of their intelligence, and put in place firewalls, the Guardian landed itself in a terrible muddle.

Because Google and other media disrupters were wooing advertisers with the concept of eyeballs – not based on the value of their readership (of their community), but just on volume and a sprinkling of psychographics (behavioural preferences) they made their content free in a desperate play to increase circulation and at the same time lost their advertiser pricing power by moving from per page print pricing to CPM digital pricing, creating a double whammy of disastrous financials which only thanks to the munificence of the Scott Trust prevented them from going bust.

They of course, like a slew of media owners then sought other revenue streams and diversified into formats in which they were, to be blunt, amateurs. Since these were non-core revenue streams, they hopelessly under-priced them, creating (frankly infuriating and wholly unnecessarily) downward pricing pressures for the expert incumbents. As their delivery was also often poor, it tarnished the format in the consumer’s mind. Hard to know why one event will be fabulous, when the last one you attended was shoddy, unless of course you have built a community which is loyal to you.


LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter were all founded shortly post the boom. Marketers already struggling with how to include email and their own websites into their marketing mix then had to decide how much of their time, spend and brand authority, to give to these new apps. This explosion of marketing channels created existential angst for marketers, did they simply go to where hordes of other people were and try to use content and messaging to break through the noise and attract the tiny proportion of people who might be right for their target audience (their potential community) and hope that they would then follow them and not be distracted by other people’s content or did they simply use their databases (their pre-built communities) to email people directly. In some ways, it was like the difference between an insert in a magazine and a direct mail shot. The latter of course always outperformed, but in the excitement of the new, far too many marketers forgot this.

And what no one really paid attention to was that it turned people into the product As individuals and businesses we have fallen into a trap of convenience and ubiquity winning over performance and ethics. I was talking to a super smart millennial the other day whose first reaction to my saying that the Laidlaw Foundation is going to move off of Facebook and that we want to encourage others to do so, was “but they have 15 years worth of my photos…” We have handed over our IP. In case you were wondering why we are moving away from them, the answer is that we don’t believe that they have shown the moral leadership they should. Happily, our Scholars Network already has more traction than we ever did on Facebook so the sacrifice isn’t large. Individually, I am doing the same too though and not seeing the posts and pictures of friends and family does feel like a wrench.


No one reads the T&Cs carefully enough. Even after Facebook admitted that they breached their own data privacy rules, they continued to add users.
We have given up our privacy and no one seems to care that much.
The Guardian who are finally in profit partly in thanks to their examination of this (and partly to their new begging pop up notices model), still weirdly and unashamedly promote their exclusives on Facebook.


Two final points: The dot.com boom and bust made people talk absolute nonsense about community for decades – mixing up target audience, leads, and customers with people who might love you but have no intention of buying from you ever. Equally, not realising that people could buy from you without feeling any community allegiance whatsoever. Not to mention forgetting that different groups within the community have different motivators. It is one of the reasons why Forums were so hard to monetise.


It also made people forget that marketing was ultimately about generating profits through optimising our ROI. Today’s media channels and marketing opportunities are set in the context of what happened 20 years ago.

It has all got a ton more crowded, complex, difficult and, in a happy offset, cheaper.  In response we have a plethora of exceptional marketing tools from out of the box CRM and marketing automation to community platforms like the wonderous Zapnito.

When I started marketing conferences and training courses, we printed a brochure, sent it out to the 30,000  most relevant people on our database, put a few inserts into partner magazines (where we bartered a deal so that the low response rate was off-set by the equally low cost) and then did a re-mail to the best performing selections. We spent 25% of our projected revenue on the marketing. Lord Laidlaw grew IIR into the largest conference company in the world and, fast forward to 2005, became a billionaire when we sold the business to Informa.

Now I would not sign off a campaign plan that didn’t include social media, email, web, telesales, print etc; that didn’t have at least 100 different selection segments and trigger trees. And a good 30 partnerships. Yet for an established event I wouldn’t expect to have to spend more than 15% of revenue. Today, it is all about targeting the micro communities, with what is important to them.

In 2000 there were approximately 17 million websites only. Today there are over a billion websites. More sites are visited from mobiles than desktops.

To stand out in the midst of all the noise, and the bombardment of messaging, our prospects will only yes if we:

  • Make them notice us (hence re-targeting and re-marketing)
  • Make them connect with us
  • Make them an offer that they can’t refuse
  • Make it incredibly easy for them
  • Make them feel smart, recognised and rewarded for doing so.

Communities are the most powerful tool in enabling each one of these.

In essence because the model is flipped on its head. We’re not having to shout and produce content-value destroying clickbait so that people notice us, they are are already coming to us. As contributing members of the community, the connection already exists. If we are properly mining the data on their contributions, collaborations and time spent where within the network, we know what to offer them. We can add easy buy-now buttons at the appropriate spots on their user journey and depending on where they are in the marketing funnel.  They become partners in product development and promotion, and we reward them for being such.

B2C media businesses have always had communities, avid brand followers, loyal readers, the trouble was they didn’t know who they were or how to reach them. Which is why of course Facebook etc – where they could see who their fans were, was terribly exciting. It meant that instead of creating half a dozen broad based personas, we could actually personalise, create hordes of micro campaigns. And thanks to Google Analytics and the like measure the effectiveness of messaging to each of them. Cambridge Analytica, appear throughout the Great Hack as the most appallingly, ethically challenged company imaginable, but also as being absolutely phenomenal marketers, micro-targeting and custom messaging to the nth degree.

B2B has always had the benefit of knowing who its customers were, and then being able to extrapolate out to similar target markets, looking at job title, function, company size, SIC etc. We captured all of this on databases. And added interest codes and other psychographic indicators. The biggest danger for marketers today, is that in the excitement of so many easy to use channels, they forget to measure what is and isn’t working and respond quickly enough.

Community takes target markets a huge leap forward. Here at the intersection of interests, shared emotions and experience – target groups self-identify and, more importantly, forge a brand loyalty and momentum that makes them more likely to say yes, to spend more and to encourage others to do so too.

It is why it is so important, that you and your members are clear about the values you share. What it is that you believe in. You need to be specific. Events, Associations and Publishers can all do this easily. Be clear about your purpose and your values.

Look at how successful Nike was with their Colin Kaepernick campaign. It didn’t matter that some people stepped away from Nike, because the sales from the community who did identify with the campaign went through the roof.

Your community members should be your promoters. These are your brand Life Time Value heroes.

Effective marketing then comes from building and monetising those communities.
It helps then to be clear about who those communities and micro communities within them are. One of the biggest mistakes that marketers make is to assume that a community centres around their product. Conference companies are some of the worst offenders here.  An event is not a community – although it may be the physical manifestation of one or the annual meeting place for everyone in it.

To create that 365 day community, you have to think about each of the micro communities within your event world, your sponsors, exhibitors, advisory board, speakers and delegates, and how you can fuse their interests and needs in an on-line community so that they all feel engaged, committed, recognised and rewarded.

This is true for association sub groups, business information and so on.

It is particularly important if you are using content to build your place in the community and eventually own it and be seen as the voice and champion of it. Before all the marketers start throwing things at me, I am not suggesting that you create a ton more material, you can absolutely re-use and re-purpose assets. The key is to think about what are you trying to achieve and match the output to the objective.

And back to our original 3 Cs, to know which content to give away for free, which content requires commitment from the recipient and which is paid for.

You can them move content between those categories when necessary in order to reward and grow your community. So the FT yesterday made its premium content open to all, in a shameless tease to grow their subs and their average order value.

They made me, a long term subscriber and active user, pay attention to an offer upgrade that I have ignored for years. I also went to their FT Weekend Festival last year. They really don’t know how to run events properly so I ended up with a 20 point snagging list that I sent to a friend of mine there (who said he was super grateful although…) but they got the content right and I still felt part of the community. This is in marked contrast to the Economist who sent me a “special” renewal offer which was the same 12 for 12 offer that they have been handing out at every station all year. The Economist has a great brand legacy, but its profit margin has been shrinking at speed because it doesn’t get community or ROI based marketing.

The best marketers today – know how to make community the driver of campaign-based, highly profitable, marketing.

Thank you and good luck.