Hi everyone, welcome to my teaching module – which is about online brand communities and, more specifically, three different types of brand community members (lurkers, infrequent posters, and frequent posters). Who are these groups and why does it matter that we treat them differently?
For our agenda today, I’m going to start out with a little bit of background on brand communities – what they are and why they’re important before going into the literature on two types of brand community members that have been talked about a lot – lurkers and posters. Then, I’ll talk a little bit about uses and gratifications theory – which is important to know because it helps us to understand how the members types are different, and why. Then, I’ll talk about the differences between the three types of members that are actually a part of these communities – it’s actually not just two types of members here.
So, brand community – what is it? Well, it’s a group of people who have come together based off of a mutual love for a brand. And so we see these brand communities all over the place. They existed before the Internet did – the Harley Owners Group is one of the most famous brand communities around. But after that we have so many more. Starbucks has a presence on Twitter, and many of you probably follow them there or have liked them on Facebook or any other type of social media for any brand. Most brands do have several brand communities (most, but not all, hosted on the Internet) – some of them are hosted and owned by the brand (like the ones on their own websites or on their official social media pages) and others are controlled by the fans alone. Some of these communities have members who meet in person, but many brand community members never meet face to face. In this discussion, though, we’re going to be focusing on the online groups.
Brand managers are always interested in how to do brand communities better – how to make sure that they understand what their customers are looking for – because a positive experience on a brand community has all sorts of positive repercussions for the brand itself. If you have a good time on the brand community, you’re more likely to be loyal, you’re more likely to talk positively about the brand, and you’re more likely to continue purchasing. So, there are a lot of positive consequences, and we want to do this right.
There are two different types of members that have been talked about a lot when we talk about who is a member of these communities. People tend to talk about lurkers vs. posters. Lurkers are people who are a member of the community, but you’d never really know it if you couldn’t see ‘this is how many people are a part of this group.’ Many of you probably lurk on many brand communities. Many of you probably just go to the Starbucks Facebook or Twitter in order to find out if they have a sale or if Pumpkin Spice is available yet, or something along those lines – you don’t post, you don’t share. You just go there and read what is happening. If that is the case, then you are a lurker. Posters, on the other hand, they do participate in a way that other people can see their participation. They’re the people that go online, tell their story, share a picture, post a recipe, etc. The interesting thing about lurkers and posters is that they’re very similar in a lot of ways. They join for the same reasons, they have the same age, they spend the same amount of time on the web… and a lot of people who lurk on one page are actively posting on another. So maybe you only go to the Starbucks website to find out if there’s pumpkin spice lattes yet, but you go to the Pampered Chef website and share pictures of the cookies you made on your stoneware baking sheet because you are a poster for the Pampered Chef community and a lurker for the Starbucks community – that is extremely common. So lurking and posting is not a trait behaviour – it’s not that you’re always going to be a lurker and somebody else is always going to be a poster. That is not the case at all.
Historically, when we’ve looked at types of online community members, we’ve talked about them as two groups, and only two groups. However, according to Nielsen (2006), there are actually three groups. There are lurkers – 90% of people on any given page are likely to be lurkers. 9% are what we call infrequent posters – they post, on occasion, usually for a purpose. But they don’t post very often. Whereas regular posters are on there every week, or every day sharing something, talking about something, answering somebody’s question. And so 9% of people are these infrequent posters and 1% of people are frequent posters. However, we haven’t generally talked about these three groups as being separate. Instead, we’ve lumped those infrequent posters in with either the lurkers or the frequent posters. However, if you think about the behaviour, attitudes, and motivation levels that you have to a brand that you’re posting for every week – you’re answering people’s questions, sharing recipes, sharing pictures, on a regular basis – versus a brand community where you post once every few months because you need to know the best recipe to put Nutella in your kid’s birthday cake, or something like that, and then you don’t go back and post anything for another year. Well, those two types of members are very different. And lumping these groups together has consequences.
To understand why these two groups are so different, we’ll use Uses and Gratifications theory. This theory discusses our motivations when we consume media. According to Katz, the originator of the theory, we consume media in order to achieve a purpose. And if brand managers can understand what people are trying to achieve when they join these communities, then they can do a better job of making sure that people get what they want out of these communities. So if we think about what lurkers want out of an experience, it’s probably going to be different than what the frequent posters want – right? Now, in the past, we’ve treated infrequent posters and frequent posters the same – assumed that they were one big group that wanted the same thing out of the experience. But it doesn’t seem very likely, when you think about their behaviour. One group posts every week, and another group posts once a year. And if we try to treat these two groups the same, and assume they all want the same thing, then we’re going to very likely screw that up.
A recent study by McLaughlin and Haverila looked into these motivations for the three different groups – in order to confirm that they are, actually, unique in their purpose and motivations – and in order to help understand HOW they are different.
All three groups did say that they became brand community members in order to achieve five different things: they were all motivated to find out information, to integrate socially with another group of people, to learn more about themselves, to gain status, and to be entertained. However, lurkers had lower expectations than the infrequent posters, and the infrequent posters had lower expectations than the frequent posters. And so there was a difference between these three groups. What does this mean? Basically, for example, everyone joined the group in order to find out information – but frequent posters expected to get more information than infrequent posters, who expected more information than pure lurkers. The frequent posters want new information all the time, and they want lots of detail – but that’s not the case for everybody. It’s just a question of the levels they’re expecting.
Now, why is this important? It’s important because, in the past, we’ve been treating all the people who post as if they’re the same. Imagine that you’re on vacation in the Vatican, looking at the Sistine Chapel. The person on your left is a huge history buff, you think that it’s interesting, and the person on your right couldn’t care less – he’s here because his girlfriend dragged him. Imagine if the tour guide lumped you in with the history buff, standing next to you the whole time and giving endless, detailed facts – because you have more in common with the buff than with the bored guy on your right. It would get old real fast! And if you were lumped in with the bored guy on your right, it would be worse because you wouldn’t get any information to enrich your experience. It’s the same in these communities – if we don’t identify this middle ground and treat them as the unique group with unique needs and priorities that they are, then we are going to alienate them. The first step to doing this is understanding that there ARE three groups, and then starting to think more carefully about how to engage each group appropriately. So, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that everybody who posts in a brand community are brand aficionados – some of them are, and they need to be engaged and encouraged in order to make sure they continue to get all that they need from the community. But don’t scare off that middle ground, either – identify their level of attachment and commitment, and treat them accordingly.
Thank you so much, I hope you have a wonderful day!
Algonquin College, Canada
Dr. Caitlin McLaughlin, Program & Course Developer, Algonquin College Caitlin is a marketing instructor, course developer, program developer, and Personality Dimensions Facilitator. She has taught Integrated Marketing Communications, Consumer Behaviour, Introduction to Marketing, Marketing Research, Services Marketing, and Brand Management (among others). Her research focuses on the use of brand communities in marketing.
SSHRC Grant #430-2018-00816
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