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Virtual Communities . . . The Power of Word-of-Mouth Transmission Via the Internet

Richard W. Easley, Ph.D., Hankamer School of Business, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, United States of America

Email: richard_easley@baylor.edu
Web: http://hsb.baylor.edu/html/easley/home.htm

Richard W. Easley (Ph.D., University of South Carolina, 1989) is Associate Professor of Marketing at Baylor University, where he teaches Internet Marketing Strategies, Consumer Behavior, and Marketing Research. His research interests include Internet marketing, virtual communities, and the practical applications of marketing and consumer behavior. Dr. Easley has published in the Journal of Advertising, Journal of Advertising Research, Journal of Business Research, and the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, among others.


With the bursting of the dotcom bubble and increasing accountability demanded from marketing efforts on-line, the rules are changing for the use of the Internet. Virtual communities are becoming an increasing viable low-cost option for companies to use to generate positive word-of-mouth about their products and services.

What is a Virtual Community?

A virtual community is an electronically-based group of individuals who share a common interest and like to discuss that interest via the electronic exchange of information. Though there are multiple methods that enable communities to be “virtual,” the most common form of communication is good old-fashioned e-mail. And – e-mail is fast – very fast, particularly when it involves transmitting “word-of-mouth” – good or bad – about your company, product, or industry.

Remember the old communications model that shows feedback from the consumer to the organization and posits a single flow of information? Well, those days are long gone, and the mass distribution of e-mail messages about your company can be accomplished in the time that it takes you to read this paragraph.

And – you may not even see your own feedback.

That’s right – you may not even see your own feedback. In the electronic marketplace, consumers are becoming increasingly empowered. The dissemination of timely information via electronic means is rapidly becoming the norm in our consumption-based society where consumers want, expect, and demand increasingly higher levels of performance from companies that they patronize. More and more frequently, if they are dissatisfied with a product or service, they tell other consumers – lots of them – and they do it quickly.

How is this going to impact my business, one might ask, when we are not even internet-related? Continuing, the argument might go as follows: our organization is not in retail, we don’t provide music downloads, our business is “high-touch,” so we are impervious to the effects of the internet.

Think again.

Why Virtual Communities?

As a marketing professor, I have a professional interest in the topic of virtual communities. As an automobile enthusiast, I had already joined a virtual community well prior to my professional study of the Internet.

One might say that I have a vocational interest in virtual communities. But – just as importantly – my avocations also motivate me to participate in virtual communities regularly. In fact, I enjoy merging my vocation and avocations so much that I decided to form my own virtual community a little over four years ago.

The Mercedes-Benz Enthusiast’s Web Site

In the early 90s, a friend introduced me to Mercedes-Benz automobiles. I have been an owner of the marque since that time and appreciate the quality, elegance, and safety of these fine cars. This interest in the brand led me to develop a web site devoted to Mercedes-Benz automobiles, along with a virtual community where Mercedes-Benz cars and other topics are discussed daily.

The virtual community was formed by myself and an automotive colleague and friend, Stu Ritter, of Denver, Colorado, in January of 1998. When we first formed the list, we had an initial beta membership of 12. The discussion forum quickly grew in size and it is now the world’s largest internet-based e-mail forum of Mercedes-Benz automobile enthusiasts, with a current subscriber base of around 2500 members spread all around the world.

Who are the Typical Members of a Virtual Community?

Virtual communities, by nature, generally have highly-motivated participants as members. After all, to regularly receive a large volume of e-mail messages that are concentrated in one or a few topic areas would require fairly high levels of motivation!

We are all familiar with the term “opinion leader,” which is someone that others respect in given product categories. Virtual communities are replete with opinion leaders but, more importantly, many times they have sizable populations of market mavens. Market mavens love to talk about products and they can be your best – or worst – word-of-mouth transmitters. Members of our list are no exception. We have a core of list members who are clearly opinion leaders on a number of dimensions.

How Can a Virtual Community Help (or Hurt) My Company or Product?

Consumers -- even low involved consumers -- commonly discuss the purchase, use, and disposition of products in the marketplace. In generic-product-category virtual communities, this type of discussion is the norm. In brand-specific discussion groups like the Mercedes-Benz Discussion List, this type of discussion takes on an added dimension because members are the most loyal-to-the-brand purchasers in the marketplace. As such, they talk – a lot – about your product and service. And, they tell others, too, both on-line and off-line. Consequently, it is imperative that this vivid word-of-mouth communication be monitored at minimum.

Old Paradigm – New Scalability

A long-held assumption about word-of-mouth communication is that every dissatisfied customer will tell seven to ten others about their dissatisfaction. With electronic media that transfer information instantaneously and are geographically-unlimited, the old paradigm has been mercilessly swept away, and a mass broadcast has taken its place. Further, the ease-of-use associated with e-mail forums makes complaining – or complimenting – your firm an essentially effortless task.

Should I be a Participant in a Virtual Community?

The answer to this question is an unequivocal “yes” – if your company, brand, its products, or service is discussed electronically. If you are not currently being discussed electronically, then you have a narrowing window of opportunity to create your own virtual community for your brand or product/service category. Ownership of a virtual community is not absolutely necessary, however. Indeed, there are strengths and weaknesses for both ownership of your own community and participation in a non-company-owned community.

However, many forward-thinking companies realized early in the process that a virtual community could be beneficial. Examples include the Pentax Corporation (cameras), Peavey Sound Equipment (public address systems and speakers), Gibson Guitars, General Motors, Ryobi Tools, and others. The advantage of forming your own virtual community prior to others in the marketplace is that it gives you the opportunity to better manage word-of-mouth about your organization and its products and services.


Virtual word-of-mouth has most definitely changed the landscape of marketing. Companies that adapt to this near-real-time, reciprocal path method of communication will not only be informed of potential problems in the marketplace, but consumers will be better served by companies that realize the extensive benefits of communicating with their most loyal (and most vocal) supporters.