There’s no doubt about it – community is back, big time. My personal barometer for this is the number of phone calls I am getting from senior executives of large enterprises where they start out by saying, “remember that book, Net Gain, you published back in 1997? Well, we need you to come out and talk to us about it.”
In a way, I worry about the resurgence of interest in the concept of virtual communities as commercial enterprises. Back in the late 1990’s, when I first wrote about this opportunity, virtually every dot com business proposal pitched the “virtual community” concept. Few of these initiatives had anything to do with virtual communities and most of the ones that did had little understanding of what it took to build a vibrant, sustainable and scalable virtual community. The backlash was predictable.
Now, I fear that history is repeating itself. For evidence, one need only look at Joga.com, a joint initiative sponsored by Nike and Google (for more information, see the Business Week article “Nike, Google Kick Off Social-Networking Site”). Joga.com seeks to tap into the global enthusiasm for soccer by building a virtual community so that fans can get together online and share their interest in this sport.
So far, so good. This is clearly a huge community, there’s a major World Cup tournament coming up this year (for those who are not soccer fans, it is the FIFA World Cup 2006 event – something that happens only every four years) and the opportunities for corporate sponsors to help organize such a virtual community are clear.
But let’s look at the implementation. Joga.com started as a closed community – you had to be invited to join. While closed communities certainly have a valid place in some contexts, the culture of soccer is inherently open. Joga.com apparently has since opened up, presumably in response to a lot of early criticism of the invitation only policy. Once you get into Joga.com, you find that it features Nike players, again conflicting with the open and all-embracing culture of soccer. Joga.com is closed in another important sense – it is presented as an entirely self-contained environment with few if any pointers to the enormous wealth of soccer-related content that already exists on the Web.
The organizers of Joga.com were clearly influenced by the huge success of MySpace, so they provided everyone with a personal web page. Now, for MySpace this worked well as an opening gambit because the early participants were independent bands that got to showcase their music on these web pages and this in turn attracted their fans. Soccer is different – this is about getting fans involved from the outset and sharing their enthusiasm with each other. Personal web pages isolate and fragment fans, at least at the outset.
Discussion boards help to build a sense of community and there are some in Joga.com, but they are not easy to find. Also, the organization of the discussion boards swings from topics that are too broad to focus discussion to topics that are too narrow and once again contribute to a sense of fragmentation and isolation, especially in the early stages of community formation.
Joga.com is facing the challenge confronted by every virtual community – in the early days, it is pretty lonely for the first participants – there are very few others to talk to. One of the best ways to overcome this obstacle is by providing a rich set of quality content or some provocative experts that can engage community members and precipitate discussion. Unfortunately, despite a few Google videos and Nike ads, there isn’t much content provided by the organizers to spark or stimulate discussion. The limited content that is available is not well organized and easily findable.
On the other hand, the organizers have clearly spent a lot of time on the design of the site (Business Week reports that the site has been under development for eight months) – perhaps too much time. Especially in the absence of stimulating content, the site comes across as too commercial and cold.
This is not a promising start for a vibrant, sustainable and scalable community. For a creative alternative that has been flying under the radar screen, check out soccerblog.com (full disclosure: one of the talents behind soccerblog.com, is Christian Sarkar, a collaborator of mine for many years and one of the few guys who really understands what it takes to build successful commercial communities online).
Steve Rubel, over at Micro Persuasion, takes another angle on the story, noting:
It’s a departure from Google’s focus on driving more customers toward search marketing. They’re not just moving into brand marketing programs, but branded communal marketing programs.”
This is certainly a significant initiative in terms of understanding Google’s broader strategic agenda. Google clearly has aspirations to build out communities and social networks to broaden and deepen its relationships with search users (and to provide additional platforms for context specific advertising). Its early foray with Orkut met with mixed success at best and Google Groups appears to be gaining some momentum, but this latest initiative indicates that Google will keep trying to carve out a meaningful presence in the community space.
Alex Osterwalder at Business Model Design Blog also has an interesting take on Joga as an illustration of the “Clash of the Soccer Business Ecosystems: Google/Nike vs. Yahoo/Adidas.” Alex notes that Yahoo! and Adidas signed up as official sponsors for the FIFA World Cup 2006. In this context, the Joga initiative can be seen as an attempt by two other key players to reap the benefits of the excitement around the World Cup without paying large sums to become official sponsors of the event. He also characterizes the Yahoo!/Adidas play as an example of Web 1.0 thinking versus the Google/Nike play as an example of Web 2.0 thinking.
On the surface, it’s an interesting analogy, but given the concerns outlined above, it is not entirely clear that Google and Nike have really embraced the open and participatory culture of Web 2.0.