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How to monetise online communities through offline products

How to monetise online communities through offline products

By Frank Lampen, Director, Independent United.

It’s a strange time to be entering the book industry – and we’re talking about the real “dead tree media” end of the book industry too.

However developments in the online world caused us to become just such a publisher last year, and to use that revenue to fund our online activities. Not what you expected to hear in 2010? It’s an interesting story and tells some important lessons around online communities.

Promoters and brands running events have long since embraced digital and social media as being the main channel through which they find audiences for their events.

Combinations of paid-for media, search advertising, creating events on social networks and good old fashioned buzz and gossip create audiences and sell tickets every day, all over the web.

For many the online push ends once the event is sold out and the doors are closed, but some are now discovering that social media can play an important – and lucrative role – in extending relationships after an event.

We first saw the potential of social media to extend the impact of an event when we worked to develop the global Smirnoff Experience programme, starting with an event in Moscow in September 2007 that started a year-long journey for the brand, taking in events in Shanghai, Paris and New York along the way.

Each of the Smirnoff Experience events we devised was leveraged fully online, and the “firsts” for the brand included its first global presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and in the podcast section of the iTunes store.

Social media in this case brought the event experience to a much wider audience, and helped to drive a high return-on-investment for those events.

The world of social media changes fast, and in its ubiquity it creates new business opportunities. Over the course of the last decade we’d had a ringside seat at the growth of festival culture, through working – as individuals – for festival promoters, producing TV coverage of festivals, and organising sponsorships.

One important element both driving and feeding off this phenomenon is social media, and we noticed how the role of social media continued after the festival, rather than just being used to drive ticket sales.

The sharing of stories – now very much in real-time through Twitter and Facebook updates via mobile apps – and of photos uploaded after the weekend has become an important part of the festival experience.

To a large extent this had been within your friendship group – which somehow seemed contrary to the spirit of community that’s such an important part of the festival vibe. We wanted to prove the opportunity for people to share their photos and stories more widely, and so we decided to create ‘Festival Annual’ – an online space for sharing festival photos and stories, with the best ones compiled into a beautiful, hardback, coffee table sized book.

The thinking was that festivals – individually and collectively – create a community. If we could find a way of bringing everyone together we could transfer this online. The book was both a great call-to-action, and a way of then monetising the community to cover the costs of running it.

Over 5,000 pictures were submitted, with the community growing to over 40,000 unique users across MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and an email database. The idea of being in a book provided a compelling reason for people to get involved – the stars of photos features in our emails and on our online profiles regularly got in touch, and shared their moment of fame with hundreds of their friends.

Once the book was published – just four weeks after the final festival – all those who had photos in it were supplied with page proofs and special offers to distribute throughout their friend networks. In the first few months, the book sold nearly 3,000 copies.

So a rare case of an offline project funding a digital activity, rather than the other way around. We’re sure that over time the fast growing digital presence of Festival Annual will prove to be the real money spinner, but in the short term the existence of an old-fashioned book served to give a focus and a legitimacy to our online activities that was central to its success.

The lessons of the project – around the desire to co-create, around the desire for fame, and the importance of not just clocking up experiences but cherishing them and sharing them – are worth remembering for any brand wanting to develop, and monetise, its own community online.

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