It Takes A Web Village

Private online communities are providing special insights into customers' needs


Joining an online community devoted to weight loss has been doubly rewarding for Kathy Kearney. Sure, the 56-year-old met other women who support each other's dieting struggles through instant messaging and chat discussions. But Kearney also has a hand in shaping a major weight reduction product at a pharmaceutical giant. GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK ), which sponsors the community, is getting tips from Kearney and her friends in a runup to the launch of its first weight loss pill next year. The members answer questions about packaging, offer advice on where to place store marketing, and, most important, frankly discuss their own battles with the scale.

Glaxo says it is gleaning far more than it could have from focus groups. And it has created an intensely enthusiastic corps of product evangelists. "They have done an incredible job of reaching out into the community and giving us all hope that someone out there cares about us and we are not alone in our struggle to lose weight," Kearney says.

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By teaming up with Communispace Corp., a startup that hosts private online communities, a growing group of companies such as Glaxo, Kraft (KFT ), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), and Coty is learning how to use the Web to harness customer input. "When you can get customers to bond around a common set of issues, the quality of the information they give you is so much more accurate and authentic," says Patricia B. Seybold, chief executive officer of market researcher Patricia Seybold Group Inc., who studied the Communispace groups for an upcoming book.

The key is to create real bonds among community members through individual and group activities. Communispace recruits members of select groups through e-mail ads, whether it's 18- to 24-year- olds for Coty Inc. or photo fans for Hewlett-Packard Co. Members are asked to spend about half an hour each week on five activities, such as uploading pictures of their pantries. In return, they get $10 gift certificates, sample products, and a chance to have their opinions heard. Communispace moderates the communities, but company marketers and researchers can monitor the activities and jump into discussions.


Insights from these communities don't replace traditional market segment research or statistical surveys, says Diane Hessan, Communispace's president and CEO. But they can shake up the traditional top-down approach to product development. When Kraft Foods Inc.'s Nabisco group was brainstorming about new kinds of dieting and healthy products three years ago, it asked online participants what diet food represented to them and how they made choices when they snack. Kraft learned that customers didn't feel they needed to deprive themselves or diet -- what they really wanted was the ability to control how much they ate. Kraft obliged with 100 Calorie Packs, a line of small, one-person bags of Oreos and Ritz crackers. The results were stunning: Last year that product line racked up $100 million in sales.

Discussions in Glaxo's community helped shape the advertising and clear packaging for the company's diet pill. It also underscored the confusion around dieting. In one exchange, a member stated that you could lose weight by drinking eight glasses of water a day, while another said no, it's eight quarts. A third added that the water doesn't count if it's in coffee, but was quickly contradicted.

Because members come to trust one another, feedback can be unexpected. When Glaxo asked the group to use images that showed how they felt about themselves, the women posted photos of hippos and elephants. Says Andrea Harkins, senior research manager at GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare: "These are things they wouldn't have said in words."

By Heather Green

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