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Why communities are the future

of brand communications
John V Willshire,

ABSTRACT: The brand communications which evolved in the mass media era are
becoming more and more ineffective at changing peoples’ perceptions of companies
and brands.

The connections people make and communities they form nowadays are increasingly
where they source their information; people are influenced most by people and

I believe that the future of brand communications lies in finding a way to become part
of communities, and communicate with them in a way that is shared, participatory
and reciprocal.

In this way companies can affect peoples’ perceptions of them, and make all of their
brand communications more effective.
The words ‘community’ and ‘communication’ are both hugely important to the
future of brands. Interestingly, both stem from exactly the same source:

The Latin word ‘communis’ is the root of many words we use today to
describe people and the connections they make1. In its basic form, communis
means “common, public, shared by all or many”.

Whilst community is still used very much in this sense, communication has
evolved into something very different. If we were to define communication
properly, it would be as:

“a social and reciprocal act of participation, an act

mediated by the use of symbols that have meaning
among different individuals and groups” 2.

However, in the context of brands and advertising, “communication” in the 20th

century evolved to mean little more than ‘the sending of messages’. This is
not the result of manipulation by the owners of brands, but simply a result of
how the communications landscape developed.

Companies were schooled in creating and broadcasting homogenous,

impersonal messages through a mass-media system. Sending out identical
brand messages to millions of people at once was a logical, efficient and
effective course of action in a mass media world. Indeed, companies had little
choice; it was the only way to talk to all their consumers.

People watched, read and listened passively and attentively. They did not
expect the right to reply, never mind the ability to create and disseminate their
own thoughts. But nowadays people can create, copy and distribute their own
communications as far and as wide as any company.

The people are in control, and as a result they are demanding something
different; I believe that the future of brand communications lies in finding a
way to make these communications shared, participatory and reciprocal.

This involves companies becoming a credible part of the conversations that

communities are having and to become more in step with the ethos of

To do this, they first must understand why people form communities.

Why do communities form?
We have evolved as a social species and it has been the reason that we have
done so well (Earls3); many, if not all, of our achievements would not have
been possible without forming communities (Leadbeater4).

Everything we have built, discovered, invented or created has been made

possible by communities sharing knowledge and experience, communicated
from generation to generation.

If we think about what a community actually is, it will help us understand the
benefit in forming them. A community (McKee5) is:

“A group of
people who form
over time, by
regularly around
contexts which
are of interest to
all of them”

There are three key elements necessary in any community:

 The People who form the community

 The Relationships they form to create and strengthen the community
 The Context around which they form that community; the common
shared interest

What fuels these communities, flowing through the three elements like
electricity, is the communication of information. For example:

 Our ancestors thousands of years ago would come together to fend off
dangerous creatures that attacked the community. They would then
share information on how to do this with the next generation through
telling stories6.
 The ‘Suffragette’ movement in the early 20th century came together to
campaign for equal voting rights for women. Their messages to
society, and to encourage other women to join them, ranged from
political rallies and marches to news-dominating acts of self sacrifice.7

 The families of children at a local school start shopping at a particular

supermarket to collect vouchers that give their children better
computing equipment. The letters to parents, or the conversations at
the school gates, are all vital in galvanising the community into action.

 Students use a Facebook group to organise protests against unfair

banking practices. The site itself, being public and open to all, is
newsworthy enough to generate media attention, and forces the bank
to change their policy through the threat of negative publicity.9

Communities form because we benefit from being together; we feel safe, we

feel valued, and we work together to achieve what we cannot do alone.

What is clear is that whatever the situation, we benefit enormously from

communities. Clichéd or not, there truly is strength in numbers.
Benefiting ‘from’, influenced ‘by’
Being part of a community is not just about the ‘benefits’ though.

As we are so dependent on each other, we find that we affect each other

profoundly too when we talk to each other, share ideas and thoughts or give

While we benefit from being together,

we are influenced by being together

If you imagine taking the crowd and gently pulling it apart, you will see the
links between individuals in the crowd; these are the relationships we form
with each other, around the contexts we are interested in.

Relationships don’t just link single communities together; people are part of
several different communities and they actually link the whole of society

Coursing round this model are the conversations we have with each other and
the communications we make. As individuals each relationship we have, like
it or not, affects the way we think (Earls10).
The recent campaign from Orange11 makes this point. We are the sum of all
our experiences, and those experiences we have in a community are a result
of the other people within it; we are who we are because of everybody.

Technology has fundamentally changed the way this works; it has taken the
communication possibilities available to individuals to a hitherto unimaginable
level. It is allowing ever greater numbers of people to influence each other.
And it hasn’t even finished evolving yet (Cerf12).

The network is linking us together in a completely different way; less

encumbered by time, unrestricted by geography. But it still retains the same
characteristics as smaller, pre-network communities.

So communities have changed, but what has happened to brand

Changing communities
To understand the changing nature of communication, brands and
communities and how they impact on brand communications, we must look at
three separate stages in the development of communities; pre-industrial,
industrial and the emerging network age.

The communities in each of these eras are distinctive because the

communications available to people were so very different. As we will see,
the people you could talk to, the relationships you could form, the context
around which you gathered and the information available to you varied

Firstly, before the industrial revolution communities were very self-contained.

The people you could form a community with were restricted to where you
lived and the social strata you belonged to.

Being so close to your

community however meant that
relationships were very strong;
all communication was face-to-
face at places where people
congregated like the market, the
church or the local hostelry.

Word-of-mouth was hugely

important as it was the primary
means of communicating
information, particularly as the
majority of the population was
The contexts that people formed communities around were also of local
importance and central to how the community prospered (e.g. whose animals
could graze upon the common and for how long).

Small communities were spread across the country with little in the way of
communication to connect them together; there was little chance to form
communities around anything other than local concerns.

In this age ‘brand communications’, or how businesses and enterprises

communicated their abilities and wares, were propagated by word-of-mouth.

Any local blacksmith, tavern landlord or shop owner realised that their
participation in the local community was vital; as a business they thrived or
died on their reputation in the local area. Their ‘brands’ were built through
every interaction they had with the community.

This form of community and communication began to change with the

industrial revolution.
The industrial age 13
The industrial age not only revolutionised how products and services were
created, it fundamentally changed communities too.

Mass production meant identical goods could be rolled off a production line
and shipped out to wholesalers and retailers, whereupon millions of
‘consumers’ across the country could buy the same product with the same
guarantees of quality.

It wasn’t just products that were rolling off the production line. It was
information too.

More and more media forms were created and distributed like mass-produced
goods: newspapers, radio broadcasts, cinema, television. People had access
to national and international news, information and entertainment, a far cry
from the information available to pre-industrial communities14.

The creators of this information invested huge amounts of money into the cost
of production, for instance journalists to report the news and printing presses
to make the papers (Benkler15). Each day they would duplicate the news they
had created and distribute copies so wherever you were across the country,
you had access to the latest information.

So although people were still part

of their local communities, with
face-to-face relationships, they
were suddenly surrounded by
more dominant, one-way
messages from the mass media,
which being new and exciting
were more compelling to listen to.

Therefore the contexts

communities formed around were
taken from the mass media and
could be formed from national or
regional information as well as
Across the country, people shared moments like news from the Front in the
First World War, the Queen’s Coronation, England winning the World Cup,
even Dirty Den getting shot in Eastenders (Winston16).

People read the same stories in national, regional or local newspapers. They
listened to the same radio stations and went to watch the same films in the

The mass media system dominated communications in the industrial era

(Benkler17), and everyone across the country bought the same products and
absorbed the same information… they became the same.

It was the age of homogeneity and it made brand communications easy.

As the industrial age progressed, companies needed a way to tell people

about their products; mass production doesn’t work without mass

Mass media offered the perfect distribution method, but in order to capitalise
on this companies had to find something to fit within that system; every
message to every potential customer had to be identical.

Brands (King18) solved this issue. At first companies created rudimentary,

consistent stories about a product or service to appeal to as many people as
they could. This helped the company by increasing, accelerating, extending
and protecting the cash flow attached to a ‘branded’ product (Doyle19).
Brand communications were produced, copied and distributed across the
country using the mass media infrastructure. It was very much one-way
communication; people couldn’t communicate back much beyond writing a

Not that people needed to ‘reply’. They found brands extremely reassuring; “a
badge or promise of certainty in an uncertain world” (Feldwick20). In hindsight,
it is no surprise that brand communications worked so well in this era.

However a new era has arrived.

The network age

“It seems passé today to speak of “the internet

revolution”. In some academic circles, it is positively
naïve. But it should not be.

The change brought about by the networked

information environment is deep. It is structural. It
goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets
and liberal democracies have coevolved for almost
two centuries”
Yochai Benkler, ‘The Wealth of Networks’21

When we look back at this era, we will realise just how fundamentally things
have changed.

With the internet, email and mobile phones, we can now talk to anyone,
anywhere, about anything we like; previous barriers to forming communities
have been dismantled.
The people who form communities can be anyone connected to the
network22; there are no social or geographical boundaries.

There are now a wide variety of communication tools available to us to create


And the contexts we can gather around can be anything we like, no matter
how niche (Leadbeater23). For instance, you can be part of a free-running
group in South Wales24, involved in creating your own online TV channel.
You could be keenly interested in the Brazilian ex-pat community in Leeds25
and follow the local news most appropriate to you online.

Or maybe you just want to celebrate how much you love your Converse
trainers26 in a social networking group where 55,000 others feel the same.

What’s more, we can be connected

to many communities at once; you
can be a member of all the
communities above if you wish
making you entirely unique as an

All of this has been made possible

by the way technology has freed
information from the mass-
production model.

Firstly, at home, most of us now

have a machine capable of creating
any number of communications.

We can put together our own newspaper-column in the form of blogs27,

produce new music, films and other audio visual, manipulate images and
sounds that others have created. It is the democratisation of creativity. The
means of production are accessible to anyone with a £500 computer28.
Secondly, with the advent of digital information formats, it costs nothing to
copy information perfectly, instantly and as often as you wish. Think about
how often you could copy a song from one tape cassette to another, then
another, then another. Now compare that to how often you can with an MP3.

Finally, the network allows us to distribute whatever we have created or

copied, as far and as wide as we like.

In the original ‘the six degrees of separation’ experiment, 296 people were
given an envelope to pass to the one person they thought most likely to be
able to pass it to the intended recipient. Only 66 envelopes arrived29.

Nowadays, in comparison, we can email everyone we know and tell them to

forward the message to everyone they know, in the knowledge that the
message will eventually get there.

With the means of production, duplication and distribution in the hands of the
people, the people are not just passive ‘consumers’ any more.
The mass production model of information has been weakened by
technological advances. Nowadays people can be involved in any stage of
the information production process, even right from the very start.

With people creating and distributing their own information to communities,

companies are in a difficult situation.

They face an audience that not only has the means to form communities
around any topic of interest they desire, but has the capability to produce
communications around these topics and related brands and products.

The authoritative brand communications of yesteryear are becoming

increasingly distant, easier to filter out and ignore and are much less personal
and emotionally engaging when compared to communications created and
shared by actual real people.
Brands cannot afford to maintain a distant, faceless presence when people
are having personal, instant, friendly conversations with each other and with
the companies who already understand this. They have to change.

We’re off to see the Wizard

Brands are like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz. They have been constructed
over time not to resemble real people, but high-level, god-like representations
of the power held by that organisation.
The power is of course what makes the organisation able to produce fantastic
goods and services for us all to buy, and it still offers that guarantee of quality,
that promise of performance.

Yet because of the size and power represented by the brand, it makes it very
hard for people to develop a conversational relationship with it.

How do you speak to a ‘brand’? How do you become friends with a ‘brand’?
A brand, for people, can be an intimidating thing.


But behind every brand are normal, everyday people, just as the Wizard of Oz
turned out to be the Professor; the first thing companies need to do in order to
approach communities is step out from behind the curtain.
Like the Professor, when the mystique is gone and a company is no longer
perceived as an all-powerful, magical entity, the company’s ability to
communicate with people is not lost.

In fact, it is more likely that by holding conversations with a real person within
that company, people will find out what the company can really do for them.

Rather than the intelligence, heart and courage that the Professor was able to
bestow, through conversation as part of the community, the company can
supply exactly what each person desires. And in return, the company benefits
by forming a stronger relationship with it’s customers.

I believe that companies can be as much a part of communities today as

blacksmiths, landlords and shop owners were in the pre-industrial age.

To do so companies must rediscover how to talk to people and form

communities with them, instead of always talking as the ‘brand’.


To do this, companies must start thinking about communities in a completely

different way; they are no longer a crowd to be talked down to, but a ‘Hive
Mind’ to hold conversations with.
The Hive Mind

“The Earth has evolved a nervous system, and it’s us”

Dan Dennett 32

The ‘wiring together’ of communities in the network era is very much like the
way the human brain works (Gordon33). The neurons are the people, the
synapses which connect them the relationships and the brain area is the

This process is rapidly enabling society to evolve into a type of ‘Hive Mind’34;
a collective consciousness where whatever one person knows, everyone else
will soon know (if, of course, it is important enough).

It is still constructed from the three basic elements that make up communities;
people, relationships and contexts.

It is the circumstances in which we form these communities that has changed,

allowing these three elements to evolve and form the Hive Mind; a highly
connected, creative network of people.
i) People; you’ve changed…

Brand communications evolved around identifying a target audience and

creating a communication that would appeal to as many of them as possible.

Targeting a group like 16-34 ABC1 men35’ worked because every man within
that audience was fed on a very similar diet of mass media information; their
cultural reference points were the same.


The goal of marketers was to create communications that would appeal to

enough of a target audience to hit a set business goal.

However, society isn’t as linear as it once was. Not everyone marries at 21,
has children by 28, builds a steady middle-management career and lives in
suburbia forever after. Targeting by age group or by social class means that
not only are you including lots of people who won’t be interested, but missing
out lots who will.

The rise of niche communities means we can define ourselves by what we are
interested in. The people we form communities with are a lot less
homogenous than they used to be.

Targeting by demographic is not subtle enough to connect to communities,

because this not how society works any more.
ii) Relationships; anytime, anywhere

The sheer volume and variance of the communications37 we now make is

changing the nature of relationships. Mobile phones and the internet have
broken down the barriers inhibiting word of mouth, such as location, speed
and accessibility.

It’s not just about the number of communications though; these relationships
are not like the original ‘face-to-face’ conversations we had in previous eras.

They are a mixture of visual, audio, text or video, formal, informal, from
friends, from strangers, long or short. And can be sent from anywhere you
have network access.

Imagine the image below depicts the old relationships we made in red. The
new ones we can make, in green, link us all together, extending the number of
relationships we can have.

The network is increasingly making sure that wherever we are, we can

continue the relationships we have formed in communities.

Not everyone forms an equal number of relationships, just like Gladwell’s

connectors38, and nor are they equal in the number of messages they send
and receive. But we are getting to a stage in the developed world that almost
everyone is on the network somehow and almost everyone can find a
community to join.
iii) Context; the rise of niche
The image below may seem familiar; it could be a distant galaxy
photographed from the Hubble telescope or perhaps an organism under a

It is, in fact, a map of the internet39. Each little cluster represents a particular
website, and the brightness of each indicates the number of people using that
website. This is a far cry from the centralised and limited mass-media
channels of the industrial era.

The network has freed us to come together around whichever contexts we

wish, no matter how small and niche or how few people gather around it. As
we saw before, people can participate in many, many communities, so
information can be passed through the entire network (Shirky40).

The mass-media age constrained this behaviour; anything too niche would be
unprofitable for an information creator to get involved in producing, duplicating
and distributing.

“We haven’t had all the groups we’ve wanted, we’ve

simply had all the groups we could afford”
Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody41

With the rise of niche contexts and the evolution of these other elements,
companies must think differently about how they communicate with the Hive
The Hive Mind; two levels of communication
In order to engage with the Hive Mind, companies must operate at two
different levels.

Firstly there is the ‘entity’ level; the entity that is the brand speaks to the
entity that is the Hive Mind. These are the traditional ‘brand communications’
crafted in bulk and aimed squarely at a majority within the Hive Mind in the
hope that it reacts in a positive way.

Now, if the Hive Mind is already positively disposed to the company and the
brand, it reacts favourably. But if not, the communications are increasingly

Once, these same channels would then have been employed to change
opinions about a company and its brands, but their power is waning. They
are having less and less effect on people, because people are much more
influenced by each other and by what they find out online, as this chart shows:

Sources of brand information

100% 2% 1% 1% 0%
4% 2%
5% 3% 3%
3% 4%
90% 6% 5%
5% Radio
8% 8% 12%
20% 26%
21% Broadcast TV
60% 23%
50% Cable TV

40% Newspapers
57% 55% 56%
48% WOM


Initial Further Deciding Purchase

Awareness learned where to buy decision

Source: Online Publishers Association, 2007

In order to change opinions, companies must make greater efforts to engage
at the second level; the ‘community’ level.

This is where communication, because it is closer to communities and

therefore the original ‘communis’ definition, has to be:

“a social and reciprocal act of participation”

Think back again to the elements which form communities; people,

relationships, context. To engage with communities, companies must:

i) communicate with
people as employees,
not as the ‘brand’
ii) encourage genuine,
relationships to form
between employees and
people outside the
iii) work with those people
around contexts which
are mutually beneficial

Reaching out from within a company is increasingly becoming the only way to
change perceptions of the company in the Hive Mind.
What follows is The Communis Manifesto, a set of principles outlining how
companies can allow and encourage their own community to communicate
with others at the ‘community level’. Companies must:

Create inner belief

Spread the word

Build relationships

Create community spaces

Allow messages to travel

These five principles are crucial in forming a bond between a company and
the other communities within the Hive Mind.
Create inner belief

“If consumers know how a brand functions and how it

‘thinks’ and ‘feels’, then the new question that has to
be answered is ‘what does it “believe” in?’”

Hamish Pringle / Marjory Thomson, ‘Brand Spirit’ 43

Inside the Hive Mind, groups of employees form relationships around the
context of the company they work for; a company is a community.

However, where other communities are drawn together by an overwhelming

desire to create, share and connect, companies are formed of people
remunerated in exchange for their time and labour.

What we have seen over the last decade is the rise of companies who seek
to combine the need to make a living with the same desires and beliefs that
other communities have. These are ‘passion brands’ (Edwards/Day44).

Each ‘passion brand’ has a central belief in who they are and what they are
trying to do. It transcends the traditional central brand team who use ‘brand
values’ in ‘entity’ communications; it is something that resonates with every
single employee in the organisation.
How does a company make sure that passion burns through the whole
organisation? Let’s look at a successful network era business, Google.

Google is a great community to become a part of45; the work is ‘challenging

and interesting’, the culture one of ‘autonomy and empowerment’, and
everyone is on a mission "to organize the world's information and make it
universally accessible and useful"46.

It is of course famous for having just one key motto, ‘Don’t Be Evil’
(Battelle47); no sixteen page manual of brand values, onions or pyramids, a
simple iteration of a guiding spirit.

People are trusted to interpret this together as a community, in whatever

tasks they undertake.

And of course there’s the very fabric of the working environment, the place the
community meets. The ‘Googleplex’ is rumoured to be designed to make you
‘think like a 5 year old kid’, the theory being that this is the age when people
are most creative48.

Google has been highly successful in building a community of brilliant,

dedicated people, united by a common desire to make things better for
everyone; to “deliver compelling new products that make a real difference to
real people in the real world” as one employee puts it49.
It is this form of infectious brand spirit that companies must capture at the
centre of their community in the Hive Mind; the first audience for articulating
and embedding brand beliefs must be a company’s own people.

For companies created in the network era this sort of behaviour comes almost
naturally. The challenge for industrial era firms50 is to evolve their industrial
business structures (Leadbeater51) into something that allows their employees
to feel as warm as possible towards the brands they help create (Ind52).

The warmer employees feel about the company, the more likely they are to
pass on this ‘warmth’ to people they connect with outside the company.
Spread the word
Employees have always been one of the most powerful brand
communications tools available to companies (de Chernatony53), but
nowadays it is more important than ever.

Every time people come into contact with employees, an impression is given
about the company they represent, whether they are the dealers on a
forecourt, an employee in a call centre, the blogger writing from inside a
company54 or the designer speaking at a conference55.

Recently, the biggest change is just how far employees are able to go in
expressing themselves; they are just as willing and able to produce, duplicate
and distribute communications as other people in the network age, and the
more engaged they feel in the company, the more eager they will be to do so.
Companies must let their employees articulate ‘community’ level
communications. Employees do not prop up the ‘third person entity’ of the
brand, but instead use their own personality to help shape the impression
people get of the company.

By letting employees take control of what they say, a company feels more like
a community rather than a faceless entity.

This is what William Sledd did for Gap56. He was a store manager who
started a video blog on youtube offering fashion advice and opinion in short
six minute shows. He put forward his honest views on fashion and the
products Gap got right and wrong.

Additionally, because of the medium he used, people could comment back,

interacting directly with someone inside the Gap community.

He brought real authenticity to the notion that Gap was a community of people
who were knowledgeable and passionate about fashion and who wanted to
share their passion.
No-one at the central Gap marketing team asked him to start doing it, but
crucially no-one told him to stop either. He just wanted to communicate with
the world. So far there have been nearly 19 million views of his fifty-eight

It is vitally important for companies to encourage employees who see the

value in communicating with the wider world. They are the employees who

are passionate and enthusiastic

are community minded
are creative in their use of communications
have a multi-tasking mindset
have the ability to think outside the box
are already heavily involved in social networks
already maintain ongoing relationships

Given time and encouragement, they will create things which resonate with
people externally in the Hive Mind and start to become part of communities
relevant to the company.

Whether it is the marketers who change the way they converse with
customers, engineers who start contributing to open-source projects or
product designers who co-create the next widget for a company with the wider
community, employees must be allowed to build relationships however they
see fit.
Build relationships
Why would people in the Hive Mind be interested in building relationships with
employees from a company? Think about what people seek from establishing

“Social media users interact to find friendship, and

friendship requires that you have something
interesting to bring to the conversation”
Jimmy Maymann, The Social Metropolis 59

It is a form of ‘permission marketing’ (Godin60); if employees can provide

something interesting, entertaining or useful in a community, they will be
welcomed as a friend and given permission to continue talking to the

What a company can bring to a community that is of interest is a ‘social

object’ (McLeod61); the thing that brings people together in conversation.

An example is the beta version of Last.FM62. When a new version of the

software is being developed and before it is completely finished, Last.FM
invites members of the ‘beta group’ to test it first.

They spot mistakes, make improvement suggestions and debate which fixes
are the priorities, in order to make the product better. The beta test is the
social object that gets Last.FM employees talking to their most loyal users.

This builds trust between the loyal users and Last.FM; the users feel that they
are contributing to something that they feel as passionate about as the
employees themselves.
In order to let employees have conversations like these, be it about product
testing, supporting causes, or even creating brand communications,
companies need to give their employees five things:

1. Trust – a company cannot seek to control every communication that

employees make; they must be trusted to make the right decisions

2. Access – companies should encourage employees to develop ways to

use new communication tools in order to develop better customer
relationships; if communities are using them, so should the company

3. Time – employees should be allowed to communicate with external

people as part of their job, not outside their working hours or in addition
to their current workload

4. Freedom - any strict bureaucratic or legal procedures surrounding the

use of information outside the company could hinder employees’ efforts
to connect to people

5. Transparency – finally, employees who are forming relationships must

be able to do so in an open and transparent way; they should not be
expected to lie or cover up anything for the company

A company who backs employees in this way is clearly encouraging

interaction with people. The employees can choose to interpret this
interaction in their own way; through the marketing they create, the forums
they post on, the open-source projects they contribute to. What matters is
that they have the ability to fully contribute to any communities they become a
part of.

The more that employees and people converse, then the more likely, willing
and able they will be to form new communities around contexts related to the
company and its brands.

And as employees connect with people in the Hive Mind and relationships
develop, a company will see an increase in advocacy by those people who
communicate with employees.
Create community spaces
Once relationships develop between employees and people, companies can
forge a real sense of community by creating places where everyone can
gather around the contexts they care about.

For instance, this could be physical gatherings, like the innocent village fete,
or perhaps online places where people can regularly interact, like Dell’s


Whether it is an open air celebration of a product and ethos that everyone

believes in or an online forum to improve customer service, these spaces offer
a chance for employees and people to get together and have the
conversations that lead to the formation of communities.

The communities then start to show their real worth; people and employees
can create, duplicate and distribute a company’s communications, or even its
products, together. And what’s more, the people from outside your company
will be more likely to spread your messages further of their own accord.
Allow messages to travel
Think again about social objects; if they are the things that get people and
employees talking, then they can also be used to help make people talk
amongst themselves.

“The message that travels is the one that is created by

the consumer, not the brand”
Steve Knox, P&G Tremor Unit 65

It is not simply the close community constructed by employees and people

who are buying the products; there is a wider group of people who still need to
be influenced who will not create and contribute as that core have done.

What companies must do is enable the core to connect with the wider
audience to spread the warmth. It is the complete relinquishing of control of
the communications about the company and brand; “a social and reciprocal
act of participation”.

In the same way that employees like William Sledd create brand
communications from inside the organisation, those people who are close to
the brand on the outside must be encouraged and celebrated for doing the

Take this example of something created at the same time as the launch of
Apple’s MacBook Air. It’s a direct remake of the TV ad which showed the
MacBook Air being taken out of an envelope to emphasise how thin it was,
and it’s called ‘MacBook Paper’66.

Not only was the video shot frame-for-frame with the ad, there was a paper
version available for you to ‘print out your own’, constructed from images from
Apple’s own website.
It is not something that would have ever come out of the company itself, of
course; a marketing department would have worried about the implications on
product perception.

But by freeing the images on their website, someone who is clearly warm
towards Apple has used the images to create their own version of the product
message, which nearly 250,000 other people then watched.

Though these people did not participate themselves, they were reached not
by the company, but by the person who took materials and inspiration from
the company and created their own version, spreading their advocacy of the
Apple brand.

Allowing messages to travel in this way is the final step in connecting to the
communities in the Hive Mind; let the people who are warm towards you
spread this warmth however they choose.

Supply the ‘materials’, be they images, videos, sound files or product

samples, and give them the freedom and trust that you give to your own
employees, so that they can create the communications that they feel best
expresses their brand warmth.

Let’s now look at two examples of companies who have used a mixture of
these principles to engage with the Hive Mind to their considerable benefit.
The caped persuaders
The ‘community’ approach to changing opinion within the Hive Mind can work
across any product or service where there is a community of interest to be
found and engaged with.

When the makers of the movie The Dark Knight67,

the sequel to Batman Begins, started to promote
the new film, they knew that there was great
expectation amongst a core community of comic
book aficionados; after all, the first film rescued
the franchise from mass-market purgatory68.

These fans are notoriously passionate, and they

are much more prone to reacting badly and
publicly than other communities, particularly to
movie studios that aren’t faithful to the comic book
characters the fans believe belong to them

To combat this, the team behind the film created

an Alternate Reality Game, or ARG; a combination
of ‘choose your own adventure’ books, treasure hunts and online role-playing
that allowed the hardcore fans to completely immerse themselves in the
universe of The Dark Knight over a year before the final theatrical release.
The first website, I Believe in Harvey Dent, required mass interaction between
different users to uncover, pixel-by-pixel, the first published photo of The

This was then used to recruit people to be The Joker’s henchmen. They were
given various missions to carry out, online and in the real world, in order to get
to the next part of the story, and similar factions of people were recruited for
other characters in the film as the ARG story progressed70.

For a year before the release, the people most important to the movie’s
success were participating in the story; they were helping to create the world
in which the movie would be set. And all that time, they were getting more
and more excited about it.

As we have seen, when a community gets excited about something in the

Hive Mind they tell everyone else they know…
The fervent word-of-mouth behind the film meant that the ‘entity’
communications publicising the release date found a Hive Mind that was
already expectant and excited; as a result, The Dark Knight smashed just
about every box-office record71.

In eschewing the mass-family appeal approach, and creating a universe for

the community that cared most about the film, Warner Bros managed to make
The Dark Knight the second highest-grossing film of all time (to date…).

Now it could be argued that it is easy to get people to form a community

around an entertainment context with a 70 year heritage.

But wherever there are communities of interest forming, relevant brands and
products can engage with that section of the Hive Mind.
From the mouths of babes
Disposable nappies are not the most eco-friendly product around. With this
issue in mind Marlene Sandberg, a Swedish mother and lawyer, gave up her
job to start Nature Babycare72, a disposable nappy that was as “dry and
comfortable for babies as the best "ordinary" nappies but much kinder to

Today the firm’s products are stocked across the US, Europe and Australia, in
national supermarket chains such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.

And yet you won’t have seen them fighting competitors like Huggies or
Pampers for TV airtime. They have a core belief in the power of word-of-
mouth and advocacy. On every pack this message appears:

Their mission is to create more environmentally friendly products, and with the
help of the customers who are warm to them already, they want to reach other
people who believe in this mission too.
When a new ambassador gets in touch through the website, an employee at
Nature Babycare welcomes them, sends them discount vouchers for them
and the people they talk to and provides articles and evidence to help back up
the case.

It’s a solid CRM model, and perhaps not that different from those seen in the
mass industrial era. But what has made a real difference is that those
ambassadors and customers can now influence each other through the
network communication tools on the internet.

The number and warmth of user reviews, forum posts, community sites and
more73 have continually fuelled new interest in the brand. This chart of forum
posts below show that over the last 2 years, mentions of Nature Babycare
have been brought up constantly on parenting boards and forums.

This means that over time awareness and interest has spread throughout the
Hive Mind; the number of Google searches for the brand in the last two years
has quadrupled.


And yet they have only spent £28,313 on ‘entity’ communications in the last
three years: a few pages in specific parenting magazines. In comparison,
Proctor & Gamble have spent £45 million advertising Pampers over the same

Whilst Pampers still significantly outsell Nature Babycare, it is the latter that is
focussed on building relationships with a community around them, whilst
Pampers maintains its reliance on the mass media approach.

The people, employees and company are coming together around the context
of Nature Babycare and environmentally-friendly parenting and have created
a ‘passion brand’ together.

As the shift from mass media to network communications becomes more

pronounced and more people are influenced by the opinions and beliefs that
each hold, this approach to building companies and brands is going to
become more and more successful.
In conclusion; The Communis Manifesto 77

Entity communications are increasingly failing to change peoples’ beliefs

about a company, product or brand; it is people who have the biggest
influence on people.

It is only by creating warmth at a community level in The Hive Mind that entity
communications will be welcomed, believed and acted upon.

A company’s communications must be social and reciprocal acts of


In order to achieve this, companies should follow the principles laid out in this,
The Communis Manifesto, and track their success78:

Create inner belief amongst employees

Spread the word with every contact your employees make

Build relationships with the people who share your passions

Create community spaces to share and develop those passions

Allow messages to travel as far and as freely as people wish

And finally, they should remember the lesson that Bob Hoskins taught us at
the end of the industrial era…

Fittingly for an essay on communities, it was a community who provided me
with this information; the Wikipedia entry, compiled by a community of people
who want to help make it the most comprehensive knowledge resource on the

However, just to make sure that they’d got it right, I contacted Dr Stephen
Colvin, a Reader in Classics and Historical Linguistics at University College
London, to check the definition was correct.

He sent me back the following email, confirming that it was.

The expert and the community both reached the same conclusion. Further
proof, perhaps, that open sourcing projects like Wikipedia are becoming ever
more reliable.
This definition was by Paulo Giuntarelli, the Director of the Rome National
Park (from here:, midway down the 3rd page), and
runs in full as follows:

What is Communication ?

The term comes from the Latin noun, “communicatio” (communication,

participation), a term that literally indicates the “placement in a common
area” of what one possesses or “the inclusion of others” in that act. In
fact, the term is formed by the union of two words: “cum” (together) and
“munus” (gifts offered publicly).

“Communico,” then, originally indicated “to place in a common space,”

to create a shared space, an interpretation confirmed by the link that
exists, from an etymological perspective, among the verb “communico”,
the noun “communio” (communion, sharing), and the adjective

Here, we are not referring to “sending messages,” but to a social and

reciprocal act of participation, an act mediated by the use of symbols that
have meaning among different individuals and groups.
“Primates are first and foremost social creatures – this is our core
evolutionary strategy”

“Herd”, p31, Mark Earls (John Wiley & Sons, 2007)

“Even Thomas Edison, the most famous lone inventor, owed his success to
being a great collaborator… Edison acknowledged that without his team of
unsung engineers – Charles Batchelor, James Adam, John Kuresi, Charles
Wurth – he would never have come up with many of the inventions that made
him famous”

“We-Think, p93-95, Charles Leadbeater (Profile Books, 2008)

Jake McKee is a noted community marketing expert who used to be the
Global Community Development Manager at LEGO.

His blog can be found here: .

His original definition was “A community is a group of people who form

relationships over time by interacting regularly around shared experiences,
which are of interest to all of them for varying individual reasons.”… I tweaked
it a little, and left some stuff out.
An interesting paragraph or two on cave paintings:
“Brand Spirit”, p16 (“Tesco’s computers for schools” case study)

Hamish Pringle and Marjorie Thomson (John Wiley & Sons, 1999)
Guardian article on HSBC Facebook, Sept 2007 -
“We are a we-species who do individually what we do largely because of
each other”

“Herd”, p5, Mark Earls (John Wiley & Sons, 2007)

The web page for the Orange “I Am” campaign -

I like this campaign, though it may feel a little similar to some other telecoms
campaigns that have run in recent years, but find me a communications
company who charges per contact that doesn’t tell people they should really
be talking to more people…
“The technology isn't perfect yet, but it's rapidly improving. Even in its
present form, it's easy to imagine a not-too-distant future in which automatic
translation will allow two people in the world to message one another in real
time, each experiencing the chat in his or her tongue. Just imagine what a
significant step that will be.”

Vint Cerf
Google Vice-President & Co-Designer of the Internet Architecture
Observer, Aug 2008

The Industrial revolution -
Imagine you lived through any of the previous big communications
changes; the writings of the greatest thinkers and authors could be in you
hands in weeks in a book. News from the capital city could arrive the next
day in a newspaper. Radio waves could carry a voice instantly from one
small studio to millions of homes. A music record meant everyone could
listen to the musicians and singers they loved whenever they liked. And as
for television…

It is probably as comparable as the wonder we feel now about the internet.

“The economics of long-distance mass distribution systems necessary to
reach this constantly increasing and more dispersed relevant population were
typified by high up-front costs and low marginal costs of distribution”

‘The Wealth of Networks’, p30, Yochai Benkler (Yale University Press, 2006)
“As a species, we are not physically designed for large and anonymous
cities, low-level stress, fast food, addictive drugs and the fracturing of
communal life… we were used to the gossip and intrigue that grew from a
close-knit and interdependent group; now we must be content with

“Human Instinct”, p20, Robert Winston (Bantam Press, 2002)

“The mass-media model of information and cultural production and
transmission became the dominant form of public communication in the
twentieth century”

‘The Wealth of Networks’, p30, Yochai Benkler, (Yale University Press, 2006)
“What is a Brand”, Stephen King, 1971
“The value of the business can be increased in four ways:

i) Increasing cash flow…

ii) Accelerating cash flow…
iii) Adding to the long-term value of the business…
iv) …reducing risks and volatility of the anticipated cash flow”

‘Value Based Marketing’, p229, Peter Doyle (John Wiley & Sons, 2000)
‘What is a Brand?’, p4, Paul Feldwick (NYC Publications, 2002)
‘The Wealth of Networks’, p1, Yochai Benkler, (Yale University Press, 2006)
Current broadband penetration figures

From Ofcom 2008 Communications Market Report -

Additionally, by 2013, it is predicted that 82% of UK homes will have a

broadband connection (

“The web provides many more niches for people to start a conversation on
something about which they feel passionately. The old, industrial media,
newspapers and television, do not have enough room to cater to all the
minority interests of their readers and listeners.”

‘We-Think’, Charles Leadbeater (Profile Books, 2008)

The myspacetv channel of Fluidity, a free-running group in South Wales
The meet-up group for Brazilian ex-pats in Leeds & the North -
Converse trainers bebo page -
There are so many blogs out there now that there are articles asking why
are we even bothering to count them (
Back in the nineteen eighties, an AVID video editing suite cost anywhere
north of £100,000 ( Nowadays, a professional
desktop editing suite will cost about £5,000 (, and a
home version for under £1000 (
“Shortly after the experiments began, letters would begin arriving to the
targets and the researchers would receive postcards from the respondents.
Sometimes the packet would arrive to the target in as few as one or two hops,
while some chains were composed of as many as nine or ten links. However,
a significant problem was that often people refused to pass the letter forward,
and thus the chain never reached its destination. In one case, 232 of the 296
letters never reached the destination.”
Illustration from Geek and Poke: . What I love
most about this is the littler registered trademark ‘r’ just after the remark… it is
just so reminiscent of attempts by brands to talk to people yet retain the
control they enjoyed in the mass media era.
Illustration by Hugh McLeod:
This was something the philosopher Dan Dennett
( said on the TV program “The genius of Charles

…which thanks to some more wonderful technology will be available to watch

on 4OnDemand until the 18th September -
“Brand New Brand Thinking”;

Chapter 7, Brands on the brain, Wendy Gordon (Kogan Page, 2002)

The ‘hive mind’ or ‘group mind’ is a concept that crops up often in Science
Fiction (, but possibly the most widely known
example will be The Borg.

In Star Trek, The Borg is a race of connected beings that disseminates all
information between the collective immediately, and wirelessly. They’re the
guys that look like this:
The Hive Mind I refer to is clearly NOT a slavishly obedient one such as the
this, where everyone automatically believes whatever information comes
through the network (although that would make everything a lot easier for

But the principle of sharing of information through high-speed technological

advances helps us think of the how the Hive Mind works now and in the
future. For further reading, Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine has proposed that
the system that sits behind this kind of ‘Hive Mind’ is ‘The One Machine’:

The NRS Social Grade system originated in the 1950s to give some ‘human
dimension’ to readership figures ( Yet they are still
seemingly part of the toolkit of today’s industry, despite the fact we are
increasing defined by interests instead of demographics.
“Yes, we’re all individuals…”… yep, shamelessly stolen from here:
We communicate a lot nowadays:

Every day 51 billion emails (excluding spam) are sent around the world; that’s
seven emails for everyone on the planet. (

Technorati currently tracks over 106 million blogs around the world.

4.3 billion text messages were sent in April 2007 in the UK alone (Mobile Data
“What makes someone a connector? The first – and most obvious –
criterion is that connectors know lots of people. They are the kinds of people
who know everyone.”

“The Tipping Point”, p38, Malcolm Gladwell (Abacus, 2000)

The map of the internet -
The ‘Small Worlds’ theory is outlined in chapter 9 of “Here comes
Everybody” by Clay Shirky (Allen Lane, 2008).

Large networks are sparsely connected, and small networks are tightly
connected, as this diagram below shows; though not everyone is connected
directly, they are never more than 3 steps from anyone else.

So the more small groups or communities someone becomes a part of, the
more connected up a diagram like this would be.

There is further insight into ‘Small Worlds’ in this interview with Duncan Watts:
“Here comes Everybody”, p21, Clay Shirky (Allen Lane, 2008)
“Brand Spirit”, Hamish Pringle and Marjorie Thomson (John Wiley & Sons,
“Creating Passion Brands”, Helen Edwards & Derek Day (Kogan Page,
FT profile of Google (after they won the FT’s top employer award for 2008) -
Fortune profile, included in 100 best companies to work for -
“The Search”, p137, John Battelle (Nicholas Brealy Publishing, 2006)
48 profile of the Googleplex -

…and one by Clive Wilkinson architects –

Google’s own staff on Google:
An interesting article on PSFK about whether the likes of P&G and Unilever
can create brands that mean something -
“The large corporation that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries was built on a military model of organisation: everyone has their
place in a rank, every place defined a function, and authority flowed through a
chain of command from top to bottom. If you were unsure what to do next,
you looked at your job description and if that did not provide an answer you
asked the next person up the chain of command for instructions”

‘We-Think’, p88, Charles Leadbeater (Profile Books, 2008)

“Living the Brand”, Chapter 6, Nicholas Ind (Kogan Page, 2007 edition)
“A brand personality cannot just be communicated by a press or television
advertisement, but it also depends very much upon everyone in the company”

“Creating powerful brands”, Chapter 6, Leslie de Chernatony and Malcolm

McDonald (Butterworth-Heinemann; 3 edition, 2003)
Two fine examples of employees who’ve embodied the companies they
work for… firstly, in the bottom left of the image used above this source is
Robert Scoble, ex-Microsoft blogger -
…and in the bottom right is Jonathan Ive, Senior Vice President of Industrial
Design at Apple -
Interview with William Sledd -

…and the classic clip…
This figure is tallied from the William Sledd youtube channel:
But of course this isn’t 19 million impressions like a TV ad campaign would
be; it’s 19 million active views from people seeking out these shows…
Tamar Weinberg, social media consultant, posted an article on her blog
where she’d talked to a variety of different social marketers regarding ‘what
makes a good social marketer.

The article is here:

I’ve taken Tamar’s own synopsis of the article in order to create the list in the
essay. The full synopsis is as follows:

“Many agreed that social media is about community-building, passion, and

enthusiasm. Creativity, a multi-tasking mindset, and the ability to think outside
the box were also heavily agreed upon. Most importantly, those who find the
most success in the social media marketing realm are those who are heavily
networked and ensure that maintaining ongoing relationships is part of their
everyday routine.”
“The Social Metropolis”, p12, Jimmy Maymann (Goviral, 2008)

(this can be downloaded from the Goviral site -

“Permission Marketing”, Seth Godin (Simon & Schuster 1999)
Hugh McLeod, he of the great illustration before, talking about social
The Last.FM beta group -

The innocent village fete is now held every year instead of ‘Fruitstock’, the
festival that really put innocent on the map as a brand who might be a little bit
different -

Dell’s Ideastorm, on the other hand, is an admirable example of a huge

established company trying to embrace people -
P&G’s Tremor Unit their in-house word-of-mouth marketing division -
The MacBook Paper film is here –

…and the cut-out MacBook Paper is at the bottom of this page here (go on,
make one, you know you want to…) -
The Dark Knight -
The Batman franchise had been brought to its knees in 1997 by a fourth
instalment, Batman & Robin, which was criticised by public, critics and crew
alike for being more of a “toy commercial” than a movie, as there was so
much pressure to create a movie with mass family appeal in order to sell
merchandise -
In the same way that brands are really owned by people, as demonstrated
by the New Coke debacle (“Brand Failures”, Chapter 2, Matt Haig (Kogan
Page 2005), the characters from comic books, though created by the authors,
are very much now owned by the fans
There is an extended Dark Knight case study in “The Social Metropolis”,
p65, Jimmy Maymann (Goviral, 2008)

(Goviral site -

The Dark Knight box office performance -
Nature Babycare website -
There are countless examples of the word-of-mouth behind the Nature
Babycare brand, here are just a few I’ve taken the images from:

I also received the following information from Nigel Kingston at Nature

Babycare regarding their program, and how the word-of-mouth has driven
their success:
We have been operating in the UK since 2004 when we first launched the Nature brand with
Sainsburys and Waitrose. The first few years were hard work as at that time there was little
interest in sustainable, biodegradable products.

Of course that has changed in the last couple of years with high interest levels. However
interest and getting people to change their behaviour are different things and the latter takes

However Nature babycare is now stocked by the following major retailers in the UK:
Waitrose, Sainsburys, Tesco, Mothercare, Coop, Morrisons, Toys R Us, Boots, Tree of Life
(and a number of smaller retailers also.)
We have been using our ambassador programme for the last three years and it no doubt
makes a difference to our business as it attracts committed purchasers and those who want
to spread the message.

We tell our consumers about the programme on our packs, through PR releases to the media,
through baby websites and through editorials in baby Magazines.

We send out money off coupons to our ambassadors and their friends that they register as a
thank you and we get a high redemption rate on these, up to 40%.

We have high loyalty to our brand and know from research that approximately 70% of people
who try Nature babycare continue to repeat purchase. We believe that this high loyalty factor
is associated with the ambassador programme.

We have many thousands of ambassadors on our scheme at any one time and new
ambassadors are signed up constantly. Each month we get around 8000 visits to our website
and over 35% of these are looking at our ambassador system.

The interest in this system has grown over the last three years and it is our strong belief that it
is contributing strongly to our sales growth we are now in the process of linking it with some of
our major retailers to drive traffic back to their stores.

Data obtained from Boardreader, which is an online resource which scans
selected forums and counts the mentions… like Google trends, but for forums:
From “Google Insights for search”, the new, better version of Google
Trends (the numbers are scaled by google, they’re not absolute numbers:
Data from AC Nielsen
For a day or so I weighed up whether to call it this the Communis Manifesto
in light of 1999’s ‘Cluetrain Manifesto’ (, which does cover
a little of some of the same ground.

But I pressed ahead because ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto’ covers just about
every bit ground going, it’s nearly ten years old, and as they say themselves
on the site, “This is the site as it existed then. The conversations continue
elsewhere”. This is one of those conversations.

Plus “The Communis Manifesto” is just too fun a pun to give up…
Measurement of how these principles perform over time is essential; for
each of the principles, there are different ways a company would gauge their

Create inner belief

Internal surveys should be regularly undertaken to understand how much
‘warmth’ employees have for the company. A version of the Netpromoter
( score could work well for this:
“On a scale on 1-10, how likely would you be to recommend our products and
services to your friends and family?”

Spread the word

This is about measuring two things;

Firstly, the volume of contacts through anywhere employees come into

contact with people outside the organization; calls to the service division,
emails, complaints, visits to stores or dealerships and so on.

Secondly evaluating the quality of those contacts through customer

satisfaction surveys at each step; in-store suggestion boxes, online surveys,
or CRM satisfaction monitoring.

Build relationships
Companies must keep track of the number of communications made, and the
number of people externally who are regularly interacting with the
communities that are starting to form.

For example, the Last.FM beta would track the number of users who have
joined the group, how many have posted a comment at all, and how many are
in regular communication.

Create community spaces

If a company creates a community space like the innocent village fete or
Dell’s ideastorm, then there should of course be monitoring of numbers who
interact with the brands in these spaces anyway; the expense of creating
events and areas like this should be rigorously checked.

Further tracking of the awareness and opinion on the spaces should also be
tracked; of all the people who know of but do not go to the innocent village
fete, it is still influencing their opinion of the brand.

Allow messages to travel

Finally, tracking the communications that resonate outward from a community
is comparatively easy in the modern age; for the MacBook Paper example,
the number of views of the youtube video are freely available to all

Additionally, resources like Google news/blog trackers can give precise

stories and blog posts by day, take a few seconds to collate, and can be
retrospectively collected for any given period – an example can be found
Tracking all of these stages will give a company a robust idea of the warmth
that exists, and that they are generating, in the Hive Mind.

Building all of them into a ‘metric of metrics’ (“Marketing in the era of

accountability”, Les Binet & Peter Field (WARC 2007)) would enable a
company to look at warmth of ‘community level’ communications, as well as
advertising awareness of ‘entity level’ communications, in conjunction with
other key business metrics like sales, revenue, margin and the like.