Totalitarianism & Communis…

…pace. As in Communispace, the marketing research firm with the Fortune 500 client list and this self-description:

Communispace is one of the first companies to create online communities that enable organizations to get deeply involved with customers– to gain insights into their lives, interests, decisions, and needs in ways not possible before. We know how to invite the right people, use the right mix of technologies and methodologies, and build the type of customer relationships that deliver powerful business insights, ideas and intelligence.

As I wrote in my book, The Consumer Trap, big business marketers have long since enjoyed the ability to spy on their “targets” to an extent and a degree of refinement that would make Joseph Stalin blush.

Consider what Communispace, which is merely one example of the growing galaxy of real-time marketing research strategies that are getting corporate capitalists ever closer to their goal of literally “walking in the shoes of our consumersto get inside [their] hearts and minds,” as Communispace CEO Diane Hessan puts it.

Communispace started out in 1999 trying to create websites where company employees could share ideas. But at a meeting with Hallmark, an executive asked whether the collaboration could be extended to customers. The Hallmark Idea Exchange was launched in November 2000, and since then, Communispace has created close to 225 online communities.

The cost is roughly $200,000 a year, including recruitment of members, website development, facilitators, and regular reports. In an age of Do Not Call lists and TiVo time-shifting, what’s amazing about the online communities is the willingness of people to participate, committing to at least 30 minutes a week. The only financial incentive they receive is a $10 gift certificate once every six weeks.

Part of what draws people in is what Julie Wittes Schlack , Communispace’s vice president of innovation and design, calls the “anonymous intimacy” of the Web. Many community members spend much more than a half-hour a week on the websites. When they’re not responding to company postings, they’re trading gossip, posting pictures, or networking. Schlack says it’s a chance for people with similar interests to talk about personal or business issues with one another, everything from investing philosophies to losing weight.

One client of Communispace’s spying has been Procter & Gamble, which has used the service to invent and promulgate its magnificently stupid and wasteful product, Axe body spray:

On their own, the young men in Unilever’s AXE deodorant community arranged Wednesday night online gatherings to talk about all sorts of things. At one such session, said Alison Zelen , director of consumer and market insights at Unilever, members began posting pictures of their girlfriends and asking other members to rank them on a scale of one to 10.

Zelen said the spontaneous member postings gave her Unilever team valuable insights into the young male mind. She said those insights help in the development of Axe products and advertising, which is heavily focused on how Axe products can help attract women.

Other features on the Axe community website include the Female Fight Club, where members vote for their favorite female celebrity in head-to-head competitions. Winners advance through brackets much like the World Cup.

There is also a lingo-lexicon area where members define the slang they use. Many of the postings on the Axe website might be considered offensive anywhere else.

“I liken it to being in a locker room with the guys,” said the 35-year-old Zelen. “That’s something I would never be able to do.”

You might wonder: Inside corporate marketing’s professional circles, what’s the main debate over this shockingly totalitarian exploitation of ignorant “targets” by the agents of the overclass? Like all good foot soldiers, the issue there is confined to technical refinement, not morality:

I want to state at the outset that I think that Communispace offers companies a very valuable service. I also think that there are many, many ways to work with an study onlne consumer communities. Many ways to conceptualize them, gain insights from them, research them, and incroporate them into corporate strategy and tactics. But I’d like to take this a step further. Asking the question above, about whether an intentionally constructed online community made of monetarily motivated individuals can provide the same insights and benefits as a community that has evolved of its own accord is a legitimate question with practical and research implications. Or, maybe it’s interesting to ask about what kinds of community seeding there are as options, and what their implications are.

Kaufen macht frei!

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