October 17, 2008, 12:00 AM

Web communities are growing and more members are chatting about retailers

The number of online communities centered on product categories, brands and even specific retailers is growing. Consumers with great affinities are starting fan pages on Facebook and MySpace, discussion places in Yahoo Groups, dedicated blogs and more.

The number of online communities centered on product categories, brands and even specific retailers is growing. Consumers with great affinities are starting fan pages on Facebook and MySpace, discussion places in Yahoo Groups, dedicated blogs and other social media destinations.

There’s a lot of chatter about products and brands, and retailers can listen in to glean helpful insights. A key is learning how to listen, said Matthew Cronin, a founding partner at WebLiquid Group, a digital marketing consulting firm, at this week’s Web Experience Forum ’08, held in Boston by Gomez Inc. and sponsored in part by Internet Retailer. Cronin spoke during a session titled “The Importance of Online Communities in Creating the Online Experience.”

“What are they talking about, how much are they talking about it?” Cronin said. “Then move to a period of time where you measure these things again and again. Is increased discussion because of seasonality? Marketing efforts? Specific consumer events like the introduction of new products?”

Then comes what Cronin called “the tricky bit”-stepping in and engaging online communities.

“From the marketing perspective, the risk here is you jump in and you don’t show respect for the community people created,” he said. “Marketers must remember that community is not a marketing medium, it’s about relationships and conversations, and as a result members of a community need to be respected. Trying to sell is a fast turn-off. The best way to engage is to help people. And who better to help them than the company they are talking about?”

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