What Happens Online…Should Live Offline

This seems to be a very obvious fact: all the most successful online communities and social media campaigns are the ones that have made a real impact in people’s offline lives. But since more and more effort is devoted to crafting complex online tools that encourage people to interact with each other more deeply online and for longer periods of time, online buzz itself has become a major measurement of certain social media campaigns, sometimes at the cost of ignoring a very basic fact of online social media:

People do not live in the virtual world at all, rather, they live and breathe in the brick-and-mortar world, and what happens online does not necessarily translate into what happens offline. People in the digital era may have more Facebook friends and online contacts than people did in past decades, but according to a study by University of Chicago psychology professor John Cacioppo, American people have fewer people to confide in their lives than they did 20 years ago.

Last week, in the class discussion with our guest speakers Charles Porch from Ning, Roger Jackson from explore.org, and two APOC alumni Liz Burr and Eddie North-Hagar who actively participate in the social media sphere, many valuable concepts for building viable online communities were brought up, including the idea of “meet-ups”. Charles mentioned that many offline meet-ups between community members would hugely strengthen the ties between people in the online communities. From my past experience working on building the BMW Online Customer Club in China, I saw the most important feature of online automobile clubs was helping organize tours or meet-up events for car owners to connect offline; also, from my research with Annenberg’s Consumer Communities project of successful American car brands’ online communities, most online car communities in the U.S., no matter if they are started by brands like Ford or by fans, get their vitality from offline parties or caravan driving tours for these car drivers to meet. The discussions, pictures, and videos of these offline events pump energy into the organic growth of the online community.

Pepsi’s recent social media campaign during the Super Bowl is also a good example of linking people’s online activity to an authentic offline endeavor. Inspiring people to think about how to make a difference in their local community is a really beautiful thing, even though there may be commercial interest behind it. I was really touched by the proposals brought up by people through the first phase of this campaign. I really see the hearts behind the ideas, and making the online connection to offline actions makes Pepsi’s campaign very effective to people like me.

Of course, there’s the biggest counter-argument to my point: what about the prospering online gaming world? People build a whole package of social identities in these gaming worlds and seem to live online without the need for connecting to real people behind the computer screens. But in a research project about the virtual game “Everquest II”, led by Dr. Dmitri Williams, the rule of proximity held true as data shows that players in this game had much more interaction with people from the same physical geographic location, so through this we can deduce that the physical world does play a role in the virtual world even though the effect was not fully explained.

Many social media strategists have also argued that the ultimate goal of an online community is for companies to listen to what people speak online, and for those companies to adjust their services and products accordingly to better serve customers. Online communities are not just a place for companies to indoctrinate their customers, but a place for companies to gain valuable customer insights and make a difference in the real world.

With all these examples above, I am a firm believer that what happens online…should definitely live offline.


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