Sunday, August 27, 2006

How the Internet is shaping Personal Relations - while shaping fresh commercial realities

While I wrote this article back in October 2002, I believe it still stands true. I'd love to hear your comments!


IT’S BECOMING increasingly difficult to tell where online relationships end and online commerce begins. Where genuine ‘marketplace’ conversation ends, and the buying and selling of products and services start.

Or where traditional public relations end and what I now call personal relations kick in.

Having long been a public relations consultancy, ZoomBuzz Online Communications (my previous ciorporate communications business - PH) is remodelling its day-to-day business activities for our clients around this new personal relations model, a mode of business communication that’s quietly becoming commercial reality for many smaller organisations and communities around the world.

Personal relations dictate that for organisations to thrive, they must open up genuine personal dialogue with all audiences critical to their ongoing success. They must become truly involved with their audiences – on as many levels as possible.

It’s what Donald Alexander, of the School of Contemporary Communication at Central Queensland University refers to as the process of ‘demassification’ in his recent paper: New Information & Communication Technologies & the ‘Demassification’ of Public Relations (2002).

Alexander says: “The development of new information and communication technologies such as the Internet . . . have created opportunities . . . for organisations and active publics to communicate interactively with each other.

“The term ‘demassification’ is given to this process which . . . allows communicators such as public relations professionals to interact directly with selected publics.”

In the real world, personal relations works like this . . .

I belong to an esoteric, online community of narrow-gauge tramway modellers operating in a particular scale and track gauge. The group – with members throughout North America, the UK, the Continent, Russia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand – consists of hobbyist modellers and commercial kit makers who also model.

The lines between pure hobby and commercialism have been blurred because of the personal relationships that have developed in the online ‘bazaar’ in which the group gathers and communes.

The three prominent commercial members offer advice on their own products, praise other manufacturers for the quality of theirs (!) and engage with the rest of us (and each other) in day-to-day hobby banter.

On September 9, Michael, a Dutch member, posted an image of an unusual, home- brewed, self-propelled tramway “dumper” wagon he’d developed on his modelling bench. Michael had cobbled the model together from plastic scraps, a bucket from a mass-produced commercial skip wagon and a readily available mechanism (to power it). He’d also added a driver figure (also marketed by a large European modelling company).

Interest across the group, which currently numbers about 30-40 was instant.
Steve, a UK-based commercial member – who supplies many of the loco and rolling stock kits we buy, assemble and model with – weighed into the chat. He posted a message that there had been several real-life prototypes similar to Michael’s model.

Steve praised Michael’s modelling efforts, and for sharing his images with us.
Eleven days later, on September 20, after continuous, enthusiastic discussion within the group – including at least one rather cheeky inquiry (from Don, in the US) as to when we could all expect Steve “to make a product announcement” – Steve chimed in to say he’d been listening to us, and had developed masters for a similar motorised tipper car model!

Identical inquiries came in almost simultaneously from Tim, also in the US, and from me here in Australia.

Once posted, images of these masters proved an instant hit within the group. Michael chimed back in, saying Steve’s proposed motorised tipper was “a great looking thing!”

I also posted an inquiry as to what kind of mechanism would power the finished model, clearing up the issue for myself and a number of other members.

On September 21, Steve announced he was producing a commercial kit based closely on Michael’s original model. “Many thanks to you all for your positive feedback,” appeared at the foot of his announcement.

Four days later, Steve posted images of not one – but two – variants of the same self-propelled vehicle – one a flat car for carrying tools, sacks, drums, etc., and one a tipper designed for carrying gravel, sand, clay, etc.

These images appeared as “a world first” on a site dedicated to promoting our particular modelling scale and narrow track gauge.

Steve subsequently informed the group the kit would be commercially available on October 26. And, in typical Steve style, he openly praised the quality of the scale figure of the driver he’d recommended – despite the fact “Jon” was developed and is marketed by another organisation!

Now let’s just hold it here . . . Let’s look carefully at what happened . . .

In just 46 days, we’d gone from a single member posting his lone model for discussion to the commercial release of two kits (both called Midge) that are likely to sell well – not only to members of the consortium, but possibly to hundreds of other modellers around the world within the next 12 months.

And during this time, discussion on a wide range of issues – from micro layout development and painting figures, to mechanisms for other locos, and rolling stock development – continued unabated in our usual free-range free-for-all.

All the while Steve had been engaging in personal relations with a group he does business with and models with, and we’d all been delighted to be involved in the multi-way communication that led to the development of modelling products we were all pleased with. Steve had not only benefited professionally, but he’d blurred the lines by praising other manufacturers’ products while exchanging general comments and advice with the rest of us.

The top-down, rigid control of communication normally associated with public relations was nowhere to be seen!

Personal relations had enabled all us to engage on a level field of true global friendship laced with personal trust and commercial reality.

The Net is a wondrous beast! In our case, it has allowed commercial development to meld with general discussion of mutual modelling interests – and beyond.

To be part of a global product development cycle, and to see this cycle – courtesy of the Net’s inherent communications qualities – shrunk to less than 50 days is remarkable! Something I would never have dreamt of pre-1995!

There’s a lesson here for larger organisations as they grapple to harness the Internet’s communications power.

Unless they form genuine communities of interest around their products and services, and unless they engage with their customers and business partners, and build relationships on more meaningful, genuine levels, they’ll miss the communications sea change happening around us.
It’s easy to benefit from – and measure the success of – this new personal relations form of communication when you belong to a small group, or when there’s genuine shared interest. And when you talk openly with each other, in your own voice.

One challenge larger organisations face will be balancing the shift from staid, staged and centralised public relations – which aim highly manicured messages at a narrow base of mass media – to this free-form personal relations model.

Another challenge – arguably the greater – will be to simulate this level of personalised good will with thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of customers with nothing more than software that allows these organisations to track click- throughs and buying habits, and yet more software that allows them to ‘personalise’ bulk email messages, newsletters, etc. I marvel at the technology Amazon uses to track my buying habits, and attempts to build a “relationship” with me.

But at the end of the day, I prefer chatting to Steve and Mike and Don and Carl and Jim in my own voice, and having them chat to me in theirs . . .

The commercial side of these relationships then comes easily.


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