Coca Cola on the shelves of a supermarket in Dubai. Coca Cola has recently released a TV commercial using content generated by users themselves. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

The renowned sociologist Marshall McLuhan had predicted, in 1964, the world would become a “global village” — global in framework but like a close-knit community in its character. In bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion, advances in digital technology have heightened human awareness, connectivity and reactions to an intense degree.

This theory explains the current evolution of digital social networks and the consequent formation of online communities. Very basically, online communities can be defined as virtual discussion forums with profiles and connections, where conversations develop.

They can take many forms — a group within an existing social networking site, a group within an email service, a network of blogs or a web-based forum for conversations, where people connect and share. Beyond being a social revolution, the advent of online communities is a revolution from the perspective of brands, marketing and consumer engagement.

Effective use of online communities has led to redefinition of marketing. The brand is now being managed by consumers, and not by the marketers or corporations. Online communities are a unique, distinct and ownable social customer experience, and critical to brand differentiation.

In the Middle East, contrary to conventional perceptions of group conformity and emphasis on tradition, online communities have increasingly become forums for self-expression, where new trends in individualism are being witnessed. They are defining new ways in which consumers interact with brands, very distinct from their interactions in the offline environment.

Online communities have come a long way and being used for social awareness and networking to marketing and even trading. For example, Trading Middle East (TME) is a vibrant professional community covering all asset classes, with a focus on equities and fixed-income, and moderated by experienced Reuters editors.

Crowd sourcing from online communities is another mega trend which is being adopted by marketers worldwide. The world’s biggest FMCG (fast moving consumer durables) names are working with groups such as www.eYeka.com to give birth to big creative ideas. The concept of eYeka is based on co-creation through creative and leading edge consumers.

They gather information and insights straight from the consumer while ensuring brand control and operating within a defined legal framework. The purpose of the community is co-creation of campaigns for communications, human insights and innovation purposes.

Marketers should watch out for these new global trends in communication as the attempt is to get closer to the heart of the consumer and showcase life realities the way consumers view them.

User generated content through online communities is another big trend in the advertising world. Coca Cola has released a TV commercial using content generated by users themselves. The TV commercial is comprised entirely of short video clips made by fans (aside from some very brief animations).

The brand invited teens to submit short video clips sharing what it feels like when they take a sip of Coke. With 400 submissions, 40 were chosen for the final cut and the ad was created. The clips in the ad come from all over the world — from Brazil to the US — and it was premiered during the season finale of American Idol.

As these trends evolve globally, the lessons are to be learnt locally. Marketers in the Middle East can shift and capitalise on such global trends, thus defining the shift in some basic concepts of marketing. As the consumer owns the brand now and with this shift in power, there has to be a move from campaigns to human conversations. There are more possibilities and opportunities than threats.

It is not just about adapting, the need is to adopt.

The writer is the Chairman of the Global board of Firefly Millward Brown and is also a visiting faculty at American University, Dubai.