About two months ago, I read the SocialFish book “Open Community” , and it got me thinking about a lot of things. I’ve been instinctively engaging in multiple communities but I never really stepped back and applied any academic view of my activities in these communities, or analyzed the communities themselves. First, I’ll say that I am involved in 3 major communities.

#1 – The Association and Nonprofit Community
#2 – The Salesforce.com User Community
#3 – The Volkswagen Community

Since we’re all quite familiar with #1, I am endeavoring to write a two post series to discuss the other two communities and see what lessons can be learned from them, and maybe give everyone a few thoughts on how your association can benefit from their strategies.

This post will focus on the Volkswagen community. It seems a million miles off from THIS community, but there are striking similarities. 

First, let’s set the stage. You know ’em, you love ’em, Volkswagens. Historic, iconic, wonderfully branded. Genius advertising. But, what do you all know about the actual community of supporters for Volkswagens? It may seem like a very small niche, but it is actually HUGE! There are thousands of Volkswagen related events in the United States alone every year. There are tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of users actively participating in online forums. Personally I’ve been involved for over ten years when I started a quest to restore one of the few remaining pickup trucks. Here’s a writeup on my project  from a few years back.

A quick overview of the VW community is that Volkswagen does not operate their own social network. There are multitudes of forums (outposts) around the world that represent either geographic or interest specific sub communities. The largest in the US (vwvortex.com ) is fairly encompassing with a number of sub communities inside of it, while others (vwcaddy.com ) focuses specifically on owners of pickup trucks. All of these social networks are managed independently from each other by home grown admins. Volkswagen corporate does not openly support or condemn any of these communities, but they do share information with them if requested by community leaders.

Open Community Means Collaborating with a Purpose

The purpose of this community is clear. Make Volkswagen owners and enthusiasts as happy as possible with their cars so they buy more Volkswagens. Also, be the body of knowledge for new enthusiasts. The advent of social media tools has enabled Volkswagen owners across the world to band together and share their love of the brand.

Open Community Means Developing into a Social Organization

Volkswagen is in an interesting position. They don’t have their own social network and yet they are extremely active in many channels. The Volkswagen Facebook has 688,000+ likers. They actively tweet, post youtube videos and advertize via print and television. They scored a home run with this ad http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R55e-uHQna0 during the super bowl. 

What Volkswagen has done that is so smart is that they have learned their audience and found ways to communicate their branding effectively. They know that tons of 20-30 somethings with disposable incomes watch the Super Bowl and may be buying a car soon. They tweak their messaging to speak to that just out of college, working up the corporate ladder but still see themselves as hip crowd.

Open Community Means Embracing the Ecosystem

I’ll only give VW one thumb up for this one. On one hand, they regularly attend user created Volkswagen events, take interviews and provide stock photography when asked for forum administrators. On the other hand, they are not yet personally involved with any community that I have been involved with. Their staff are not actively engaging with VW customers on any channel besides Facebook and Twitter. I’d love to see more of this. Another challenge is their legal department has issued cease and desist orders for community activities that they felt infringed on their brand. This is sad, because my truck was supposed to be the centerfold for a VW themed calendar we were creating!

Open Community Means Empowering the Periphery

The Volkswagen community is amazing for this. New members are welcomed with open arms. Free advice and tech support is shared openly thorughout the groups. It is easy to be a “lurker” and yet learn a great deal from the community. While each outpost has its own core group of users, the lurkers or casual users are welcomed and encouraged in all activities.

Open Community Means Participant Defined Engagement

Members truly do own the direction of the Volkswagen community. With lack of corporate involvement, each outpost is empowered to do as it pleases. They plan their own events, control their own branding and manage their own memberships. There are innumerable outposts with different flavors of sharing information. This web site  uses terrible, old, outdated technology and yet because their information is so great, are seen as one of the definitive sources for east coast event info.

So what can an Association take away from the Volkswagen community?

The largest defining characteristic of the Volkswagen community experience is that VW has done its homework. They are much more of a “push” organization where information, messaging, and initiatives roll down from the corporation. VW invests heavily in marketing and research to assure that they are constantly on message. Volkswagen knows that people love their products and have created an environment that fosters the organic growth of outposts. These outposts each represent a subsection of fervent Volkswagen enthusiasts. Volkswagen employs a lessaifaire approach and allows each group to manage its own affairs. The one misstep I have personally seen was with the legal department being a little over zealous. I understand their position regarding protecting the brand, but in an association’s case, I would recommend checking out this blog post  which addresses legal concerns over members posting videos at events. Instead of banning it, condone it and raise up champions.

A few questions you can ask yourself: Does your organization constantly invest in marketing and research to know your members? Do you constantly check and adjust your branding and image to be relevant? Do you have an offering or issue that your members are zealous enough about that they could collaborate about it? Does encouraging your members to build their own outposts make sense given your demographics, or should your organization build its own community on its own platform?

Part II of this series will take a look at that. Volkswagen is extremely outpost driven, while Salesforce.com is the opposite. Salesforce built their own community on their own platform and have reaped huge benefits because of it. Stay tuned!