NEW YORK: Some 94% of companies in the US that have developed online communities will continue to invest in these platforms over the next 12 months, with Procter & Gamble and Starbucks among the advertisers demonstrating how these channels can be used to connect with consumers.

Deloitte, Beeline Labs and the Society for New Communications Research recently surveyed 400 organisations, in sectors varying from FMCG to media and entertainment, which have created and maintained such services.

They argued these tools seem to fulfil a human need "to cooperate and share opinions", and also "have an 'amplifier effect' on marketing, customer support and other corporate functions."

Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods giant, has formed a number of internet properties that aim to serve both specific audiences and its own corporate goals in this way.

One of the most recent examples is Supersavvyme, which is positioned as a place for "savvy" mothers to gather, and includes articles, blogs, a discussion forum and special offers on subjects of relevance to this group.

This largely unbranded portal allows the Cincinnati-based firm to subtly promote a broad range of its brands, including Fairy and Pantene.

Similarly, the world's biggest advertiser has a number of other such niche properties, including Being Girl, for teenage girls, and Petside, for bird, cat and dog owners.

Starbucks was argued to be one of the brands that has made the best use of the emerging range of social media tools to date, in a recent study by the Altimeter Group, the consultancy.

Its initiatives on this medium include My Starbucks Ideas, which enables customers and staff to make suggestions about the coffee house chain and its products, with more than 75,000 such submissions having been received so far.

Pepsi also launched Pepsi We Inspire – which empowers African-American mothers to "tap into the powerful bonds between women by creating a platform built just for them"  last month.

Coca-Cola, its fellow beverage maker, recently signed up to sponsor Sounds of Buzz, an online community featuring concert footage from major bands, and which appeals to a younger audience.

By contrast, General Mills introduced a news and discussion service, Vitality, in partnership with Yahoo, earlier this week, in an attempt to encourage conversation among "Boomers".

John Starkey, marketing director for the food company, said "people are living longer, they are redefining and reinventing that part of their lives, and we want to be there to help them achieve that." 
According to Deloitte's research, more than half of American firms that have set up communities will maintain their expenditure on these programmes in the next year, while over 40% will increase their outlay, and less than 10% will cut back.

A third of the communities featured in its sample had been set up in the last six months, while a fifth had been "live" for under a year, a quarter had been operating for less than three years, and around 15% had been functioning for longer than this period.

In terms of staffing levels, 39% of respondents indicated they are now deploying a greater number of employees to manage these types of initiatives on a full-time basis.
The biggest challenge in building successful web communities were said to include keeping members engaged, mentioned by 30% of the panel, a figure that fell to 24% for getting web users to join, and 21% for ensuring members regularly returned.

With regard to measuring success, 34% of contributors said their main metric was the number of "active users", while 32% looked to the fre

Data sourced from Deloitte/MediaPost; additional content by Warc staff