Forget blogging and Second Life. If you want to be at the cutting edge of marketing and research, bespoke online communities are where it's at. In the latest phenomenon to take the US by storm, manufacturers are talking directly to their consumers via networks for pet lovers, hair care enthusiasts, expats, moms, you name it.

And soon manufacturers and consumers will be able to do the same here. Market Tools, the market research company behind some of these communities, is developing a syndicated site for UK mums and is three months into the development of a community for a major UK fmcg company.

Online communities present a compelling proposition for those who have struggled to couch corporate messages in the informal language of blogs or are wary about product placement on Second Life given recent scandals involving virtual child pornography. They also promise to revolutionise the way manufacturers develop products and manage brand reputations.

Still in their infancy in the US, online communities replicate the sort of group people themselves would establish. "So, if you're a pet food manufacturer you set up a site for pet lovers, if you're a skincare manufacturer, a site aimed at 24 to 35-year-old women trying to juggle work and family life," says Georges Berzgal, senior vice president of Market Tools Europe.

In January, for instance, the company set up a community of 10,000 mums as part of a wider solution called Moms Insight Network, which also offers quarterly analysis of more than 50 million blogs and surveys of 1,000 mums. So far, four companies have signed up to the service on a category-exclusive basis to ensure there's not more than one hair care manufacturer, say.

Last September, Market Tools launched a closed, invitation-only community called "I Love my Dog" for Del Monte Foods, which in the US has a pet food division. The community has 400 members. And it's currently developing a community of employees for a snack manufacturer, with a view to engaging them in the whole NPD process. It expects to roll the network out to all 40,000 employees by the beginning of 2008.

The community can be open or closed, but most companies, initially at least, opt for the latter, with members logging on with a password. This enables them to finesse the site and keep its content away from the prying eyes of competitors. If they do decide to close it down, no-one outside the community will be any the wiser, adds Berzgal.

Where in traditional online marketing research you may have to offer an incentive to get people to participate, in an online community members are already getting something out of it: the intrinsic satisfaction of being in a community.

More importantly, the medium enfranchises members by encouraging them to collaborate in the whole NPD process. "Pet lovers get a website to share pictures and ideas," says Gala Amoroso, senior consumer insights manager at Del Monte Foods. "They also know that what they say is listened to by pet food manufacturers. And we offer prizes to keep it fun."

The key to a successful community is an effective moderator who can steer discussions and elicit really honest, in-depth responses. "You need to keep it fun and varied," says Amoroso. "You can't just throw questions in, you have to use various stimuli such as photos and polls and build fun activities that have no business objectives - for example, dog of the week photos."

The information the companies glean can be invaluable in informing NPD, influencing in-store merchandising and even monitoring the impact of product recalls. It can also radically reduce the time taken to develop a product. "You develop concepts and test them on the community," says Mike Waite, Market Tools vice president, panels and communities, in the US. "When you have a concept that looks as though it has potential you can drop it into a survey and within 24 hours have a response. A concept that might normally take four to six weeks to develop could be developed in days."

Del Monte has already used its dog lovers community to help it refine a new line for dogs called Snausages Breakfast Bites and to see how consumers were reacting to a recent recall of pet food containing unapproved substance melamine.

"It gave us a clear picture of how people felt and how we should react," says Amoroso. "It gave us the emotional point of view we wouldn't have gotten from a survey."

What makes such online communities successful is the fact that they are driven not by marketers but by the consumer.

The most obvious exponents of consumer self marketing are sites such as YouTube and MySpace, and, of course, Second Life, the 3D world built and run by resident 'avatars', but there are plenty of other examples that illustrate the shift in power base. Remember those Thresher 40% off vouchers, which everyone emailed on to their friends?

Or the Dutch guy who recorded and blogged a conversation he had with an Apple customer advisor who told him to dump his 18-month-old iPod because that was the extent of its battery life? Within 72 hours, 200,000 people had read the blog, forcing Apple to launch a battery replacement pack to mitigate the damage.

"The line between where the customer ends and the company begins has blurred," says Berzgal. "On the most basic level, there's a lot more information that consumers have access to. Secondly, there's connectivity between consumers. Thirdly, there's collaboration. If you think about traditional research, you start with an assumption you know what the key issues are.

"With community-led research, you start with an observation and then participation. This is not a message board or a blog. It's an interactive live community."

Berzgal won't go into detail about the plans for communities in the UK, but there's plenty of potential: an estimated 23% of the UK population read blogs, 15% of all sales in the UK are now conducted online and 62.4% of the population is online [Internet Worldstat].

Of course, there are pitfalls, warns Amoroso: "You really need to think about who you want to recruit. If you want people to open up, they need to feel comfortable in sharing their thoughts. The group needs to be homogeneous in attitudes towards your topic, not demographically."

But ultimately, the benefits outweigh the downsides.

"This is our first shot at an online community," she says. "It's been insightful to understand what people talk about unaided and passionately, as opposed to relying on prompted dialogue from traditional research. A community will give you more depth on insights than a focus group will ever do."

And what about Second Life, which has been creating such a buzz with marketers over the past 12 months?

"I've not heard of it," she says.

Maybe there's no need when there is a third way. nHow does it work?

Manufacturers can interact with their communities in a variety of ways. Earlier this month, for instance, members of the ZoomPanelMoms group were polled on the merits of cartons over cans when it came to organic food. Though more than half (54%) said they weren't bothered either way, 27% viewed cartons as "more organic" while only 6% felt cans were.

In a follow up "question of the day", they were asked whether they thought brands were important when buying organic. This time the idea was to get more of a discussion thread going. But in both cases, the mums posted pictures of themselves alongside their comments so other members could see who was involved in the discussion.