Call it the anti-MySpace. While the proprietors of social networks pimp their large, youthful and presumably engaged audiences in the hopes of grabbing big ad bucks, droves of major marketers are, without fanfare, running invitation-only online communities where they can bounce ideas off their best (or worst) customers, sample broad cultural attitudes and spread word-of-mouth advocacy.

These small, controlled and comparatively risk-free environments offer companies a respite from the free-for-all of social networks, those digital dioramas of consumer behavior that have become testing grounds for brand loyalty.

"These networks are quickly becoming the new CRM tools," said Jamie Tedford, senior VP-marketing and media innovation at Arnold Worldwide. "The importance of the number of friends a brand has is a reflection of the new opt-in permission-based marketing."

In trying to navigate the space, many companies are following Communispace, a 7-year-old company based in Massachusetts, and its rather old-school philosophy that when it comes to friends, having fewer and better is the way to go.

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