Earlier this week, my good friend Margie Clayman wrote an excellent post titled “Myth: Community makes the world go round” – it’s well worth the read as she raises some interesting points regarding the real value of a business-built community, and its failures if it doesn’t lead to community members actually driving revenue for the business. There is a difference between a business “community” and a “loyal customer base”.
In her post, Margie asked a really good set of questions that got my interest:
What are your thoughts about community?
How do you define this word in regards to the online space?
I love the word community, although it gets tossed around almost as much as “engage” (a word that should only be used when discussing marriage, battle or a warp-drive command). But as I thought about Margie’s question, I realized that most people (there are some good exceptions) really can’t consider their online followers a community, rather they are mostly acquaintances with a few true friends tossed in for good measure.
I suspect that a relatively small % of a user’s follower base actually interact with each other
…something that I consider a core requirement for a community (interaction between the members).
Equally important, if most of the interaction in your online follower based is between YOU and your followers, what you have really created is an audience, not a community (not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely not a community).
The same is true for businesses – I don’t consider a group of loyal customers to be a community (no disrespect to people who create loyal consumers, but I use a Mac but don’t go out of my way to hang out with other Mac users or Apple employees – that said, there have been some phenomenal Jeep and Harley tribes that have formed on their own).
WHAT IS AN ONLINE COMMUNITY?
To me, an online community requires several key components:
- It needs to be generally self-forming and self-moderating,
- Its members must have a common interest(s) or cause(s) that ties them together (and be able to evolve as those interests and causes change over time),
- The overall community must have both a critical mass required to be effective yet not too many members that the size distracts from the operation or purpose of the community (which is one reason why you see solid communities often built as a collection of smaller tribes that interact),
- It has to be able to add/delete members as needed, and (most importantly)
- It has to generate something of perceived value to its members (which can also bring value to those outside of the community).
Within an online community, there are leaders and there are followers. There are those who are more influential than others, some in their ideas and leadership and some that provide the constant “spark of energy” to keep others engaged (both are equally important in a community).
ARE ONLINE AND OFFLINE COMMUNITIES REALLY THAT DIFFERENT?
Not surprisingly, this type of community isn’t unique and thrives in the offline world. Let me use my neighborhood as an example.
- We all have a (mostly) common goal — living together, raising our families in a safe place, enjoying the company of others outside on a summer day — and we produce value for both ourselves and our children.
- We “politely” speak to neighbors who step out of line now and then, and when a family moves away, we welcome in another. Over time, as our kids age, our interactions and goals will change/adapt as well.
- Interestingly, as you move from our street down several blocks, the sense of community is a bit diminished (but only from our perspective) and there are certainly “tribes” within the community (that are sometimes location-based or friendship-based) but have significant areas of overlap and reinforce the feeling of community I have with neighbors who live several blocks away.
- We have members within our community that help oversee our homeowners association, exerting one form of influence, and we have those that are always ready to help organize a neighborhood or community event, exerting a different aspect of influence.
In both the online and offline worlds, communities can exist within larger organizations, just as tribes can exist within larger communities. In business, communities can also exist within groups of loyal customers (think Apple). But it is very difficult in the business world to build a true community – that sense of purpose and self-determination typically can’t be created. Inspired? Yes. But created? No.
QUESTIONS FOR YOU
Do you think my definition of a community is valid? Or are there areas that you think I’ve missed or included that don’t really need to be there?
Do you think that the definition of community changes by industry or market sector?
What are some examples of successes AND failures that you’ve seen in businesses and the creation of communities?