One of the most sacred principles in social media is the concept of “the community”. It serves as the foundation of what social media marketers base their business models and methodologies on. “Engage your community” we are told. “Engage or die”.
Companies today are seeking to create their own communities, be they formulated around the company itself or around brands the company produces. Some of these attempts do well, others fail. Those that fail do so for a variety of reasons.
The unfortunate truth is that the term “community” is now so overly used and utterly misconstrued that it has become meaningless as a way of capturing the true essence of what it really is. It has now become a catch all phrase often used by social media strategists to describe an ideal that doesn’t exist. It’s become a presumptive description of customers or of end users in whatever form they come in, positioning them as already wanting to connect to a product line or a company. Many in social media end up contributing to this echo chamber, maintaining their standing in online discussions all the while causing damage to the concept as a whole.
So I’ll offer my key points on community:
1) Most organizations and/or brands don’t have communities. They have users, customers, and/or clients. Period.
When I hear social media strategists push the idea that companies must reach out to their community I often want to throw up. That’s because they make the presumption that a community already exists, that it’s there, waiting to be engaged. All the company has to do wake up and just engage with them.
That’s absurd. Most companies and their brands don’t have communities-in-waiting. They have users. They have customers. And often those users or customers have no desire to be “engaged”. They simply want to buy the product, use it, and move on.
2) Most product lines and services offerings aren’t of the nature that they could or should hold a community.
Ballpoint pens, vacuum cleaners, rakes, acne medicine, ketchup. All products that can inspire brand loyalty. All products that can be cleverly marketed via social media. I can’t see how any of them would have a naturally based community just waiting to be engaged. Nor do I see how any of them could support a the creation and maintenance of a longstanding vibrant community.
I love Tropicana No Pulp Orange Juice. Love the stuff. It tastes great and it’s nutritious. If a store doesn’t sell it or is out of stock, I may chose not to buy what they have and wait to buy it somewhere else. I’ll pay more for it. But I’m not part of their community. I have no desire to be part of a Tropicana No Pulp Orange Juice community. I wouldn’t necessarily feel an affinity with others who like to drink it. I don’t need to get in online conversations about the juice or get email newsletters or connect with other users of the drink. I’m a loyal customer. Tropicana doesn’t need to “engage” with me. Just keep making great juice.
Each and every one of us uses hundreds of products that we like and that we may have a sense of loyalty to, but we don’t have the time to formulate a special relationship with. We don’t need to read the blog run by the company that’s our preferred brand of toilet paper. We just expect it to work, just like we expect the little refrigerator light to come on when we open the refrigerator door.
This goes back to what Alan (Tangerine Toad) Wolk calls “Your brand is not my friend”, which, by extension, means “I don’t need to be part of your community”. It’s not a rejection, it’s a level of satisfaction with the status quo, often along with a desire to be left alone.
3) It ain’t a community…unless it’s a community
The study by Deloitte, Beeline and SNCR points to the fact that many brand community efforts fail. I’m going to suggest that simply having a group of signed up members that is not, within itself, having a community. Especially if they show no interest in being part of something. The community didn’t fail, the effort failed. In fact, it was never a community in the first place. Calling something a particular label doesn’t make it as such.There may have been a shared interest in a topic, and even an interest to belong, but if there was no means to harness that interest, then it was never a community.
4) A community must be composed of members who have a dedicated interest in the subject at hand.
The key word there is dedicated. Casual won’t do. Committed to the product., the service, the cause. Ironically, the interest itself doesn’t have to be forged in passion. Work responsibilities may require an individual to know a certain computer program or travel on a certain airline. But there has to be a central point of focus that’s based upon an emotional desire to connect.
5) Community members will have a sense of shared experience or interest that’s strong enough to create a sense of belonging.
Most of us want to be part of something, to feel as if we belong. We’re social. Hence, social media. We seek out those who have common interests and experiences. I am a member of “Red Sox Nation”, one of many fanatical Boston Red Sox fans who passionately follow the (lately mostly) ups and (traditionally mostly) downs of their success. When I’ve gone on online forums to discuss the latest news and stuff, practically everyone interchangeably uses the word “we” to describe them, us, and the team. That’s common with devoted fans as they discuss their common passion. “We” – the community – have something at stake.
6) A desire by the members to develop a sense of cohesiveness and to continue as a community
Think BlogHer. Think of how a group of thousands of women came together to formulate an organization, an online publication, a conference. They are the essence of community. Somewhat spontaneous. Diverse. But committed. BlogHer is a beautiful phenomenon whose connectivity of its members is not falsely contrived by a social media marketer.
Women bloggers aren’t a community if they don’t connect. Demographic descriptions aren’t communities. The commonality of gender does not make them a community in itself. It’s a common sense of interest and passions of career and motherhood and health and sexuality and, yes, community that brought them together. BlogHer members are enriching one another and will continue to seek to enrich one another because they are the essence of community. They are sharing and they are caring.
7) Large groups of users of a diverse service aren’t members of a community
They’re just users.
There ‘s a guy who will go nameless who nevertheless has impressed me very much. A little over a year ago he began making YouTube videos out of his dorm room where he began giving advice to the presidential candidates who to use YouTube as a communications tool to voters. He kept on saying that the campaigns should be reaching out to “the YouTube community”.
But wait…there is no YouTube community. Just like there’s no NBC community. Or Google community. There’s users and subscribers and viewers. There may be communities WITHIN those entities, but not with the outlet as a whole. If there was there’d be wholesale outrage against Viacom for their battle with YouTube.
The concept of community remains one of the most important in social media. But it we overuse it or misuse it, then we’ll turn off key people in marketing who are looking to move product and enhance brand.
Had to get that off my chest.