You may have heard the word “community” bounced around a lot by business recently and in many ways that’s a great thing. However something irks me slightly. Community is not synonymous with audience or customer base, and no business should just switch to talking about their community if really people just buy stuff from them. True some customers might feel part of a business or brand community but it’s unlikely they all do and… wait for it… that’s ok!
So what is community? In my humblest (but most likely totally correct 😆) opinion, community can be professional, amateur, B2B or whatever you want it to be, so long as it’s P2P… people to people. If I buy from someone I’m a customer, if I really love that brand then I’m a fan, if I tell my friends about them and engage with their content, then I’m an advocate and a super user. But unless I feel part of something that involves other people outside of the business, then I’m not part of a community.
Let’s use a sports centre as an example.
I go swimming twice a week. I even talk to people in the pool (I live in the South West, people talk to each other here), but I wouldn’t say I’m part of a community. However, if the few of us that get chatting between lengths decide to grab a coffee in the cafe – something other than our common interest of swimming and outside of our common space, the pool – then there are the sparks of what could become a community. And the best thing for the sports centre… they didn’t do anything other than provide a pool, to foster it. Of course we would have to continue swimming, seeing each other and connecting at the pool for us to feel like it was our “swimming buddies/tribe/community” and ideally we’d add a few more people, who also like to swim, to the group as time goes on.
Imagine if the sports centre made a little extra effort to build a community. Perhaps they ask all fitness class leaders to take 30 seconds at the start of each class to allow everyone to find out the names of the people next to them. Maybe they put on events like “school sports day” style competitions that encourage people to form teams etc. They could hire the sort of people that get to know their members and who are therefore able to make introductions eg “Bill, have you met Ben, you both do spinning 3 times a week, I’m surprised you don’t know each other”. All of these suggestions help people meet people in an environment that holds part of their identity. The short phrase “my gym friends” shows a positive and social feeling of being a part of something specific.
Let’s step away from the sports centre example now because not all companies will have such obvious easy wins to build a community. Without people physically coming into a space, it’s harder to encourage engagement and authentic connection. Or perhaps not harder, just different. Covid lockdowns forced us all to start connecting more digitally. I felt very much a part of a community of South West tech entrepreneurs having set up and hosted a weekly call where we could get to know each other both in a business and personal manner. When I stepped out of that group to go on maternity leave, the calls continued and the community still thrives… and I have also enjoyed popping back in on the odd occasion. I set that up as part of my role at Tech Nation… so I’ve a hunch/hope that participants feel a part of a “Tech Nation” community. We don’t talk about Tech Nation’s offerings all the time – only when relevant. The community isn’t part of our marketing strategy (although it should be!) and the fact it was built out of an authentic need, when physical events were no longer possible, means people get real value from it and as a bi-product, it’s good for Tech Nation’s reputation and helps us get to know our audience better.
When I left the North for the shining lights of London for my first proper job out of university, my Dad gave me the advice “make yourself indispensable”. I was made redundant 18 months later, but that’s another story. What I find amusing when I reflect on the ingredients of a strong community and what makes a good community manager, is that the sign of success is a community that survives after it’s creator moves on. My advice to aspiring community managers is make it that no one wants you to leave, but build foundations that don’t crumble when you do. If you are too important a “corner stone” of your community and people feel they know you better than anyone else in the group, you are setting that community up for failure the moment you decide to leave.
I am a people person. I like getting to know people, I love making valuable introductions and I thoroughly enjoy seeing what comes out of the relationships once I’m out of the picture. Perhaps this gives me a biased opinion of what community is, but as it becomes an industry in its own right I think we must continue to reflect on the traditional community. The parents at the school gates, choirs, the hobby groups, all have one thing in common… people that know each other because of a shared interest / space / experience, connecting on more than just that one thing. We are humans and we need connection. I need you to worry when I don’t show up and for the community to know that X is happening in my life and that I might need help. A deeper understanding of each other fosters empathetic communities that are more valuable that simply a shared interest.
It’s this warm fussy sense of belonging and therefore loyalty that brands want to create for their customers. However I strongly believe that not every business needs nor can successfully foster a community. It’s ok just to sell a really great product, to have great customer service and have users that love you. Community isn’t a catch all, its not compulsory. So if you are thinking “I want to build a community” please first ask yourself, “which people am I looking to connect, and why?”
**These blogs are written in the short time I set aside each week to geek out about community, whilst my partner looks after our little one. I don’t have time for diligent editing and as such there is likely to be errors and you may feel that they are somewhat rambling at times and lacking in conclusion. Forgive me. I want to get my thoughts out there and I feel that for now done is better than perfect!**