Myth: Community makes the world go round

When you say you have an online community, what does that mean? I am asking myself this very question. I often say things like, “I have the best online community ever.” What do I mean when I say that? I had a long conversation with myself (I’ll publish the transcript of the interview later) and decided that when I use the word community, I mean the folks who tend to comment on my blog posts, whose posts I tend to comment on, the folks I talk to on Twitter, etc. However, that’s a pretty imprecise definition, right? I mean, a lot of people may comment on one post and never come back (hold back the tears, Margie, hold back the tears). I might talk a lot to a person when I first meet them online and then we may fall away from each other.

The word “community” can be even more ambiguous when used in a business context. It can also be a lot more dangerous.

Get online and build your community

How many times have you seen advice like that? “It’s all about networking.” “Think of the online world like it’s one great big cocktail party.” Heck, I’ve said stuff like that. For an individual, this advice is 100% perfect. Social Media gives you an opportunity to meet a person who knows a person that is connected to a person you just met. A new opportunity could be hiding behind any given avatar. Your bosom buddy might have just “liked” a post of yours on Facebook. Who can say?

But if you’re a business, networking is not really enough. There is one key caveat that gets missed and it’s at the company’s peril. You have to make sure that at least to a certain degree your “community” consists of people who are going to buy from you or who will entice other people to buy from you.

I say this as someone who has done a horrible job of keeping this in mind. If I was out here to build a “community” that would be fertile ground for new clients for our agency, I’d probably get a C-. Many of the people I talk to regularly are actually probably more accurately categorized as competition than potential competitors. And that’s the great big distraction in the online world. When you come out here, you join chats to meet people, as I did. But what do you know about chats? They draw people from similar fields and ways of thinking together. Your customers probably don’t think of things the same way you do. In order to build a community useful for your business, you actually need to visit the chats where your customers are likely to be.

I don’t think this gets pounded into peoples’ heads very often. When I joined Twitter, as I’ve recounted a few times here and there, I clicked on the categories of “who to follow” people. I like entertainment (who doesn’t) so I started following Michael Ian Black, Yoko Ono, and Rainn Wilson. I knew I wanted to network with business folks, so I started to follow Chris Brogan, Fast Company, and Reuters.

You’ll be shocked to learn that in my early days of tweeting, I never got any responses Yoko Ono, Michael Ian Black, or Rainn Wilson. And even if I had, what good would that have done for our business? Was Michael Ian Black going to suddenly decide he needed some B2B marketing advice? Highly improbable.

But that’s the way the online world leads us.

Community should not be about numbers

Another thing businesses need to keep in mind when we talk about the concept of online “community” is that numbers can be significantly distracting AND misleading in an effort to build a community of customers. Let me give you an example from my own online life.

Recently I got followed in short succession by a half-dozen or so Twitter accounts. All of them featured avatar pictures of mostly naked women, and all of the profiles said something along the lines of…well, there’s not really a polite way to summarize. Spam is getting well out of control on Twitter. So, while I could be really excited that I have x number of followers, I know a large portion of them are spam bots, bots, or people who may be bots but I can’t tell because they have eggs as avatar pictures.

Spam bots are not potential customers for your company. If you are telling your boss (or yourself) that your community is growing by leaps and bounds and hence your business should be doing really well any day now, you are really fooling yourself.

“Community” is not bad

As we have discussed before, talking to people you like online is not bad, and if you are using online platforms to network or to meet new people, nothing beats having a sense of “community.” But if you are here to build your business, the number of people commenting on your blog or however you may define community can just be a big shiny distraction if none of those people will put their money in your company’s bank account.

It’s money, sadly, that makes the world go round. Building a community of customers, not just “a community,” is the path businesses must take in the online world if they want to remain in the black.

What are your thoughts about community? How do you define this word in regards to the online space?

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niallkennedy/40727794/ via Creative Commons

20 comments
TheJackB
TheJackB

I get agitated and irritated when people over think what an online community is. Let's make this simple. Your community consists of your readers. That community tends to be similar to an iceberg with 3/4s of them lurking and not commenting on your blog.

But that doesn't mean that they aren't important or active. It doesn't mean that you can't issue a call to action and get a response. But many bloggers never issue any sort of call to action. They don't ask their readers to do anything so they don't hear from anything but a smaller group.

You never know who is listening/reading your words.

Latest blog post: Does Your Blog Need A Logo?

TonyBennett
TonyBennett

First off, please email me your monologue... I think I could get a mint for it on EBay.

But seriously, I buy into the quality over quantity theory. I too have been getting odours of scantily clad women following me that aren't followers at all. It's far more valuable to have 1000 engaged members than 10000 ghosts.

I'm really enjoying your blog Margie

Marcus_Sheridan
Marcus_Sheridan

I've got a feeling you know where I am with this Margie, but I do want to bring up a point:

There are 2 blogging "communities".

There is the one in the comments section and in the twitter stream. We call them friends. Supporters. Fans. Etc. Many of these folks are in our niche.

Then there is another community. The silent one. They don't leave comments. They likely don't "share". But what they do is send you an email and ask for a proposal, or advice, etc.

I never realized this community existed so strongly until I started my newsletter. And then I was shocked. REALLY shocked.

For two years, I essentially ignored the community that puts food on my table the most.

Yikes.

Anyway, great topic and conversation Margie.

Marcus

Anne-Marie
Anne-Marie

The picture at the top of your post is the top of a poster I've owned for years. The part that doesn' t show above is a list of actions you can take to foster community. Many of them can be adapted to the online/social media world. For example, "Listen Before You React To Anger" and "Bake Extra and Share."

The text:Turn off your TV

Leave your house

Know your neighbors

Look up when you are walking

Greet people

Sit on your stoop

Plant Flowers

Use your library

Play together

Buy from local merchants

Share what you have

Help a lost dog

Take children to the park

Garden Together

Support Neighborhood Schools

Fix it even if you didn't break it

Have Pot Lucks

Honor Elders

Pick Up Litter

Read Stories Aloud

Dance in the Street

Talk to the Mail Carrier

Listen to the Birds

Put up a Swing

Help Carry Something Heavy

Barter For Your Goods

Start A Tradition

Ask A Question

Hire Young People for Odd Jobs

Organize a Block Party

Bake Extra and Share

Ask For Help When You Need It

Open Your Shades

Sing Together

Share Your Skills

Take Back the Night

Turn Up The Music

Turn Down The Music

Listen Before You React To Anger

Mediate A Conflict

Seek To Understand

Learn From New And Uncomfortable Angles

Know That No One is SilentThough Many Are Not Heard

Work To Change This

Link:

http://syracuseculturalworkers.com/poster-how-build-community

fredmcclimans
fredmcclimans

Hey Margie - Good post about a word that gets tossed around almost as much as "engage" (a word that should only be used when discussing marriage, battle or a warp-drive command). Most people (there are some good exceptions) really can't consider their online followers/followees a community, rather they are mostly acquaintances with a few true friends tossed in for good measure.

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 and 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).

To me, an online community has to have several key aspects:

> It needs to be generally self-forming/policing, 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 generally has both a critical mass required to be effective and a point at which too many members distract from 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).

This is directly analogous to the offline world.

In the offline world, our neighborhood is a reasonable 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).

I know this is a bit off from your discussion of vendor online communities (but you did ask "How do you define this word in regards to the online space?") and I do feel that vendors often try to build loyal communities without knowing what a true community is (if most of the communication in the group is between the vendor and the community, and not between community members, it isn't a community). The ultimate goal is loyal, repeat and advocate customers.

Now that I've used up my allocation of letters for the day, I'll sit down and be quiet for a while.

John Falchetto
John Falchetto

Funny you write about this, I was just finishing some notes for my @blogworld session and it's all about tribes or community.

My business experience is mostly offline. Communities and tribes are nothing new, we are social animals and want to relate and share stories with each other.

We can only exist (online or off) as a business witha community. This is not new, everyone knows that word of mouth is a powerful referral tool. Social media has increased this word of mouth and communities aren't limited to geographic locations anymore.

What I believe is that tribes aren't created by a blog, but rather a blog or a business will find a tribe and with a bit of luck get accepted by them.

besore
besore

In my humble opinion, business owners should focus on a measurement metric which helps them asses the degree of engagement derived from their online "community building". As you so abtly pointed out, this metric must go beyond a simple count of spambots following your activity. How many "real people" sign up for newsletters, order a coupon, attend a live event, offer real feedback, share a post ..... It seems to me that there are lots of things to "count" (beyond those spambots) which will lend credibility and economic justification in support of online community building. Perhaps that will be the subject of your next post?

suegrimm
suegrimm

@margieclayman I've been thinking a lot about this and I have question. I agree with every one of your points. But I am really wrestling with how to advise clients about social proof. I even remember Jay Baer going on a rant about it once when a political candidate was presumed to have paid for followers and if I recall he struggled wanting to denounce it while also knowing it was a form of social proof, or something along those lines. So on one hand, everyone should be aware high numbers often don't translate to customers (or voters), but on the other hand, high numbers can show you know how to work with the tools, as you do. I'm in the camp that chasing numbers is a fools errand and I will not pay or advise people to pay for numbers, but I'm leaning toward if clients were to see you are engaged in professional discussions, maybe that's good because I wonder how many of your target clients would become active on your blog? Not just in marketing, but in any profession. It's a question I sill can't answer. Have you thought about it that way? It makes my head hurt that I can't answer that question. :-)

margieclayman
margieclayman moderator

@Marcus_Sheridan Truthfully, Marcus, your post about community took the wind out of my sails because it hit the nail on the head so well. I linked to it in last week's post and probably should have linked to it here as well. However, I had established my letter C for this series already, and well, here we are :)

I think your point about the silent masses is really interesting and is not discussed enough. I'm always surprised when I get a note from a person who says something like, "I read you all the time and love what you do, I just never comment." How many of those folks are out there? How many people always comment but do so for other reasons apart from wanting to participate in a conversation?

Hmm. Mysteries.

Thanks as always for popping by, dear sir! :)

margieclayman
margieclayman moderator

@fredmcclimans I hate it when your comments are smarter and better than my entire post :) You should copy & paste this into your site and publish it. Seriously.

I think your delineation of exactly what a community is is extremely valuable. It would be interesting to see if anyone could summon any sort of disagreement with you!

Thanks for this amazing contribution, my friend!

margieclayman
margieclayman moderator

@John Falchetto that's a great point, John. However, I think that many businesses get the "community" part without considering what that community is doing for them. Having a lot of friends online may get people to think really highly of you, but if the word-of-mouth is just, "Wow, she is really awesome" that isn't going to do you as much good as, "Wow, you should really buy that person's product or service." Right?

margieclayman
margieclayman moderator

@besore Hi Thomas,

What businesses should measure is very simple. How much money are they making from these social media efforts? That's what business is all about.

Now I understand (although many companies need to have this drilled into their brains a bit) that some types of social media marketing can take awhile to start generating results. That can be awkward in an environment where everyone is expecting immediate results. The reality though is that social media marketing is like any other kind of marketing. If you are putting money in (which can be in the form of actual investment in ad dollars or in the time you are paying your employees for), you need to make sure you are getting money back. Otherwise, your company is going to go broke. It's just that simple.

Measuring how many people sign up for your e-newsletter or even how many order a coupon will not bring you where you need to go unless you can prove that people who are reading your e-newsletter tend to buy from you. If that's the case, then yes, funneling people to your database is a great idea, but you still need to track when they buy, what they buy, etc.

It's all about the benjamins in the business world.

margieclayman
margieclayman moderator

@suegrimm Hi Sue,

i don't think a person should look at a Twitter account that has x number of followers and assume that the person knows what she is doing. Take for example a person that may have an awe-inspiring 70,000 followers. Now on the surface, based on sheer numbers, that would look good, right? But then what happens if you dig deeper? Often you'll find that this person is following 100,000 people. Maybe they have never tweeted or maybe they've only tweeted once to say "hello world!" Do they still know what they are doing? Doesn't seem like it.

That's the entire problem with social media numbers. They are a great big distraction. Whether you look at followers on Twitter or subscribers to a blog or whatever it may be, what you really need to do is dig underneath the surface and see what the person is really about. Unfortunately, very few people make it to that second step.

Does that help?

Anne-Marie
Anne-Marie

@margieclayman That's my point. Bring something new and thought provoking. Be an interesting read. Give them a take away. People will notice and want come back.

besore
besore

@margieclayman I guess I better get back to "work" because this exchange is not making me any benjamins! I say that in jest because my own work, online or off, is about so much more than those benjamins. I may go broke if the monetary rewards don't follow; but I think the non-monetary metrics which I measure will keep me close to the right path. I do hear what you're saying, but caution that things are rarely as simple as you suggest.

suegrimm
suegrimm

@margieclayman Yes. I'm going to flesh out a post on this one of these days and I'll let you know because this is important, at least to me. And you are so, so right, it is about people not taking the second step. So here are my final thoughts. Anyone in the social world gets this can see when someone has employed the numbers game. At least I hope. But say I was outside this world, and was a potential client who went to your blog. Would I see that you know how it works? Yes. Is that a good thing? Yes. Now what if I said, as I've been contemplating, I'm only going to focus on attracting potential clients to my blog and only write to them. I guess I'm where you were when you wrote your twitter series. Not Twitter, but sharing some basics, like what is SEO. before I start engaging more with people in the field. So maybe this works, and I grow my list, which is starting with some people who want to learn the basics. I"m happy with it today and I want those articles on there just like you do. But do I expect people in the industry to be interested? Heck no. On the other hand, the people I'm attracting are highly unlikely to comment publicly. So is someone new to my blog going to wonder -- does she really know how this works because there is no social proof. It's too early to cast any judgement on that now, but it's for my longer term strategy that I wonder. It's about finding the right balance I suppose.

margieclayman
margieclayman moderator

@besore It's not black-and-white. Of course there is plenty of value to building relationships. As John noted, we are social creatures. But for a *business* if you are not building your monetary foundation the relationships, sadly, will not be enough to keep you going.

margieclayman
margieclayman moderator

@suegrimm There is a I think a series of steps one takes in the online world, and I don't know that any particular order is "right." You need to establish that you have some credibility or that you have some idea of what you are talking about (this is extremely subjective, of course). You need to decide what you are trying to do with your blog or your other social media platforms. Are you trying to build new clientele, are you trying to increase sales? These goals will really guide you into the future. I am most certainly not a role model in this regard. I dipped my toe into this world a couple of years ago so I could talk with some knowledge to our clients, and I had no idea that things would go as well as they have.

Best laid plans, right?

I look forward to your post :)

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