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