Many companies have latched onto the idea of “online community” as a new way to deepen connections with their customers. In the past year, I’ve noticed an uptick in demand for community management coming from agencies and companies. Earlier this week, Seventh Generation invited me to their consumer community called Generation Good. What they meant by the word “community” was their social media channels and a way to sign up to receive their promotions. This isn’t community. What’s really happening is the definition of “community” is being painted as a promising tactic for meeting business goals and driving customer engagement. The word is being used much more broadly than ever before.

Hey, girl. Focus. Display sign at Pinterest headquarters.

Sign in Pinterest headquarters. Image: R. Medanic

What is it:  community or social media?

People who are doing audience building and engagement, particularly on social media channels are often referred to as community managers and community builders. The talent search for community managers is rising and that’s a good thing, but the sacrifice is that the definition of community is blurring from overuse.

It’s easy to see how the confusion starts:  many of the same tactics for engaging people in online spaces are also used to engage audiences on social media. Online community building however, creates a much deeper experience than what happens on social media. Lithium’s Principal Scientist of Analytics, Mike Wu writes, “The single most important feature that distinguishes a social network from a community is how people are held together on these sites.”

Connecting with followers and fans on social channels may feel like online community building at times, but it’s atypical for social channels to create something that has that sense of “spirit” that happens in an online community when people are drawn there because of each other, and not just (or only) as a result of what the community’s host is doing. An online community’s spirit is created from people channeling energy and effort into a virtual space that has a purpose and mission.

In social media, Facebook Groups are probably the most high profile example of how online community gets confused. Facebook itself is a social channel, but its hosted Groups feature is often an excellent way to quickly build online community because of the way Groups can connect directly into people’s lives and passions.

People and mules at a barn raising.

Nottinghack Wiki. Public domain image.

Community is built on human motivation

This barn raising image from 1908 illustrates the physical community most of us know from having our sense of place. We live in neighborhoods that are also referred to as communities. But the human motivators that drive actions where we live are also echoed online. We act from goodwill. We act from a place of caring and helping someone else. For businesses hosting and building community online, these virtual spaces need a mission and a clear raison d’être.

Online community for business always has an agenda. What might start as passion for your products and services always has the potential to become something bigger as a result of the people you attract. A sense of belonging and being part of the tribe can happen—but these are sociological factors that can often be at odds with the way we seek to quantify and justify in a business context. Don’t be afraid. Grow deep, human roots anyway.

Community is making space to give back

When you host a community, the ball is in your company’s court. What will you seed the community with to attract participants? Typically, it’s some form of content offered in exchange for people taking time to register, experience the content you have and react to it. In short, starting a community requires an up-front investment and a commitment to keep giving over time to continue to stoke the fires of participation.

The community journey can get exciting and challenging when (if allowed to) your users start to generate content of their own. The nature of what a community’s host needs to “give” can be affected over time by the dynamic of user participation. Many contributors to online community do so because it allows them to help others, but also because it offers them a source of validation (of their knowledge).

Two paths to take winter scene.

Image by Oliver Roos.

It’s a relationship:  tell them why, set them free

In this community management piece for tech startups:  Kate Kendall, co-founder of Cloudpeeps, talks about the inherent dishonesty companies have with themselves when community members give input or feedback on things like the product roadmap. She gives a great example of bland communication that I and many other community managers have been guilty of creating in the past—the “thank you, we’ll get back to you” message.

Kendall’s message targets tech startups, but the lesson applies across the board. Community members want to know their ideas were valued and considered. A closed communication loop indicates your respect and commitment to both your community members and the company’s community investment. When you communicate why a member’s idea X will or will not be acted on, it shows you care. Can a company itself, care? No. Can the people who work for it? Absolutely.

Executives should participate

Community is an opportunity for executives to show their human side and engage community members. Executives typically have the passion and vision for the company, it’s only the warped world of “business” that has twisted them and all their subordinates in knots for years resulting in leaders that shy away from personal engagement. Sure, every industry has regulations and rules. But if your executives speak at industry conferences, for example, why can’t they also in your community?

Thanks for reading! Your thoughts and feedback are welcomed. I look forward to sharing more like this with you.