Many companies have latched onto the idea of “online community” as a new way to deepen connections with their customers. In the past decade, there has been an uptick in demand for community management skills. Seventh Generation once “invited me” to their consumer community called Generation Good. What they meant by the word “community” was their social media channels. They wanted me 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 (like lead generation and audience building) and driving customer engagement. As a word, community is now too broadly used.

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. Community platform, Khoros’ former 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 can be a way to quickly build online community because of the way Groups can connect directly into people’s lives and passions. Groups have changed over time and they are also not owned. Relying on groups leaves ultimate control of the community, it’s content and the data it generated in control of Facebook, not the initiators of the group.

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 vision you offer and those it attracts. 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 customer 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 or experience offered in exchange for people taking time to register, lurk, engage, and perhaps react to what’s inside. In short, starting a customer 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 gets 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.

Executives should participate

Customer community is an opportunity for executives to show their human side and engage directly with customers. Executives typically have the passion and vision for the company, but they often 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? Even occasional presence can be impactful and a seed that leaders are, in fact, listening. A company doesn’t exist without customers.