The word community gets bandied about far too much. Just a quick tour around facebook throws up countless brands that are using it as a term to describe what they’re doing there. And ok, they might be talking to a large group of people, and they’re probably encouraging some kind of interactivity by running competitions and promotions, or asking questions. But if they’re honest, it’s just another method to broadcast their message. These brands aren’t really encouraging a community to develop.
So what do we mean by community?
Wikipedia defines it as:
“a social unit of any size that shares common values… Intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, risks, and a number of other conditions may be present and common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.”
And it’s that cohesiveness and sense of belonging that is key.
There are real business advantages to building a community: idea generation, testing product ideas, collecting insight, conducting research, increasing word of mouth to name a few, but they don’t get the heart of a community. Let’s look at the real world characteristics of a community and how well these tie in with the typical communication structure of a facebook page.
|Members must have access||Yes|
|Members must be able to communicate with each other||Yes|
|Members have a relationship with each other and feel part of the community||limited|
|There must be active and ongoing participation||limited|
|Members must define the community, not just the brand||No|
|There must be a common purpose, a life outside the brand, relevant and useful to members||No|
The last two characteristics come from the community itself and aren’t (or shouldn’t be) provided by the brand. But a brand can facilitate it, supporting the community in its purpose, can even gently nudge it in the right direction…
So where are the great examples of online communities in action?
IdeaStorm was created to give a direct voice to Dell customers to say what new products or services they’d like to see go into development. It allows community members to post their ideas, comment, and collaborate on the ideas of others and vote on which ideas should be taken forward.
In effect, it’s an online brainstorm via which Dell can gauge their customers’ appetite for new products and, through the voting system, determine which ideas are most likely to be successful. Dell employees can join conversations and participants are kept informed of the progress of their ideas from submission through consideration to, if successful, implementation. It’s a beautifully simple proposition. Customers know exactly what they need to do to be involved, and, importantly, why they want to. The experience is involving, empowering, rewarding and inspiring, and it fosters true innovation. It ticks all the boxes that facebook doesn’t, and has a raft of common values and all the cohesion to satisfy wikipedia’s definition. Since its launch, IdeaStorm has received over 16,000 ideas and implemented almost 500 of them.
The BBC’s new Taster site offers a similar voting system on new programme ideas, but, although the content is shareable and you could discuss it across the socialsphere, there’s no opportunity for discussion or collaboration with others on the site. But the Beeb is very clear that this is a brand new experiment for them, so all of that could evolve over time.
It’s that collaborative spirit and sense of belonging that’s at the heart of a great community. It fosters discussion and more new ideas are born. Great examples of these types of communities can be found in open source platforms, such as WordPress and Drupal, where developers come together to create new functionality regularly which supports the underlying code base.
However, a successful and flourishing community doesn’t happen overnight. The sites above have taken, and will take years to mature, and it’s not easy to replicate their success. But think about it. How could you bring your audience together to innovate for the benefit of your business of their own free will? Perhaps a group of financial advisers has as its purpose the improvement of their industry knowledge. A brand could facilitate forums, a content hub, even face to face events for information share and networking.
Or maybe there’s an argument to say brands shouldn’t be trying to build their own communities. Perhaps organisations should find naturally formed communities and help them with their purpose or vision and gain business benefits under more of a fair value exchange. Organisations need to see the benefit of creating or encouraging a community to find their purpose and define themselves. Ultimately, the community needs to have a life, a purpose and a vision of its own. Collaboration is where true insights are discovered, solid relationships built and where genuine innovation happens.