There is a difference between developing a community as a strategy and developing a community strategy.
An organization might want to increase repeat purchases from their existing audience. Their strategy might be to create a community. The goal is increased engagement, the strategy is to develop a community. That's clear enough.
But a community strategy (a strategy for the community) is different. A community strategy is the approach to developing a successful community. That approach might, for example, be growth, engagement or improving the sense of community amongst members.
Too often, the organization might push an objective (repeat purchases) upon the community. A community needs a strategy based upon it's current health and stage in the community life cycle, not direct by a bigger corporate objective. Don't mix the process with the end-result.
Phil notes that a spark/trigger can bring people together.
Was this in doubt? I don't think so.
People want to feel a sense of togetherness. It's easy to hop aboard a short-term opportunity to feel good. There is nothing to lose. You trade a few hours with a broom for a sense of achievement and togetherness. There is no social or physical risk there.
Compare this with the Turkish community in London that banded together and drove the rioters away.
The difference, as you can probably guess, is social capital. Not just bridging social capital, but bonding social capital. The London Turkish group feels a strong sense of community. They're a unique group in a different environment. They have strong social ties. They trusted each other. They came out for each other.
Whilst other business owners bemoaned the lack of police presence and watched their businesses get ransacked, the Turkish business owners made calls and saved their livelihoods.
Social capital is a powerful asset. But this isn't an advertisement of vigilantism. It's a reminder that when you want a group of people to do something that's hard or risky, a trigger wont do the job. A trigger didn't protect the dozens of business owners that lost their businesses. Hard, risky, and meaningful work requires a lot of social capital.
Social capital takes time to build. It needs to be carefully nurtured. It requires spending time introducing people to each other, encouraging people to interact, hosting events/activities, creating a shared history and building genuine friendships.
Most organizations, notably non-profits, do the process backwards. They pull the trigger first then try to build the social capital. That doesn't work. You need to build the social capital first then pull the trigger.
If you want people to take a few easy actions, then a good trigger is all you need. Most viral waves that sweep across the internet are built upon a strong trigger. If you want people to band together to do something that's hard, risky and meaningful, you need social capital. That takes far more time and effort.
Your community lives within an ecosystem. This ecosystem is the broader topic, industry, area, field, group which encompasses the community. Communities about karate live within the martial arts ecosystem. Communities about World of Warcraft, live within the gaming ecosystem.
The ecosystem includes:
- Brands/Companies. Brands/Companies that operate in this sector. Notably those that sell to individuals within the sector.
- Media. The major media publications in this sector.
- Groups/communities. Other groups and communities within that sector.
- Influencers. The influencers who help shape and create the issues within the sector.
- Relationships. Who likes/doesn’t like who? What are the relationships between the organizations and individuals listed above?
- Issues. The most important one, what are the major issues in the sector? What are people talking about?
React and participate in the ecosystem
The ecosystem has a significant impact upon the community. It provides both inspiration for material in the community and opportunities to foster a closer sense of community.
The ecosystem provides inspiration for content, discussion topics, activities and events. You can set up interviews with key influencers, ask for sample/review products for members from brands, host polls on major issues in the sector, discuss media articles in the community etc…
In the early stages of the community life cycle, the community should be highly reactive to its ecosystem. It should aim to solicit opinions from members about issues in the broader ecosystem and summarize them into a community consensus. This creates a unique identity for the community within its ecosystem. It aims to forge a sense of community amongst individuals based upon common thoughts and feelings.
The latter stages of the community life cycle – influencing
In the latter stages of the community life cycle, the community should become very influential within its ecosystem. This means ensuring the individuals, issues, groups, media within the community become influential individuals, issues, groups and media within the ecosystem.
This means the community manager must be proactive in their efforts for example:
- Build relationships with the groups, influencers, companies in the ecosystem and bring your top members into those relationships.
- Promote the major issues in your community to the major media channels.
- Initiate events/activities and invite the broader ecosystem to participate (this is by far the easiest and most effective means of influencing the ecosystem – especially with offline events).
- Ensure the major media channels rely upon your community for news about your sector (send them regular updates about issues they should notice).
- Issue regular statements on behalf of the community which summarize feelings on topical issues (look to welfare/special interest groups for inspiration on this). These can range from responses to topical issues to highlighting under-reported or unnoticed issues within the community.
- Campaign on issues which matter to the community.
The more influential your community becomes, the stronger sense of identity members will feel. They will be more active and feel a greater sense of community with other members. More people will join the community to achieve a sense of ownership with the community’s success and ability to impact it’s environment.
It's not the conflicts, spam, provocative members, off-topic discussions and technology troubles that will cause members to quit.
In extreme proportions (notably with spam), members might eventually leave. But in practice, members don’t quit because of singular issues – and certainly not singular events.
Members leave a community because it's no longer very interesting. There aren't any interesting discussions, events, and activities taking place. Members aren't emotionally invested in the success of the community. Members don't care about building friendships with other members.
You should be very worried, every day, about how interesting your community is before you worry about other issues. You should worry whether:
- You have popular self-disclosure discussions taking place.
- You're effectively promoting these popular discussions in the content, newsletter and e-mails.
- You have exciting events coming up.
- Members are creating content for the community.
- There are interesting opportunities for members to be more involved.
- There is an upcoming goal/achievement/battle/milestone the community is working towards.
- The community is creating enough content about members. Do you talk about what members are doing, what they’re achieving, what discussions are taking place and interview members on a frequent basis (content about people is always the most interesting)?
It's healthy (for the community) if you wake up every morning worrying about whether the community is interesting enough.
Here is the common approach to growing a community. Initiate a big promotional drive. Get coverage in major blogs, host a major competition and attract 50,000 visitors to the platform. After which perhaps 500 join the community and 50 are still active after 3 months.
In approach 1 the bulk of the effort is undertaken before members join the community. Compare this with approach 2. Here the community manager wants to grow the community. They work to increase referrals from existing members. They get 1,000 members to visit the site and a high number to join, perhaps 80%. They work hard to keep these members and ensure they stay engaged. After 3 months, 500 are still active.
These numbers aren't uncommon for either approaches.
If you want to grow your community focus your efforts after members have joined, not before.
You might think it's the chicken and the egg. If no-one visits, you can't keep them engaged. However, if you take care of the members you have, they'll bring in more members. Most successful communities have never undertaken any promotional activities at all.
I'm tempted to run a webinar just about conceptualizing a community.
Here's a news release issued in The Drum:
"Travel Designers will shortly be launching their own branded review and online community.
The company aims to integrate the platform seamlessly within their website to provide an unspoilt visitor journey.
Customers will be encouraged to become part of the online community to exchange ideas and tips, and upload content such as photos, videos and text reviews of their travel experiences."
What will this community offer which dozens of extremely popular travel communities do not already offer? What is the motivation for members to join and participate?
Brands need to spend more time on conceptualizing their community. You can't launch a new travel community to compete with TripAdvisor directly. You need a unique concept and a unique community identity.
Why not a community for long-time luxury travellers? Or a community for travellers solely to specific destinations? Or a community for travellers with certain travel beliefs (eco, no hotels etc…)?
A community doesn't have to be about the organization.
T.M. Lewin could have created an exciting community for people passionate about particular areas of fashion, lifestyle or to trade advice for dressing in different situations (guys desperately need this).
Instead they launched a bland customer-service style community which attracts very little activity.
I suspect they didn't realize it was a choice, most brands don't. You get to decide what the community will be about. Don't default to the community being about your brand. Very few organizations are interesting enough for a community.
p.s. And if people bother to ask a question, it's essential they get a reply.
I'm delighted to announce that I'll be speaking at Swarm Sydney in Australia on November 10th.
You can buy tickets here: http://swarmsydney.com.au/pages/register.
Here is the snippet from the press release:
Community Managers are behavioural scientists, writers, counsellors, legal aids, teachers, nerf herders and then some. Community Managers have been around since the early days of the web, but the profession has only become 'mainstream' in recent years, riding the wave of the social and mobile economy.
swarm sydney will connect online Community Managers with the aim of sharing resources, best practices, information and ideas, while contributing our voice to the discourse of our digital futures.
How can we ensure are communities are active, thriving, growing, nurtured, productive and sustainable? What cultural, political and technological issues impact our world – and how can we work together to overcome challenges?
Come along to swarm sydney and find out!
I hope you see some of you from Australia there.
The 13th Law of Marketing, is the law of sacrifice.
You have to give something up to get something better.
Communities need to embrace this law. They need to sacrifice the majority of potential members and focus on a narrowly defined audience with a unique and strong common interest.
It's tempting to target all your customers (or everyone else in your ecosystem). But this wont work, the interest wont be as strong. Try to create a global community for parents and you'll fail. Try to create a community for moms in downtown Boston and you have a better chance of success.
The more similar the audience feels to each other, the tougher boundary they crossed, the more they are to participate. There are no shortage of studies related specifically to online communities backing this up.