Crowd vs Community

Earlier in the week, I talked about how the word ‘expert’ is being thrown around too often on the web. Today, I want to talk about another term that is used so often that it is losing it’s meaning: community.

My goal here is not to complain about trendy words (that in itself would just be trendy), but to ensure we don’t miss the opportunity to create something really powerful for your business and the market you serve.

In everyday life, we tend to define communities by proximity, context and purpose. We often call those we live near members of our community, those who share an organizational affiliation a member of our community (be it a political party, an employer, a union, a religious group, and the like), and those who share common beliefs as we do as a member of our community (such as fans of a band or advocates for environmental conservation.)

Community implies trust, which is what makes it so powerful. And trust is very different from people simply having a lack of choice. Does everyone in my neighborhood form a community around the cable provider Cablevision, or do we simply not have much of a choice because they are the largest service provider in the area? Do we stop by McDonalds or Starbucks because we have built trust and respect, or because they are pervasive and expected?

Trust in a community extends beyond convenience and habit. When we go to a cafe we have never been to in a town we have never been to, we are more likely to leave our bag on the table when we go to the bathroom because the other 20 people in the room share a passion that you do. In that moment of trust, the possibility of a community forms. Common purpose builds trust.

But community may not exist yet, merely its potential. And this is where many misread the term community when we talk about social media and online branding.

Readers of The New York Times are not a community. If you buy Honest Tea every day, you are not a part of a community with every other Honest Tea consumer. But for both of those brands, the possibility of community exists. I have been considering the lessons from Zappos as well. For all their really interesting cultural practices about customer service – do people shop from them out of a longstanding connection that is being formed, or because their prices are great, and their free shipping policy allows us to buy tons of shoes with zero risk? If their prices became average, and their shipping costs and return policy become the same as everyone else, would we continue advocating and shopping at Zappos at the levels we do?

Community requires action. Sometimes, that action is merely a thought process – that someone chooses to trust, chooses to look out for the good of the whole, and not just themselves. But the action of spending money does not always signify that we are ‘voting with our wallets’ and ACTIVELY participating in community that others define.

Without that action, members who share characteristics are merely a crowd – a mass behavioral pattern. Not a community.

When media brands, when consumer brands, when individuals approach social media, this is a key point to remember. That attention alone is not enough to build something of meaning and lasting value – that engagement is required, that action is required to build a lasting community. That spending a dollar with a brand, that following a Twitter feed, that reading an article is not enough of a measure to determine who is within or outside of a community. It may merely be consumption.

Creating community is not about the needs of one person or entity. Just because 40,000 people sign up for a Pepsi social media campaign does not mean that those people feel a sense of community with each other. It may only serves Pepsi’s goals, or each individual’s goals as they collect Pepsi points, or whatever the promotion is about.

And scale alone is not community. I’ve heard people describe the ‘install base’ of software packages – how SO MANY people have a certain piece of software on their computers. But this does not connect them to each other. For many, it may merely be akin to an unused possession sitting in their garage. Possession alone is not a community.

But when you connect people to do greater good for all involved, then you have a chance of creating something rare – something of value. A community.

Do you want to ‘leverage’ your community in social media? Do you want to ‘market’ to them? Instead, look for balance. Look for ways to build trust, not just with you and them, but between members of the group. Communities are earned, slowly. With social media, we are given so many opportunities to start a community, but to truly create one, takes a focus on giving, on sharing, and on serving the needs of the whole.

Reward points are not a way to create a community. Discount codes are not a way to create a community.

That is not to say that both of those things aren’t powerful business drivers that customers enjoy. But be careful about misrepresenting their relationship to you, your brand and each other. Many businesses fell on hard times because they assumed that their customers were a loyal community, when really they were just a crowd experiencing a momentary behavioral pattern that was similar to each other.

Here are some tips to begin treating your audience & customers like a community instead of a crowd.

Clearly, I don’t have the answers, and quite frankly, no one does. But it’s always helpful to bounce ideas off of someone else. If there is any way you think I can help, give me a call anytime: 973-981-8882. You can also follow me on Twitter: @DanBlank