What is the Value of a “User” and “Community”

The words “user” and “community” sure have been thrown around a lot recently. As companies try to create “communities” online, and embrace “users” and all the media they generate, we should ensure that the meaning of these words are not lost.

Rex Hammock explores the reasons Apple doesn’t get the same negative press that Dell does. His reasoning illustrates what community means to a brand:

  • I have employees who have said that one of the reasons they like working here is because we all use Macs. For employees to comment on the “brand” of office equipment and note that it is “something special” about the place they work is, well, unusual.
  • Apple has one of the most helpful “user communities” ever known. In fact, their “user community” is the role model for consumer “communities.” Indeed, I have a hard time thinking of another consumer brand (or even, media brand) “community” that is actually a “community” and not something a corporate communications or marketing department dreamed up and called a “community.”
  • Apple users, perhaps because of their small (relatively speaking) numbers, have developed small tribes that hang out in places like MacAuthority in Nashville. Professional designers, filmmakers and musicians, for example, know that the local Apple Store is more geared to consumers than to them. If you are setting up a studio or editing bay, a place like MacAuthority is a god-send.
  • Apple has hosted a user discussion forum for as long as I can remember.
  • The proliferation of Apple stores gives the appearance (and reality) of the chance to interact with a live human-being that can help you solve your Mac delimma.
  • My Mac is a part of me. It transcends being merely a “tool” or piece of equipment. I spend half my life touching it in some way. I run a business with it. I communicate with the world — and my family — with it. I am convinced — for many reasons — my Mac is special.

Is this the same thing as setting up a MySpace page, viewing videos on YouTube, commenting on a blog, or posting photos to Flickr? In some cases, definitely. However, community is hard to create – it is not a matter of “if you build it, they will come.” And for many who have had some success with individuals interacting on their site, I wonder about the long term viability of these tenuous “communities.” Do some sites set the bar too low – relying only on web metrics to define their “community?”

I am not sure if we are in a Web 2.0 bubble or not, but there seems to be an awful lot of companies emergining online, all hoping that you will become an active member in their community. Like any business environment, many of these companies will not survive. Mix in the ability for individuals to become the epicenter of communities via blogs and the like, and you suddenly have a very competitve landscape for something such as “community.”

In your everyday life, how many communities do you belong to? I mean actively participate in? Probably a handful, even including work and family. Why? Because it takes a huge commitment to become engaged and stay engaged. So many people I know are inundated with too many things to do – they are very wary of further commitments.

Apple is often an easy example, but it is because they are so rare. However, they illustrate the true value and power of what a community can mean to a brand. I wonder if recreating this is more about serendipity than web metrics.