“Something I have been consistently hammering on about for a number of years is that communities are going to change how we build businesses and engage with customers. […]
Communities provide an incredible environment to not just build relationships between customers and companies, but between customers and customers too. These kinds of communities can generate enormous value, very tangible results, and deliver fulfilling, lasting experiences.”— Community as a Competitive Advantage (Jono Bacon)
Note: The following is a companion post to my session “A Renaissance for Online Communities”, presented at PodCamp Toronto 2020 on February 22nd.
A community is not a single place or platform. A community is a connected group of people with something in common.
Communities form around different things. There are communities of place, like your local neighbourhood. There are communities of profession, like web design. And there are communities of interest, like the communities that form around podcasting.
People don’t identify as community members straight away. Showing up at a community event doesn’t mean you’ll feel like a member. At first, we often feel like an outsider, someone dropping in uninvited.
To feel like a community member, we need to achieve a sense of belonging. That sense of belonging grows through participation in shared experiences, both online and offline.
“We all know audio is seeing a resurgence in news media, with publishers experimenting with podcasts and daily briefings on smart speakers. The New York Times is taking it even further, with their “participatory podcasts“, aka conference calls. […]
These calls have been successful in drawing in usually several hundred subscribers, with a broad mix of demographics — including international subscribers. The Times could easily just release these conversations as podcasts but that would miss out on the community-building aspect. […]
By being live, and taking listener questions, these calls foster a sense among subscribers that they are part of something bigger than themselves. This is one of the reasons more and more media organisations have been trialing membership programs; it helps to increase retention as well.”— Unexpected ways publishers engage readers (Twipe)
“An infinity of subcultures outside the mainstream now blossoms on the Internet – vegans, body modifiers, CrossFitters, Wiccans, DIYers, Pinners, and support groups of all forms. Millions of people are finding their true peers in the cloud, a remedy for the isolation imposed by the anonymous apartment complex or the remote rural location.“
“This is why location is becoming so much less important: technology is enabling us to access everything we need from our mobile phone, to find our true communities in the cloud, and to easily travel to assemble these communities in person. Taken together, we are rapidly approaching a future characterized by a totally new phenomenon, the reverse diaspora: one that starts out internationally distributed, finds each other online, and ends up physically concentrated.“— Software Is Reorganizing the World (WIRED)
This WIRED article is from 2013, envisioning a future that started to take shape over the last decade. Think techies congregating in Silicon Valley to work on the next big startup, or YouTubers congregating in LA, forming creator communes, sharing real estate and resources while collaborating on content.
But as the cost of living spirals out of control in metropolitan areas, our attention turns back to the upsides of distributed networks, punctuated by in-person gatherings like conventions and conferences.
…you get the idea.
My point is: we’re finding each other through social media and open networks, we’re sliding into DMs and email to build 1:1 relationships, and then we show up at in-person events to build the face-to-face rapport.
“It is neither simple nor straightforward to reach audiences gathered around digital campfires. But as traditional social platforms grow, they become more crowded, and it becomes more difficult and expensive to reach people there anyway. In light of this, digital campfires become a much more attractive alternative — one that requires more groundwork and more careful tending, but one that could potentially have big payoffs for brands in terms of loyalty, retention, and long-term love.“— The Era of Antisocial Social Media (Harvard Business Review)
Community Marketing is less “build something” and more “grow something”. Lots of tending and care over a longer period of time, with cyclical phases. It’s like working in agriculture versus working in manufacturing.
“To succeed, local media have to abandon scale and refocus on community. Advertising remains part of the equation, but reader revenue, donations, foundation funding — yard sales if necessary — are all in the mix.”— Audience scales, community does not. (Local News Lab)
You can thrive by decoupling success from scale. Related:
“As the Passion Economy grows, more people are monetizing what they love. The global adoption of social platforms like Facebook and YouTube, the mainstreaming of the influencer model, and the rise of new creator tools has shifted the threshold for success. I believe that creators need to amass only 100 True Fans—not 1,000—paying them $1,000 a year, not $100. Today, creators can effectively make more money off fewer fans.”— 1,000 True Fans? Try 100 (Li Jin via a16z)
” Micro-sized communities are the key for modern businesses as smaller channels allow them to connect with highly engaged audiences. Influencers provide one way to access organic, tight-knit communities, but marketers are now moving beyond the digital world and building these communities in the real world.”— How brands can build micro-communities (AdAge)
Lead a community of purpose that aligns with your brand’s mission. Bring people together around in-person shared experiences. Share knowledge while acting as a catalyst for new connections. Keep the energy going through persistent community activities and back-channels.
“Perhaps one of the most detrimental consequences of digital technology is the illusion of connection. We think that if we can tweet, post, text, e-mail, or even call someone, we’re good. After all, digital relationships save us the time and coordination of meeting in person, which in turn allows us to be überproductive—or so we tell ourselves. But here’s the thing: nothing can replace in-person community, and our failed attempts to do so come at a grave cost.“— It’s Okay to Be Good and Not Great (Outside)
I owe a lot to the web. It opened the door to opportunities I never would’ve had otherwise.
As a kid growing up in central Ontario, I was able to make new friends around the world and pour my time into hobbies that eventually led to a fulfilling life and career.
But none of that would’ve happened if I didn’t go from URL to IRL.
It’s the difference between RSVP’ing and showing up. Intent doesn’t equal action.
I’m an introvert by default. In my early 20’s I was notorious for flaking on parties. Even now, a decade after my first meetup, I still feel an urge to bail before an event.
Despite that, I’ll still show up, because I know the benefit is worth the discomfort.
In-person experiences are the catalyst for strong relationships. Everything we do otherwise is a watered-down alternative. Video puts a face to the name. In-person experiences put the whole being of a person to the name.
So, if you really want to connect with your community, bring them together offline.
“This was community. And what I would come to learn, slowly, is that community is about a series of small choices and everyday actions: how to spend a Saturday, what to do when a neighbor falls ill, how to make time when there is none. Knowing others and being known; investing in somewhere instead of trying to be everywhere. Communities are built, like Legos, one brick at a time. There’s no hack.“— The only metric of success that really matters (Quartz)
I’d argue that communities aren’t built — they’re grown. Like a garden, a community requires care and attention and, over time, they’ll bear fruit. And as with a garden, there are things you can do to improve your chances of success.
You’ll have different plants in your garden, depending on what type of garden you want to grow. The better you understand the needs of your plants, the better a job you can do in caring for them. Some plants need more sunlight than others, or more water, or different soil.
And so it goes with a community. Knowing why you’re bringing people together in the first place will help you plan accordingly. Understanding the needs of your members means you’ll do a better job of solving those needs and giving them a good reason to stick around.
Where I absolutely align with this piece is in the takeaway, that it’s a series of small decisions and actions that make a community take off. The consistency, the routine, the showing up and contributing, participating, over and over again.
All of this compounds over time, as more people join, as more people discover and share and invite others to do the same. It’s a flywheel: Show up. Participate. Document. Share. Repeat.
“Creating common knowledge creates a network effect. All companies in Silicon Valley want to build network effects, but few have followed Barton’s path despite its effectiveness. The more people use and trust Glassdoor, the more companies must take it seriously. And as users see more people contributing to Glassdoor, they can be more confident they’ll stay anonymous when they add their review. There are virtuous loops in common knowledge.”— Making Uncommon Knowledge Common (kwokchain)
My hobby from high school through college was to work on gaming fansites and forums.
In those early days (mid 2000’s) it was up to us, the devoted webmaster crowd, to compile information into comprehensive guides and resources for other gamers.
Our guides — usually written by one or two people — drove a fair chunk of search traffic and links. But the vast, vast majority of our traffic came from the forums.
Our forums were a well of common knowledge, deep discussion threads probing all angles of the games we covered.
That arrangement was good for a while. Our sites offered the coherent walkthroughs and references; the forums offered everything else.
Then “Web 2.0” happened.