If we look to real world communities as a metaphor for virtual ones, social media functions--forums, blogs, micro-blogs, ratings, profiles, friend lists, widgets, collaborative tools, and the like--are the buildings, roads, and utilities, but if no one moves in (or everyone leaves), there is no community. A site rife with Web 2.0 tools that go unused is like a ghost town--empty of life and uninviting to anyone who chances to wander in. As in the real world, a virtual community isn't characterized by its components but by its people.
The hard fact is that many community-building efforts fall short of intended goals. You can strive for a community and may succeed at a community, but you cannot simply create a community. As Content Ninja says, "We cannot build a community. It just happens ... What we can do is build an infrastructure where the community can live."
How can marketers increase their chances for community-building success? Think like a gardener!
Like a gardener, marketers who wish to cultivate an online community must seek fertile ground, plant the seed, and nurture it from a seedling into a healthy, thriving organism. And like a marketer, a gardener's success is defined not by the amount of effort, the size of the plot, or the tools but by the vigor of the garden and the produce harvested from his or her plot.
Marketers can no more create a community by focusing first on social media technologies than gardeners can create a flourishing flower bed by focusing first on shovels and rakes. Before tools are secured, the gardener must craft a plan. Planting a vegetable garden for produce or a flower garden for beauty requires different tools, raw materials, processes, and effort. Communities and gardens require plans as unique as the desired outcomes.
Most importantly, neither gardens nor communities can be planted then ignored. The effort to sow plants is wasted without a commitment to help them thrive. Gardens that flourish are watered, mulched, weeded, fertilized, pruned, staked, and most of all, monitored and protected from insects, animals, blight, and frost.
Online communities are like gardens in that they are rarely self-sustaining and require constant investment of time and resources in the form of oversight, participation, content, marketing, promotion, community rewards, and new features to keep the experience fresh. If the community plan only goes as far as launch and then ends, it will fail; if the plan doesn't make accommodations for as much investment after launch as before, your community's chances for success are diminished.
Gardens cannot flourish just anywhere under any situation. Finding the appropriate place and conditions is important; gardeners seek the right location where soil, drainage, sun, shade, and protection are most conducive to the selected vegetation.
Likewise, marketers who seek to create communities fashioned around their products or services must evaluate if their brands provide the right circumstances to support a community. What are the brand conditions that best support the birth and growth of a community? Is your brand a fertile valley or a barren desert for your garden community? We'll explore these questions tomorrow on Experience: The Blog.
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