Having been involved in on-line communities (social networks or forums/Yahoo! Groups, etc.) for a long time, I have a theory... well, I am sure there are already proven psychological, sociological, and anthropological theories that already exist about organic and inorganic communities from people who are much smarter than me, have PhD after their name and explain it with words that take a dictionary to decipher their meaning. So, I'll keep it simple and focus on my thoughts (perhaps that's a better word) from a marketing and social media perspective.
Both communities, from my experience, have several characteristics (and I am sure I won't capture them all and mileage may vary based on individual driving experience):
- Are borne out of passion
- Seem to pop up overnight and attract "like" people that immediately provide conversation/content
- Don't typically self promote and grow organically by word of mouth
- Have a culture that is specific to their community
- Feed off one another (self-induced psychological pressures, "I want that!" "I need to share this!")
- Raise up people who contribute to and enhance the community
- Help one another via cross pollination of information
- Encourage sub-communities to form
- Don't like to be controlled
- Get protective when people interrupt the natural flow of the community through disruptions (the community will self-heal in one way or another)
- Are created for a specific reason (i.e. to promote, sell, research, connect customers, listen, customer service, etc.)
- Need to work harder to attract members and need to create conversation/content to induce new conversation/content (that ol' chicken & egg syndrome)
- Often rely on self-promotion to grow
- The culture is that of the company that created it (i.e. passionate about a particular company, cause, etc.)
- The organizers tend to be the experts
- Are more focused and controlled
- Have rules of engagement for members
Now, these might seem like extreme differences and I am sure companies like Communispace, HiveLive and Neighborhood America and community creators/managers probably won't agree with my list of characteristics of inorganic communities. And that's okay, they are the pros after all (please chime in, but please don't promote your products/services). But, after trying to build a community* from the ground up as a company versus easing myself into an organic community on Twitter as an employee, I'd say the latter was much easier and led to natural conversations. I don't mean to sound negative towards inorganic communities, that's not my intention. I just think they are harder to produce and don't typically have the same purpose, culture, need generation, or levels of evangelism. Overall that's my completely non-scientific theory in a nutshell.
[*I am no longer employed by the company that started the forum.]
Here are a few thoughts for how businesses can leverage organic communities (they have been with me since I wrote about the Pepsi social media campaign back in October):
- Join the above forums/groups and listen to what the community, especially the evangelists, is saying about your brand (but don't interrupt)
- After a listening for a while (maybe even a long while), join the conversation
- Know and respect the rules of the community (i.e. don't force yourself into an organically established community)
- Be yourself, not 'corporate'
- Do not be overtly promotional, but answer questions when they come up
- Take time to find out how the community feels about your brand
- Share some ideas about new product/service concepts and listen to the feedback
- Occasionally offer special deals to the community
- Understand that fragmented conversations happen and have the potential to leave the community - it's your job to follow them.
- Continue the conversation...daily, on-going, as long as the community exists. (i.e. DO NOT use the community for your branding efforts!)
So what do you think? Have you experience both kinds of communities? Do you think companies would benefit from engaging an organic community versus starting an inorganic one?
[Added: This post has nothing to do with tribes or Seth Godin....haven't even read the book review. I have had these thoughts for years after being an active member of three on-line groups and experiencing first hand what happens within them and how companies don't engage or appreciate organic communities that embrace their products.]
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