It's no surprise that I have community on the brain lately. Mostly because it's my job, but I'm reflecting a lot on how much this role is starting to shift organizational mindset toward social media. In fact, the idea of "building community" is often many companies' first thoughts when embarking on all this stuff.
So here's a list of a few small bits of community building you might do today to get you started down the right path.
1. Cultivate Your Existing Network
People aren't bottlecaps. Just collecting a pile of them for more eyeballs isn't the foundation for a strong community. Instead, what fosters long-term growth is the fierce loyalty of a connected, tight knit few. Is your community small to start with? That's okay. The quality and impact of a community has nothing to do with its size. EVER. Focus on them, and on bringing them what they need from you. Growth will happen.
If a community is what you really want, take the time to lay the proper foundation.
2. Tend The Outposts
If you're going to have a presence on Twitter or Facebook, it needs tending, participation and presence from you. It's not like a "set it and forget it" kind of thing where you just expect people to show up and do you the favor of paying attention. You need to invest in each of the sites where you maintain a presence, which means less is likely more. If you don't have the resources to blog AND be on Twitter AND Facebook and make it a valuable experience for your community (which often isn't the same definition you might have for value, at least at first), forget it. Stick with the gardens you can tend. Really, it's okay.
One or two engaged networks will always be more valuable than trying to be everywhere, and doing it poorly.
3. Understand The Definitions: Measurement, Impact, and ROI.
Community metrics aren't always valuable in and of themselves. How many followers or commenters or members or whatever you have isn't where the gold is. Those are just statistics, and on their own, they mean little.
What matters is how the nature of your community impacts the work that you do. That means that you can have 25 members of your user group but if ALL of them refer 5 new customers every year because they love you (even if they don't buy from you themselves), your community is *highly* impactful. Impact is about more than just revenue. It's about what influences - for better or worse - all of the qualitative AND quantitative areas of your business, across the spectrum (not just PR or marketing or whatever).
When it comes to measurement, understand that in order to measure something, you must understand a) where you're starting from and b) which business goal you wish to drive with your results. Until you have the two of those well articulated, measurement will always elude you. Measurement is about determining the impact of your efforts on business goals. Determine your starting line and where you want to end up. Then you'll know what you need to measure.
As to ROI, the purest definitions are about the ratio of dollars invested in an effort to the dollars brought in through that effort. The social web also argues (and I think rightfully so) that "return" and "investment" can be articulated in terms of things like human resources, time, volunteer hours, loyalty, etc. It's a bit of a new take, but then again, I've never been one to say that the old rules should never be changed. But make no mistake. Measuring "ROI" always needs to have a return relative to an investment.
4. Give Up On "Scaling"
Quality, fruitful and long-term valuable uman interactions do not scale. If you want more human relationships, you need more humans on your team to create them. The end.
I'd give up a community of 10,000 sheep to have a community of 10 empassioned advocates any day of the week. And I promise you my balance sheet will reflect it, too.
5. Be Real and Human, Always. And Put It First.
I can feel your eyeballs rolling, but hear me out. Many people confuse this point.
Being human doesn't just mean being friendly about your crappy sales pitch. I know plenty of super nice people that still try and sell me junk at every turn. What happens? I don't trust them, because I'm always wondering what their new angle, is, no matter how outgoing and friendly they may be.
Being truly human and authentic requires two things rarely discussed in business: patience and faith. Faith that being good to people reaps its own rewards, even if the growth cycle is longer. And the patience to wait that cycle out, knowing how valuable and fragile trust is, and how much stronger your business will be tomorrow as a result of nurturing it. We don't like leaving things to chance. But relationships, when well built, aren't chance. They're insurance. They just take investment.
6. Listen Carefully. And Deliver.
Your community will tell you what it needs and wants from you. Some voices will make sense, others will be shrill and ranty. You know the difference.
But do listen. Pay attention. Consider carefully the ideas and thoughts and suggestions you're handed, and decide which of them can bridge the gap between your wants as a business and your community's needs as your support network (and, incidentally, your revenue stream). It's about symbiosis and mutual benefit. You're not always right. Neither are they. But a little dialogue and attentiveness can go a long way to finding common ground, and building something of greater collective value.
7. Stand Aside.
Some of the strongest communities are the most interconnected and vibrant among their members. You don't always need a leader, but you often need a connector. Ways and means for people to find one another to have a relationship outside of (and often in spite of) you. Your value isn't always in connecting people to your thing or your stuff. It's often in connecting them to each other based in mutual interest, and discovering that their affection for you is because of that bridge, not because of the thing you have.
You want things that engender loyalty? Often, they have nothing to do with you being the center of attention, and everything to do with your creating something of importance that's a bit more broad than your business or brand. Put yourself in your customers shoes and ask what you'd look for.
I chose the word "sensible" for a reason. These are some fundamental building blocks for community longevity, but they're not easy. They're not small nor even simple sometimes, and I know there's a whole pile of you that are going to say "yeah, but my company doesn't get why that's important".
Then here's the truth: your company isn't ready for this. Community is not an entitlement, it's earned. If you want me to tell you how to justify the need for community to your boss, I'm going to ask you first to tell me why they need convincing. Then I'm going to ask you why YOU think they're missing the mark. Then I'm going to tell you that all the tools you need to make the case are right here on the vast interwebs in places like here and here and here and here and here.
Not everyone will have a successful community, nor should they. Communities are formed out of curiosity, but survive because of purpose and affinity.
If your company isn't ready, that's okay. Be a bricklayer instead. Form the foundations and be a mindset leader, not a tactics leader. Revolutions have been started with less.
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