Community As the Ultimate Solution

Yeah, I know. That’s pretty ambitious and at the same time vague as hell. But really not so preposterous for a blog whose tagline is “hosting Web communities.” Anthropologists agree that our earliest ancestors lived in groups. Not in nations, not in counties or cities, but in nomadic groups. We can guess that it was a protection mechanism or an arrangement that ensured the survival of the clan through procreation. If we began as natural or learned collaborators, we should be able to call up that genetic history and collaborate in this age to ensure survival at a more local level.

There is a “brother” to this blog called Extreme Community. In it I will

Flickr photo by John Spooner

explore and track the re-emergence of community assembly as a crucial survival skill when the impacts of climate change make things, well, different. Local resources and support will rise in importance and neighbors will need to generate and  recognize their own sense of community amidst the disruption.

This blog, on the other hand, is much more about online community – Which I propose is the best outcome of the use of social media technology. The ideal relationship that businesses and member organizations seek is as fellow members of a community where some comment on the quality and usability of a product, asking for help and advice where needed while other community members listen and tailor products and services. In community there must be trust and sincere appreciation between members. Interactivity is open and transparent with loyalty growing through each satisfactory exchange.

Initiating a community is, for a business, a marketing and customer service challenge. Some products are just so cool that their owners spontaneously create mutual-support communities owned by the owners, not by the product providers. In most cases, though, the company realizes that its relationships with customers do not go as deep as the company would like. They want that ideal marriage of demand and supply at the personal level.

A Community Manager must draw on her experiences with populations that live socially online and exhibit a sense of community. Her job is to foster that sense and work to preserve it. She does that by communicating with members and transferring what she reads and interprets to the company, to inform its executives. Where that information leads to change, the Community Manager acts as a preserver of the sense of community – the golden egg of customer and buyer relations. The community, of course, is the goose in this metaphor.

A Social Media Manager – on the other hand – is more like a plumber and/or an aquarium keeper. Setting up social media pages, groups, sites, streams, etc. is a way to move and circulate outgoing information. That’s the plumbing. But there must be content to attract visits if not commenters and that’s where sprinkling fish food on a regular basis provides the metaphor. And that’s where the social engagement ends, depending on the quality of the content shared.

Setting up social media to end up with the dream community is very different. It begins and ends with consideration of the people who would be the community members. Less design time and more market research time is another departure. A Community Manager studies the social sciences and observes actual collective behavior to understand what kind of environment is most appropriate and conducive to conversation among the prospective customers and constituents.  The objective is – as we all now know – engagement. But the Community Manager must get beyond that false summit. The objective is to develop trusting, lasting, appreciative, sustainable relationships that serve the interests of businesses and customers alike.

If you think about this for a second, you may realize that such an arrangement will be impossible to achieve for many companies. Not all companies have appreciative end-customers who would join a “community” around their products. And not every company can afford to tell the truth about itself and its practices. Not every company wants to have its customers up into its grill.

My advice: Don’t take a Community Manager gig for unethical companies. You’ll likely be the face of the company and anger target when the truths are revealed.

If and when you find yourself logging in to your discussion space one morning to find an active message board and Twitter stream of supportive customers where “everybody knows your name,” you’ll feel at home in your title. Not home free – it does take a lot of maintenance – but home in that you’ve got the “sourdough starter” (Google it) for perpetuating that sense of community. You’ll also be working for a smarter organization.