Online communities: brand ambassadors, come on in!
In many corporate boardrooms and around water coolers, there is a lot of buzz surrounding online communities and social networks. I had a chance to participate in a very engaging meeting recently with a number of researchers at Pitney Bowes. The conversation was focused on communities including answering the question what constitutes a community.
What’s the definition of a community?
During the meeting the following definition of a community was developed:
A community is a group of people who share common interests and who are willing and ready to help one another.
I would add the word “value” somewhere in that definition. Community members need to see value in joining the group. This is often something brands and corporate entities forget when participating or developing communities of their own. While brands gain value from listening and participating in the community they must realize that in order to get they must give and continue to give.
Is Twitter a community?
Can you form a community with 10K followers you barely know?
I would argue that Twitter is definitely not a community for those who use it solely to advance their own agenda and have no desire to listen and participate in the conversation. For others who spend significant amount of time finding and building relationships in Twitterville, Twitter is definitely a community, but maybe of a different kind, an “open” kind where you are actively on the lookout for new members who can bring value to you and your followers. A sign of Twitter communities and their maturation is seen in the abandonment of once popular rule of choosing to follow somebody just because they are following you. Twitterers are getting choosy about who they want to follow – a true sign of a community at work.
Should brands participate in communities?
The issue of brands engaging in community building and development definitely ads complexity to what otherwise is a simple concept. Unlike individual community members whose goals are to share opinions, engage in information exchange and help each other, a company’s goal of “increasing the value of its brand” is NOT something the community cares about. The sooner you understand that and start sharing the goals of the community the sooner you’ll be trusted as a full member of that network.
Brands vs. Brand Ambassadors
No matter if a group is called a community or a social network, what makes it work are its members who are willing to spend time to build and nurture it. Can a brand be a valuable community member? Yes, only if there is a human being behind the brand logo. Better yet, if there are many employees who are encouraged to participate in communities acting as brand ambassadors. They’ll do a much better job of humanizing your brand and establishing relationships within a community than even the fanciest brand logo ever will.