What is a community, and why do I need one?

June 23rd, 2008

Community is one of the buzzwords of the early 21st century.
It’s one of the possible C’s that Generation C stands for. It’s the subject of conferences , books and blogs . But do you understand why community is so important to your business?

Dave Bassett of BrandNew reckons our traditional communities are fading away or fragmenting into pieces, and this leaves a sizeable gap for brands.

But how do brands fill that gap? And why should they?

What is a community, and what isn’t it? This is a question we’ve been exploring both at iJump and in our work with A Bigger Voice . Here’s my current thinking on community, as it relates to marketing.

3 levels of community

1. Marketing leverage

For a business the first and most obvious role of communities is marketing. Ten years ago Geoffrey A Moore defined a "market" in Crossing the Chasm :

  • a set of actual or potential customers
  • for a given set of products or services
  • who have a common set of needs or wants, and
  • who reference each other when making a buying decision

People intuitively understand every part of this definition except the last. Unfortunately, getting the last part – the notion that part of what defines a high-tech market is the tendency of its members to reference each other when making buying decisions – is absolutely key to successful high-tech marketing.

Moore’s writing about high-tech, but in 2008 most markets are saturated, and Crossing the Chasm applies to most new products. Essentially, he’s saying the cost of reaching every potential customer directly would be prohibitive, which is why you target a community who will spread the word about your product among themselves.

It makes perfect economic sense to exploit the natural sharing behaviour of a community to drive positive word of mouth. But that’s only scratching the surface.

2. Loyal fans

Everyone hopes for the kind of loyalty enjoyed by Harley Davidson or Apple. What started off as simple word of mouth becomes passionate loyalty, which translates into less marketing expenditure, and more predictability around purchasing patterns.

How do brands get here? Through courage, consistency and fanatical attention to detail. Both the examples I’ve used employ high design standards, both in terms of products that are easy to use (although I can’t say I’ve ridden a Harley) but also products that communicate a certain, ineffable attitude.

This kind of brand loyalty is a great place to be. But it’s not the best place communities can take you.

3. Co-creation

The world of business is only just discovering how communities can transform everything, finally enabled by the internet.

The divisions between consumer and producer, expert and novice, amateur and professional, are blurring. Business owners and marketers can either feel threatened by this, or become a platform to help your customers do what they want to do.

When you are genuinely working with your customers, ideas like market research and new product development change. Instead of campaigns and surveys, you have an ongoing conversation (a topic which came up at the recent Interactive Marketing Summit ) which in turn saves costs and reduces risk. Now that’s a language any business person can understand!

For more on this topic of co-creation, see my piece in Idealog about a year ago.

Is a Community an Audience?

In marketing, PR and communications we’re trained to think in terms of audiences. It’s the church paradigm I use in presentations. The old model was pulpit up the front, where the preacher delivers the word to the waiting, silent audience.

Solomon’s Porch in Minnesota is different. They meet in an old Methodist church building, but they’ve ripped the pews out and replaced them with a circle of couches. Architecture sends a message, and they wanted to send a message that encouraged conversation. Power is not in the hands of one man up the front, but in the community of listeners and talkers.

If a church – one of the most tradition-prone institutions around – can make such a radical change, do you think businesses can start thinking this way, too?

Audiences buy things. Communities make things happen.

That’s where my definition sits as of today. Let’s see how that definition develops as you, the iJump community, pull apart this post in the comments!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Symic

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Jump In! #3: Boyd Wason on Communities

December 13th, 2007

iJump cofounder and catalyst Simon Young talks with Tango Communications’ managing director Boyd Wason about:

* how to engage audiences using social media
* which social networks are “hot”
* how to create a marketing strategy that really engages

Subscribe to this podcast for free at http://feeds.feedburner.com/GetJumpin

Can’t see the video above? See it on MySpace, MetaCafe, DailyMotion or Blip.tv.

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