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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  • Hi John,

    Thanks so much for your thought-provoking comment. I wonder if, when many people talk about communities, we don't actually mean cohorts or gangs or age-sets or what have you. Having said that, you may well be referring to the academic literature of internet studies, which I haven't delved into ... yet.

    Your post is a great place to start. Thanks!
  • I am a social anthropologist and, perhaps predictably, wary of the notion of community (and all its variants, including 'communities of practice') as it is a heavily ideologically loaded word and I don't think it tells us much about actual sets of social relations, see Amit and Rapport (2002) The Trouble with Community. I've written about the overuse of the community notion in Internet Studies here:


    I look forward to your views

  • That's a great definition Jake, must get around to actually reading The Cluetrain Manifesto!

    Just to push back on what you've said - is it because people love the brand more than they should, or because the brand facilitates them meeting other people who they then love more than they should?
  • A community is a set of people who care about each other more than they should - I wish I'd said that I didn't it's from the cluetrain manifesto.

    They care about each other physically, emotionally and spirtually - they care for each other's welfare

    Business has always been about communities, the disconnect started when we started calling 'them' customers or 'consumers'. If a person cares about a brand more than they should and has a place to meet others with a like mind, a community will flourish.

    Does business really want communities? They require work - it's easy to control and tell.
  • Thanks guys - maybe I am feeling a little cynical today but I don't think revenue always comes from people talking. Social media are the online equivalent of parties - and they often actively shun monetisation. If people are in dialogue for social reasons they are not necessarily open to advertising or welcoming of brand messages. Further, social media drive price expectations to zero - so we are even more resistant to paying money.

    Don't get me wrong - I am as into social media as the next guy and have done my share of raving about it. I have even had to reduce my spread it got too crazy. You mentioned Ning - I 'm a SWOMie but can't help feel its a tenous link between me as a community member and those who ultimately have to wear the platform cost.

    Share prices in this space are not really based on revenue either - the big money is banking on future revenues; i.e. a lot is taken on faith. The herd mentality there is not unlike the property market - although at least in property there is intrinsic value. I love the experimentation and the human phenomena it highlights - I just worry thats its all a little deja vu.

    My position is that if we are thought leaders we need to encourage entrepreneurs to not forget revenue models in their business plans for communities - unless they are all volunteers and its a public service.

  • Thanks Tony and Ben, great points there.

    Ben, I am indeed thinking of making the next post about how to create (or facilitate) a community.

    Tony, you ask some good questions about how a community is funded. Ben's right, there are many, many free platforms available to enable online community. Services like Ning.com have a premium version, plus each network is funded by Google AdWords. Small money, but ultimately self-funding as the same core functionality is used across all communities.

    For companies that want to start a community, whether it's a roll-your-own or using someone else's service, the real value comes when the community starts to find its own direction. The good ideas that come from connection will create opportunities. How to do that ... will be the subject of a future post.
  • @Tony

    Fair points.

    Who pays for the community?
    Depending on the nature of the community. In all likelihood the company wishing to spur on the community would cover the cost. However there are many [online] options available for free. Where companies are just happy to have you creating your community on their platform (as this in turn is creating a community for them).

    Where does the revenue come from?
    People talking. Look at the share price of Google / Apple / Blendtec. Get people talking. Sales will happen.

    How can i overcome Hosting / Functional development costs
    You can always bootstrap it. Create a Facebook Page (free), a wiki on Wetpaint.com, a Squidoo page on Squidoo.com, a social network on Ning.com. There are plenty of options that are provided for free. They handle all hosting / development costs.

    In summary, if there is a strong enough need for a community it will create itself. Sometimes you need to spur it on, or give it a slight nudge. Revenue comes from people talking. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing. Providing a community also creates a story, a story for users to tell themselves, 'i belong to x' and a story to share to others, 'hey in this group we've been talking about'. As communities are based around attention there is always going to be a model online, as hosting/development costs are so minimal (virtually marginal cost of zero) to add a new social network / facebook page.
  • It is certainly a powerful concept - that your market can neatly organise themselves and spread your word. And that the inherent honesty in user views means only the most worthy services get the word of mouth exposure and endorsement. My nagging concern is - who pays for the community? Few require membership, so where is the revenue? Is it only advertising? (and if so, won't this eventually select for the most lucrative markets/communities?) Even if content is co-created, there are the hosting and functional development costs. If the shortfall is being met by investment capital it feels a little bubble-like. I wonder how many communities will falter under basic economic stresses.
  • Community is key. As part of our psyche we like to feel part of a tribe. By leveraging that inner need, organisations are actually helping the customer feel a sense of belonging. You see this through online media with many individuals belonging to various niche groups over different platforms. It allows us to participate in many communities based on our needs. The global platform of the internet provides the mechanism for doing this. You should do a followup post on creating a community?
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