26th March 2007

"Your Community Already Exists"

Lee Lefever recently posted Online Community Lessons from SXSW and Community 2.0.  It’s a nice summary and well worth reading.  One piece jumped out at me in particular:

Your community already exists: Know that your customers are already a community. You have an opportunity to offer something to customers that other web sites can’t: access to the people and news that have the power to change the products and services they care about. Serve the community that exists and offer them access to things they cannot get elsewhere. This was partly a point from John Hagel’s keynote, well documented by Patty Seybold.

I really like the simplicity and the depth of this quote and wanted to explore my interpretation just a bit:

1)  Know that your customers are already a community. 

I liked this in particular because it acknowledges an often missed core principle of community development.  Take a look at the shear # of posts and discussions about "building an online community" (here are 3.7m hits on search.live.com).  The point here is that you are not building a community because your users don’t have one…they do.  In fact, I’d say by definition, a group of individuals who have purchased your product/service are a community.  They may have very loose ties to one another (and you), but they do share something in common - they use your stuff.  Your opportunity is to explore how deepening those ties between them AND with you creates a win/win situation.  Remember, they don’t need you to commune with fellow users - those communities already exist.

Test yourself here:  Does your company see 3rd party community sites about your products as "competitive" to your own community plans/desires?  If yes, why?  This is a warning sign you should explore more.  Imagine why those sites developed - someone was SO passionate about your products that they built a destination to gather and discuss with other users - they should be your best friends!  Yes, it’s independent content and may not always reflect positively on you - but that is the point…that’s part of why it is good - and be honest, not everything you do is a good idea.  Caveat: Some 3rd party communities morph into something more like journalism than users helping users.  This is a topic for a future post - these situations require additional consideration. 

2)  You have the opportunity to offer something to customers that other web sites can’t:  access to the people and news that have the power to change the products and services they care about.

This is where you have the opportunity to deliver on the win/win.  The formula here might be different based on your business/product/industry - or maybe not.  But you need to write down what you get from developing your community and what your users get - the old give/get framework - and if it looks out of balance - you have a problem.  If it benefits you too much - your users won’t stay.  If the balance is too much towards your users, you may not stay.   If you have a home run on your hands - you’ll see some of the same things written on each side of the balance sheet.

To me, the ultimate destination is to earn an emotional connection with your users (recommended reading:  Kathy Sierra).  Of course, this is much easier said than done, so I’ll apply my translation.  You have to participate.  You have to listen.  You have to embrace criticism.  You have to accept input.   And maybe most importantly, you have to be a PEER in the community.  Bottom line:  You have to demonstrate respect - when you’ve done this, you earn trust and the community grows.  This won’t come from a good speech or blog post, but is only earned by the actions you take in supporting your community.

How do you know when you’ve won their hearts?  They recommend you.  They stand up for you.  They offer solutions or suggestions with their criticisms.  You’re talking "with them" vs "at them." They are no longer "them."  In other words, you know their names, interests and specialties and they are learning yours.

In the end, it’s not really that complicated.  What you uniquely have to offer your users are relationships - bi-directional connections that listen, respond and make changes based on the conversations.  They bought your "stuff," so isn’t this the goal.  Yes, we are all afraid of the scale challenge - you can’t have a relationship with everyone - but there are ways to manage this once you’ve decided on your intent.

3)  Serve the community that exists and offer them access to things they cannot get elsewhere.

Remember, don’t look at those 3rd party communities as the enemy…look at them as part of the portfolio of options that exists for your users and decide what you can add to the portfolio?

  • Specialized content
  • Access to experts
  • Escalation to formalized support
  • Pre-release (beta) access
  • Feedback systems connected to the decision makers
  • Indemnification - this one is tricky - but some advice in some situations will require you stand up and assure your users of the advice they are getting.
  • Aggregation:  Of all those 3rd parties we were talking about:)

Coming soon:  We need to talk more about "segmentation" of community users.  Much has been written on this, but I think it’s an important follow-on topic as it can help you with scale and may dictate how you structure your give/get framework as well as the add on services I described in #3 above.



Popularity: 12% [?]

This entry was posted on Monday, March 26th, 2007 at 8:51 am and is filed under Business Strategy, Community Development, Influencers, online communities, web 2.0. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There are currently 10 responses to “"Your Community Already Exists"”

Why not let us know what you think by adding your own comment! Your opinion is as valid as anyone elses, so come on... let us know what you think.

  1. 1 On March 26th, 2007, Chuck Boyce said:

    good stuff.

  2. 2 On March 27th, 2007, Damon Billian said:

    “Know that your customers are already a community.”

    And many organizations seem to miss the fact that Customer Service contacts should be considered “community”. Just because they aren’t operating on a public forum when contacting you doesn’t mean that these folks aren’t part of the broader definition of community.

  3. 3 On March 27th, 2007, Sean said:

    In fact, if you were doing an amazing job with your communities, how many customer service calls might not materialize as people self solved through search or better navigation to peer answers.


  4. 4 On March 27th, 2007, Steve said:

    In fact, I’d say by definition, a group of individuals who have purchased your product/service are a community.

    Does an act of consumption - and I don’t just mean buying stuff, but also reading a book, listening to a record or watching a video, etc — really make someone a member of a community?

    Consumption is essentially a solitary act; when I read the new Ian McEwan novel, I am communing with the author — if I’ve read his previous novels, this is actually part of a continuing relationship with him through his work. But if I don’t join a book group to dicuss it, share my thoughts on a blog, write a letter to the NY Times Book Review, the consumption is solitary. If I buy a Coke, drink it and discard the can, my relationship to the Coca-Cola Company and the community of Coke drinkers is a closed loop.

    I think there’s gotta be some secondary action on the part of the consumer, a self-defined barrier to entry, for identifying with, and becoming part of, a community; even lurkers have to take the action of typing and URL in a browser or registering for a site.

    If you accept that, the focus then becomes on motivating people to take that next step beyond simply buying your stuff. Ideally, they do that voluntarily because of what you discuss in points 2 & 3. But even if it’s through necessity and forced by a negative experience — like having to call for support — it’s still a step into the community, as Damon well points out.

    Love your perspective on 3rd party communities, incidentally. I hope that philosophy enters the mainstream of corporate thought during my lifetime. ;-)

  5. 5 On March 27th, 2007, Sean ODriscoll said:

    I do think those scenarios are still community. You are part of a community of consumers who drink coke. It just so happens that little to no communing is taking place (for you) so niether the community participants nor coke is gaining from it. You made me think…check out www.coca-cola.com - there is A LOT of community going on there, including a pretty cool user generated challenge. You BET Coke is working SUPER hard to drive participation from people like you in that community. No different actually than MS products. More customers just use our products and never join/participate in the community than do. There is some semantics in here and/or chicken/egg discussion that may or may not be useful, but I like the thought.


  6. 6 On March 27th, 2007, Steve said:

    That’s my point: “You BET Coke is working SUPER hard to drive participation from people like you in that community.” If I just buy Coke everyday, that’s good consumer marketing and delivers some small incremental return to the company. If they persuade me to actually engage — join a mailing list, enter a contest, create a video — it’s community building, increases my CLV and begins the journey to transform me into the kind of “defender” you describe above.

    It’s all about identification. If I buy Windows, you may see me as part of a community that uses Windows. But that’s irrelevant until I see myself as part of that community, and, at least for me, that’s not in the act of purchasing, it’s when you compel me to engage and particpate. Like I do in this blog. :-)

  7. 7 On March 27th, 2007, Steve said:

    Yikes, bad HTML! Please excuse the bold text.

  8. 8 On March 27th, 2007, Sean ODriscoll said:

    Fair enough…I do think this is a bit of semantics. I think the larger point is that for (dare I say) most products and services the community does already exist. How you define it might depend on your goals. What I think companies need to think about with caution is not assuming they are the ones building the community, it is there - the corp needs to participate in it and maybe support it with venues/destinations/etc, but to the extent it is possible to hand “ownership” or stewardship of that community to the community itself, you should. Perhaps a litmus test…everytime you here someone say “our community”…check them. Did they just make a statement of possession/control or did they real mean the “collective” our?


  9. 9 On March 28th, 2007, How do you segment your community? « Community Group Therapy said:

    […] 28th, 2007 At the end of “Your Community already exists,” I promised a follow up on segmentation.  So much has been written about this that I […]

  10. 10 On November 16th, 2007, A guide for those that are new to this blog… : Community Group Therapy said:

    […] Your Community Already Exists […]

Leave a Reply

rss posts
  • Categories