This is a guest post from Tinu Abayomi-Paul.

When you hear the word “community”, even in the present context of social media and marketing, what comes to your mind?

Do you see faces of people you know, admire? People with common interests that you share? Or do you see nothing? Perhaps a faceless blob of usernames?

In the colloquial sense of the word, I belong to many communities, some of them overlapping. Yet it’s starting to worry me, this context of community when framed by the language of marketing.

Particularly in the case where companies identify a demographic and someone at the top executive level mandates that the company needs to “own” that market, via a sort of hi-jacking of that community.

I Belong to Communities

They can’t really be “hijacked” or “infiltrated”. However, they can be led, and their loyalties can be won, but this has to happen as a natural result of a kind of partnership with them.

How well this task is carried out has direct bearing upon whether these communities develop into rabid fan bases (see Apple) or just a group of people you’re tracking who barely move the cash needle (see any company that competes on the basis of price instead of value).

They are made up of people I go out of my way to advise, assist, appreciate and attend to when I can – not just when it’s required by the community manager/leader hat I have on that day. And I worry about this concept because there’s this false impression that a community is an entity that can be owned.

Like a thing.

Instead of a gathered group of humans.

This is a special problem of people who are asked to be community managers or leaders. More often than not, we rise through the community to come to lead it, even if it happens to also be a job title.

And as such, we have a sense of belonging to it – it’s what makes us ideal candidates, the rare individuals that had already started to lead the community before someone realized that giving them some monetary incentive could benefit them.

Parties of Trust

Whenever I’m asked to assume these duties, I make it clear that I can see both the side of the company that needs a return on its investment, and the community, that has certain needs and desires that must be fulfilled. And that these two things don’t need to be at odds if both parties are willing to trust me.

Yet at the same time, I notice that at some point, we’re also expected to have a standoffish, doctor-patient type of relationship with the people we may call peers, acquaintances, even friends. Not just by the companies, but by the community – for example, when settling disputes between members.

It can suddenly become an uncomfortable spot to be in, given that it’s only a matter of time before you are asked by the corporate body that funds the extra fun of the collective, to do something you believe to be against the best interests of the community.

  • Block a user from talking instead of letting controversial discussions play out.
  • Take a beloved resource you collectively built for years away from the people who made it successful.
  • Act on some marketing initiative before enough trust has been built for it to take proper hold.

Especially in social media, the way communities are increasingly treated as commodities is a step backwards. What is the point of social media? On the community level, isn’t part of it to create relationships? Of course there’s no illusion that a brand is going to be BFFs with its adopted collective.

But a community manager can often leverage a fledgling connection on Twitter into an alliance between two companies. Anyone in sales will tell you that buying is about relationships. It always has been – social media certainly didn’t invent this, but it highlights it. So much is based on that.

Customer influence and advocacy

And so many incredible, profitable partnerships can result from them.

Something as simple as a retweet can lead to a guest post by a respected thought leader. The smart ones will then willingly bring their community to where their work was published.

One simple example – but try letting your community champion repeat that process once a week for a year, and track how much the additional exposure leads to sales from that new audience.

The Patience of Community

Here’s the catch: that can only happen if your company can develop the patience to let whoever coordinates with your group of enthused, active people plant the seeds that result in those successes and let them grow. No one digs up an acorn every few weeks to see if it has become a mighty oak yet.

It has increasingly become my experience that it’s not that social can’t be effective for attracting new clients, or retaining the existing ones. It’s really that we business owners lack the patience it takes to truly grow and create a business rather than a series of one-off sales.

If we can’t measure a success 2.1 seconds after an action, it’s seen as useless and thrown away.

And yet, when I was in sales, it was routine for me to attend company-sponsored parties, and attend sporting events with prospects, not clients, to have lunch, meetings, phone calls for months before a sale was ever made.

In this instant gratification age, we need to remember that we have the unique ability to shift the investment that used to be wasted building relationships that never come to fruition into systems that work better and faster if we will simply resist the urge to snap to judgement, and wait for them to mature and ripen.

So my question to you is this: what can us successful community managers do to move the idea of community as commodity to a more realistic picture that reflects how community alliances can be a win for everyone involved?

Thought leadership and setting better expectations are two things that come to mind. But those assume you’re working with people who “get it”. What if our peers are not? What advice can you offer?

Or perhaps you disagree with me. Can we shift this idea? Should we?

The comments are yours.

Tinu Abayomi-PaulAbout the author: Tinu Abayomi-Paul is CEO of Leveraged Promotion, the first Hot Mommas Project Women’s Leadership Fellow, and a member of Network Solutions Social Web Advisory Board.

You can read more from Tinu at the Leveraged Promotion blog, or connect with her on Twitter.

image: Gwendal Uguen

Sign up for free weekly content

Enter your first name and email below to get my free weekly newsletter with the latest posts, recommended reading, content tips and more.

(I respect your privacy and will never spam you)

Blog consulting with Danny Brown

Comment Policy: Your words are your own, so be nice and helpful if you can. Let’s treat the guests (and that includes you) nicely. Otherwise, you will be moderated and deleted where I feel it’s applicable. Please, only use your real name and limit the amount of links submitted in your comment. Apart from that - have at it!

    Share Your Thoughts

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. says

    Excellent and timely Tinu. “the way communities are increasingly treated as commodities” especially resonated with me due to a number of recent community moderators permitting sponsors to infiltrate the conversations.

  2. mattlaurenceau says

    Randy Milanovic  the ecosystem of a community definitely includes partners/added value re-sellers, the tone of their engagement should be “helping community members”, aka showing value (to boost their brand and get more business out of it for sure)

  3. says

    Hi Tinu, some great points.  It’s a very difficult question that you pose indeed.  I think they key to building better communities, to borrow a dating metaphor, is to take the relationship to the next level whenever possible.  Move things from a Tweetchat to a real chat, from a blog post to a webinar, or from a message board to face-to-face meetings.  It’s not very social if we only see text and avatars, we need to hear and see people to build real relationships.  

    This very topic reminds me of a book I read years ago called “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam, where he argues that despite advancing communications technologies we are actually becoming more disconnected (thus bowling alone), and this has a serious impact on how we participate in civic life and democracy.


  4. says

    We all grew up in communities. We call ourselves Americans or British, New Yorkers or Londoners, Football fans, Dads…
    Our multiple communities are an important part of our support network – a feeling of belonging.
    The internet gave us a great gift here. The chance to choose community without being constricted by geography, social class or net worth. To simply connect with people who share our interests. To drift in and out of groups as those interests change, building a loose network or a tight one, whichever we prefer.

    But we are constricted by our old thinking. We think of communities as fixed – like where you come from. But they are more like shoals of fish or flocks of birds – moving fast and together but in inexplicable patterns. And, if you’re a brand, they can move away just as fast as they came.

    Far better to treat them as fish and develop a relationship with each individually than try to predict the behaviour of the shoal.

  5. says

    This is a great piece, Tinu, and a fantastic conversation starter on where community sits within marketing / sales / profit to a business.
    Where I think the blurred lines come into play is when the benefit to the community outweigh (or have the potential to outweigh) the “intrusion”.
    Say a toy manufacturer has a lower cost tricycle that low-income parents can afford to buy (because that business has off-set cost through their premium products, and want to give back to the community by ensuring every parent can give their kid a bike).
    They look to partner with the community by incentivizing the moderator / community manager / community spokespeople, to encourage that business has at least an entry point for discussion / promotion of this cheaper bike.
    Should that be “pushed back” against, because money is now entering the ecosystem? Or can communities evolve so – as you mention – everyone wins, and not just the business infiltrating the previously-untouched (untapped?) community?

  6. says

    PeterJ42  “Far better to treat them as fish and develop a relationship with each individually than try to predict the behaviour of the shoal.”
    THIS is exactly why I still don’t completely trust predictive analytics. Yes, we can look at archival behaviour and determine to a logical degree how a future action may play out. But there are so many disruptive elements around us in our day-to-day lives that it’s impossible to predict the action – all we can do is say what might happen. That’s not to say it will (or won’t), as the UK weather forecasters sadly found out a few years back.

    And then what happened?

  7. says

    Danny Brown Very cool, I had to study it at grad school so it’s a few years old, but the evidence Putnam provides to support his thesis is quite convincing – enjoy!

  8. says

    Excellent piece Tinu,  this is exactly the way we should be viewing the comunities we build via social media. I particularly resonated with the bit about digging up acorns! So many business leaders (probably for good reason) focus on the ROI and demand results linked to particular metrics without really getting to grips with the internal structure of the groups that are built.  The hard work is in casting the net wide without necessarily expecting this to be reflected in increased sales immediately.  Social media communities are networks and most of the time the people who will buy are the friends of friends and the first you know of them is the order.  In this respect PeterJ42 is spot on! We can see some spectacular problems with overfishing and the effect it has on sustainability! It is so tempting to view a following as a trophy or social proof and forget that in fact you are only a very small part of that followers life and as such the metrics are always going to be educated guesses.

  9. says

    Danny Brown It
    is always dificult to know a what point you introduce the “money
    thing”.  I suppose we all know that a business is bound to have an
    ulterior motive of some sort. We have learned the lessons of getting too close to power and waking up late in the day.  The world we are building now seems to be touched with the sort of cynicism which makes it very difficult for a company to display altruism with out suspicion but I think things are changing.  Word is getting round that the new technology we have can enable us to call fowl at much earlier stage and businesses need to be careful not to change what seems like a win/win into proffit stream.  I also noticed today that a certain clothing brand that built a spectacular community seems to have shown their feet of clay.  Consistent authenticity would appear to be the only way to go!

  10. says

    MartinGBEdwards PeterJ42  I would really love to see us achieve both. There can be a symbiotic relationship between a community and a company, not in the traditional sense of the word of course, but a connection can be maintained where we can look at both ROI *and* group structure. I would love to see you write more about the group structure aspect if you have a link?
    Love the term “overfishing too.” Thanks for commenting.

  11. says

    Danny Brown  I find that area so difficult to deal with. I joke on my blog that if you want to buy my opinion my price is $2.1 million. By that I mean that I’m not opposed to, say, having a relevant tech item like a computer sent to me for review, but I will disclose my true feelings on the item no matter what.
    Which is fine for the audience who knows and trusts me, but what about the ones who don’t? How would they know I’m not just a shill if I accept money or goods in return for reviews? 
    I believe that we Can evolve communities, but we need a framework other than compliance with the US FTC rules or similar bodies in other countries. 

    Those are great questions that I think we should all discuss at length. There aren’t easy answers here but they really do need to be addressed. Thanks for having me on your blog Danny, and for commenting.

  12. says

    MartinGBEdwards Danny Brown  I’ve noticed that cynicism too. It’s less prominent outside the States in my view. But it’s there, and honestly I think the suspicion is well earned. We can do a better service to people by marketing with truth, by being more upfront and transparent with communities without exposing companies to liability issues and the like. 
    But I also see instances where companies to everything we demand of them in the world of new media, and still meet with angry responses. Why should companies trust communities if we tell them it’s ok to screw up if they’re upfront with us, but when they do we turn our backs? Is that fair? Is some of the issue on us in our roles as consumers?

  13. says

    OpEdMarketing  I hadn’t heard of that book either. Thank you for that. I agree with you on taking things to the next level. Have written on that many times. I believe social is a great place to get Acquainted but we need to take more steps to establish an understanding Offline whenever possible. With hangouts, Skype, and the tools we have it doesn’t even have to cost a fortune. Excellent point. Thanks for commenting.

  14. says

    Randy Milanovic  I had a Very disturbing experience with that type of thing once that caused me to sever ties with a company. They weren’t being malicious but the ignorance was overwhelming. If we can’t create connections to serve and give to our communities, we don’t deserve their alliance.

  15. says

    Absolutely. We as consumers also have to learn that this new freedom brings with it the responsibility to be more tolerant of failure and not just be looking for opportunities to carp or claim. Although the example I was thinking about was more a breech of authenticity than a product or service issue.

  16. says

    Tinu I’m more than happy for MartinGBEdwards to guest post to expand on the group structure (and his bigger picture view) if Martin is up for it. :) PeterJ42

  17. says

    MartinGBEdwards  Was that the brand that compared how someone thought she looked at a sci-fi convention, and then had a comparison image that was less than favourable? Tinu

  18. says

    Tinu Thanks for those encouraging words Tinu,  I have’nt written anything specific on this yet – to be honest it was reading your article which focussed it but I have been mulling over the whole brand/authenticity thing for a while now so I will try to put something together.  I do see it as one of the big things that many companies struggle with when approaching social media community building.

  19. says

    Danny Brown TinuMartinGBEdwardsPeterJ42Just saw this as I was replying to Tinu! I am certainly up for it! I’m a relative newcomer to this writing business but I’d be happy to try to get some thoughts into a readable shape. Shall I send a draft over to you?

  20. says

    Danny Brown MartinGBEdwardsTinuIt was! I did’nt want to bandy the name about but it did seem to me that the problem was’nt so much the joke but the reaction of the sm team to the complaints. These communities can be very much like bubbles held together with trust and emotion, it does’nt take much to break them.  I dd write somthing about this on my blog which was comparing the Gerald Ratner debarcle to the current need for transparency.

  21. says

    I’ve started seeing unrelated sponsors being mentioned/thanked during HOAs, social marketing campaigns thinly veiled as follower-participation events and the oddest thing of all, lemming-like approval of the interruptions. Where’s social headed?

  22. says

    MartinGBEdwards HA! Ah, how I recall the Ratner speech (I was still living in the UK at the time). Man, talk about ripping down everything you’ve built in one foolish statement. 
    For anyone that’s not familiar with the Ratner case, it’s a great example of with poor training on how to act when publicly speaking about your brand and its products. Tinu

  23. says

    Randy Milanovic  I think what you’re seeing is the last swan dive of those “consultants” that have seen the social media gravy train ride out (you know, the one that needs no metrics or ROI validation), and now they’re trying to make one last buck before their fragile palace comes crashing down around them… 😉

  24. says

    Here’s one social event that’s producing a huge amount of activity for Canva.
    On the surface, magnanimous, though the benefits to Canva are enormous. Big name participants in the ‘free’ effort are Peg and Guy (who is also a Canca investor).
    I truly believe that had the original promotion stated that participation requirements included Canva promotion, many people would have participated anyway. However, participants did not learn of the Canva connection until committing to the exercise.
    I mention this only as my opinion. I trust all will take it as such and not sue me for speaking my mind, or gang up in me because they might be a fan.

  25. says

    Randy Milanovic  I’ve seen a bunch of these around the web and was curious about the genesis – is this a paid promo on behalf of Canva? It sure looks that way. And, if so, would appear to be in breach of FTC mandates.

  26. says

    Tinu PeterJ42  Try where I run four blogs on different subjects.
    But the real answer, these days, is no one person has all the ideas – all they have is a map to connect things and lots of nodes where there are experts. Danny, for example, added to my knowledge on Influence. Hopefully we can use eachother in the same way, Tinu. Nice to make your acquaintance.

  27. says

    Tinu PeterJ42  Absolutely. In the past there were probably only a few books on a subject. By knowing those, people could “own that topic”. That led to an “I know and you don’t” superiority complex.

    Now that anyone can pick up enough to catch you out on your facts it is far wiser to be more collaborative – an “I believe” rather than an “I know” approach. And we are all learning more as a result. Fun isn’t it?

  28. says

    Fantastic and timely post. I attended a conference last weekend and as I tend to do, I raised my hand and commented… a lot. What I learnt after the fact that people paid attention, and remembered. This is a group or community, mind you, of which I’ve been a member for well over a decade. I’ve never had a presence in it aside from a comment or two on a listserv. The parallels that I can draw here is that commitment and intent go a long way – true relationships are rarely built on a single conversation.