The Value and Meaning of Community In Marketing

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

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