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Somatica Social ComunityIt's still happening! Brands are doing their best to manufacture social communities using the social web with varying degrees of success. The majority of 'forced' online communities would appear to be made up of family, friends and those willing to give support...but not really going anywhere.

How many such company-originated Facebook groups have you seen that are genuinely thriving and active? Most don't really go anywhere, but on the rare occasion some really do take off.

I've tried to analyse why and I think there may be a need to go back to basics; your feedback is most welcome on these thoughts.

It struck me, when sitting with my family in the middle of Thetford Forest, waiting for Mr Paul Weller to come on stage and do his thing, that we were part of a mini community. 5,000 plus people had descended on a remote part of East Anglia (All parts of East Anglia are remote aren't they?) and were sat in a forest, chatting and sharing.

In fact, several groups of people near us were readily offering food and drink to my daughters; even offering them blankets because of the evening turning a little chilly. (Make a mental note to feed and clothe my children properly.) This then led to conversation and laughter; there was a genuine and wholesome community vibe happening. So why was this? Could there be something to learn here that brands could use for making online communities a success? I think there is...

There is a whole load of theoretical research on social communities; the wisdom of crowds; herds etc. and there is a chap, Bernard Cova who part wrote "Consumer Tribes", who analysed macro and micro communities in the real world as opposed to virtual. A lot of this community spirit does come down to geography and being local.

Of course, the Web, being World Wide, throws that out of the window. But there are other elements which play a part online and I believe these should be at the forefront of mind when any business, brand or organisations wishes to create or become a member of a virtual social community. Essentially, I believe there are three basic ingredients which need to be in place and continually focused upon in order for a community to really be a community. Here they are:

  • Common Interest. Sounds obvious right? A common element that everyone in the community is passionate about. Passionate enough to spend time talking and writing about it and reading and listening to others talk about it. Reality Check: Your brand may not have reached such dizzy heights and may not have the pull required to form a community.

    Does this mean then that your brand cannot be the central common element of a community? Most probably yes. But don't worry. Your brand will be/can become part of a wider community. You will be operating in a market or area where there is genuine passion around something; maybe a specific technology; gadget; eco friendly product; specific fashion type or genre etc.

    There will be something your brand can be associated with. Therefore, become part of this community, listen, be active and contribute...don't just take. Communities can give you the cold shoulder if you do.

  • Common Enemy. Sounds harsh doesn't it. However, being part of something is one thing, but standing against something else does tend to stir the emotions and passion a little more. Something that directly opposes the beliefs and values of the community (for whatever reason) can build a stronger cohesive unit. You only have to look at local opposing football teams to see a strong example of tribalism, which easily transfers itself online. A more relevant example is probably Apple and Microsoft, or Linux v Microsoft...extreme passion is demonstrated in both examples.
  • Status & Recognition. As well as being part of a community and "fighting" for a cause, there is always a pecking order in such groups. These communities, whether in the real world or virtual, need organising and leading so that they can stay focused on a common cause and be updated with the latest news and developments.

    Community members are motivated by being recognised for contribution they (Maslow stuff) make and are energised by seeing their contribution recognised and acknowledged by others. If their contribution isn't recognised it won't be long until individuals become disenchanted, so it is important to ensure community leaders are continually aware of this. Ever been followed or DM'd on Twitter and not responded?

    Those people who wanted to initially interact can't be seen for dust and are probably telling others how disenchanted they are. This also applies to you as a brand as part of a wider community; going back to the first point; you want to be noti ced and recognised so good contribution will help you improve your pecking order and achieve this. Your status will improve.

Econsultancy is a great example of a social community. Loads and loads of people coming together as individuals and businesses with a central common interest of learning and discussing digital marketing (and all that it contains) so we can apply these learnings to our work and be successful. What is our common enemy? This isn't so obvious. Is it the perceived "ignorance" of those old school marketers and senior exec's who just don't get today's online world? Maybe. Is it the need to justify the investment in using the right mix of digital/web techniques and the social web to prove that this stuff really does work? Probably. Is it the insatiable desire to stay ahead of the curve and be as innovative and trail blazing as possible? Could be. Or quite simply that we don't want our customers to have a bad engagement experience with our brand? Sounds cheesy...but probably also a yes. In fact, most likely a combination of all these and some others. We all like a bit of recognition for good contribution...why am I writing this?!! It would be good to hear anyone's thoughts on this post, whether you find it useful or you totally disagree, all comments and opinions are welcome. I personally feel that when we start to discuss "social media strategy" we can put our blinkers on and forget about the basics and the bigger picture as a whole....and I've also missed half of the Weller set!
Karl Havard

Published 19 June, 2009 by Karl Havard

Karl Havard is a trainer and contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter and connect via LinkedIn.

21 more posts from this author

Comments (9)

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Ricky Buchanan

Interesting! Is there really so little written or researched on while online communities fail? It's such a pervasive thing I would have expected lots - not that I've ever looked.

Also, another factor I think is important is critical mass. You need a certain number of people in your in-group to generate buzz and interest and discussion and feedback.


over 7 years ago


Gerry White

@ Ricky

Actually Sift Media (Bristol, UK) did an excellent presentation comparing communities with offline communities, they have a lot of experience in this field - unfortunately they have since deleted the presentation (or at least not left it publicly available where I can find it).  It talked about storming, norming, forming and went on to show how communities can be shaped and managed....

over 7 years ago


Tom Olleron

Social Networks are nothing new and neither is social media. A crowd at a gig is a social network and the printed line up is a form of social media. A family round a kitchen table is a social network and the fridge magnets with "don't forget notes" are that communities' social media.

Each one of these networks has an unwritten code of conduct that if not respected will cause an adverse responce from the group. It always amazes me how complicated everyone tries to make this.

I enjoyed this article (I'm a big Weller fan for a start) but I think there's a 4th point which is Real World Interaction. What is exciting about Social Networks is the sharing of real life experiences and the more often a network meets in real life the stronger those bonds are between the individual community members. In business, face to face meetings covers miles whereas phone/email/IM etc covers meters - a clunky analogy maybe but the fact remains if you want a community to work it needs to work offline.

I'll add the caveat that I'm sure there is a "We'll Never Meet In Real Life Social Network" but real life is a crucial part of the mix.


over 7 years ago

Karl Havard

Karl Havard, Chief Strategy Officer at Econsultancy Guest Access TRAININGSmall Business Multi-user

Tom, great comment. Thanks. One brain and 5 senses - online communities can't tap into all senses where as real word communities engage everything. Maybe we're looking at stimulus as well as common interests? This could be very powerful for planning such an engagement strategy i.e. it can't be online alone, it has to cross the virtual/real world divide. Probably why the T Mobile thing works really well and gets everyone talking and smiling about it.

over 7 years ago

Geno Prussakov

Geno Prussakov, Founder at AM Navigator LLC

Excellent one, Karl. And having that "common enemy" factor, while not necessary, is definitely important. Great observations!

over 7 years ago


Bob Kaufman

Good topic choice, Karl. I would ask whether you agree with two related ideas.

First, isn't it fair to say that communities will thrive only when the value of participating is higher than the time/cost involved? Research into reciprocity rings show that the fundamental value of many online communities is that the cost of helping or sharing information is much less than the benefit of being helped. Think, for example, about getting an introduction on LinkedIn which might result in a new job. The cost to the friend who made the introduction is far less than the benefit to the person who got the new job as a result. Or think about getting travel advice from someone's who already invested the time and money to visit the destination; the cost of providing that advice or review is alot less than the value to the person using the review to make their travel planning decisions. 

This is the same type of network effect that makes eBay fundamentally valuable. People are selling things they might not use anymore. They get cash they otherwise would not have gotten, and the buyer gets an item he needs for less than it would have cost to buy it new.

The other thing I would throw out for consideration is that it's possible to create community even when your brand would not seem to hold that potential. Think about the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, as an example. Few people would probably bother to participate in a community discussion around soap. But you can stimulate community around tangential issues/ideas that people do care about.

over 7 years ago

Charlie Osmond

Charlie Osmond, Chief Tease at Triptease

Hi Karl,
Your post reminded me of the Sasquatch Music festival dance guy. Have you seen this YouTube video? It's a great example of one man creating an instant following. Well worth 30 seconds.

The two key things I'd add to your list of "must-haves" for creating sustained online communities are:

  1. Community engagmement plans- If you're trying to create a community, you might get lucky and have the right things in place for it to take off with little effort. But not wanting to rely on luck, when we build online communities for brands we put together a formal seeding plan and work on gradualy building traction with the right stakeholders in a systematic manner
  2. Ongoing Community Management - This is frequently overlooked. Moderation (i.e. taking down bad language) is not sufficient. Building engagement takes time and effort. We have a team of Communitiy Managers and involve them in every community we build.

Charlie Osmond
FreshNetworks - Europe's leading Online Community providers

over 7 years ago

Karl Havard

Karl Havard, Chief Strategy Officer at Econsultancy Guest Access TRAININGSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Bob,

I think your first point really depends on the motivation of the individual concerned. I would politely argue that not everyone wish to take in a community. The act of giving and improving their status within the group is sometimes more than enough. When I used to play football (a long time ago) there was a chap called Malc'. He was not a player, didn't train, yet always volunteered to put the nets up and take them down; mark the pitch; sort out the lighting etc (you get the picture). I asked him why and he was a little taken back...he wanted the Team to do well, he'd lived in the town all his life and believed with all that he did he could help us achieve better results. He was right, and the team started to include him as a real team player, even recognising him at the end of each season. He loved it...and it was more than enough for him.

The Dove campaign (specifically the video) was fantastic creative, not sure it built a community around them though. I believe what Dove did was to become a voice for "real people" and hence portrayed the level of makeover and falseness that some brands will undertake to create the "wow" and showing it in all its glory. It was a sort of "outing" with the aim of helping people feel comfortable in their own bodies whatever age, shape or size. By taking this bold step, Dove brand association did extremely well as it appealed to the vast majority of people. I hope that makes sense.

Charlie, thanks for your comments too. How coincidental! I have the Sasquatch Music video on my personal blog. It's a demonstration of the "Tipping Point" in one short video. My signature links to the blog should you or anyone be interested in viewing it.

over 7 years ago


deep well pump

This is the same type of network effect that makes eBay fundamentally valuable. People are selling things they might not use anymore.

about 7 years ago

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