As businesses embrace social media technologies, the ability to interact with communities has dramatically increased. Enterprise 2.0 may have started as a way of linking people to each other but has quickly expanded into a way to engage entire communities. This is both wonderful and terrible. It is wonderful because of the vast potential that communities offer in the way of collective wisdom, idea generation, purchasing power and message amplification. It is terrible because of the huge risk that comes along with attempting to engage a community and falling flat. Sometimes the community backlash can be worse than not having done anything in the first place.

To develop a strong business strategy and avoid common mistakes, there are three aspects of community and four principles of interacting with them that businesses on the path to social need to understand. In this article I investigate the three keys to community. In my next article (coming tomorrow) I will touch on four principles of interaction with communities. Together these help put business on the path to social.

The three aspects of community are:

  • Communities are more than social networks.
  • Communities are engaged by definition.
  • Communities based in real-life are different than those based in the online world.

Three Keys to Community

Communities are more than simple groups, teams or social networks.

Communities are people with a common bond. Where social networks are characterized by loose ties and incidental interaction, communities are characterized by strong ties and interaction that is sought out, set up and prioritized. This social bond at the core of a community can be anything. It may be a belief (JAVA is better than .net); a preference for a brand (Apple over Google and Facebook over all); a big geography (what country are you from); a small geography (where do you sit in the building); a shared experience (Google Wave was awesome / awful); a common goal (launch the product on time, find a bone marrow match). The active sharing of experiences and information around that core is a key aspect of community.

This means that business cannot effectively engage communities by simply setting up a Twitter account, Facebook page or corporate blog. Technology plays a part, but it is not the most important part in effectively engaging communities. Business on the path to social should understand that communities are not people who can share with one another but rather people who do share with one another.

Communities are engaged by definition.

The second key aspect of community is that engagement is assumed. Community members are engaged with each other around the topics, experiences, opinions and goals that define the core of the group. Think of it as a charter or mission statement for the community. It may not be explicit, but they all have one. This neighborhood community exists to have fun, share tools and watch each other’s pets. This technology community exists to share SharePoint tips and tricks and award reputation to members who provide valuable help. This passionate brand community exists to upload fun photographs and coupon codes for the brand they all love.

These are the community-values. Communities prefer to remain focused on their core purpose and actively try to prevent dilution of their identity. They become good at spotting inauthentic messages and interlopers. Shared values within a community lead naturally to a shared view and engagement with messages heard by members of the community.

Social businesses should strongly desire to engage with a community because, if successful, the communities will accelerate and amplify the messages, products and services or the business. The question is not whether or not communities will engage, but rather what kind of engagement will they act out. Pointedly ignoring lame attempts at injecting an advertising message into the community is the equivalent to a vote of no confidence. It raises the barrier for subsequent attempts at engagement by you, the outsider.

Conversely, communities are quick to give new things a try. Proving that your participation delivers something of real value to the community brings you into the fold quickly. Fortunately, businesses sit on a treasure trove of information and incentives that can deliver that value to the community. Giving away sample or starter code to developer communities is a great start for tech companies. Businesses on the path to social should work hard to identify the core values of the communities they wish to engage and then make sure that all interactions with the community are oriented along those trajectories.

Communities based in the real world are different than virtual communities.

Communities are very different if they are primarily virtual or primarily actual. This is a blurry line since virtual communities are still real people whose interactions are brokered by social technology. However, communities that exist and interact primarily in real life tend to be synchronous and event driven. This is true for communities of co-workers or a local book club. These communities tend to be personal, immediate, collaborative, conversational and human-oriented. This means that culturally governed mores are important. Greetings such as “How are you?” or “What’s new?” serve as introductory guidelines that must be adhered to before the “real” business of the group is addressed.

Conversely, virtual communities tend to be asynchronous, technology and virtual-location driven. The interactions between members of virtual communities are often topic threaded, time-shifted, conversations and informal information exchanges. Think of online community forums. People interact with what others have posted, not with others directly (trolling notwithstanding). Virtual communities have all or most of their interactions brokered by a technology -- keyboard, browser, webcam (maybe). Virtual communities tend towards virtual locations where they can engage with others. Websites, game forums and collaboration systems are the destination.

Signs point to a shift for virtual communities. They are becoming more like actual communities. As broadband and computing power increases, we are able to have more life-like and synchronous interactions with others across distance. Online console gaming (e.g., XBOX 360, PlayStation3, and Wii) is a good example of this. However, even real-time interactions are still brokered by our avatars, characters and the constraints of the game itself.

These differences provide important guidelines for social businesses seeking to engage communities that already exist. It is a lot of work to provide meaningful interaction with a community in the real world. You must show up, conform to the mores of the group and authentically add value to the conversation, work tasks, products and information exchanges of the group. However, the act of showing up and participating can go a long way to establishing credibility with the community.

Virtual communities can be even more complicated. While the barrier to engagement is low -- often just sign in and start posting -- the ability to get recognized and have your message taken up by the community is substantially greater. This is because there are so many other voices that the group filters kick in immediately. You might be “participating” without showing any results. Two strategies may help here. The first is to slog it out. This means actively participating in and with the community and building up credibility and reputation over time. This is a long-term approach but is very powerful at the end where credibility is high and reputation is widely acknowledged.

The second strategy is to cultivate a small cadre of existing community members, persuade them of your value and then let them spread your message more widely within the community. By bringing your message together with others, especially if those others are already key influencers within the community, your message can enjoy much larger exposure and uptake. The downside to this is that the focus is your message, product or service. It is not you. This might work great for viral marketing, but you will need to do the same thing all over with a new group of influencers the next time and the time after that and so on.

Once businesses on the path to social understand what communities are and how they operate, they are ready to engage them. There are four principles that the social business should keep in mind.

Conclusion

Businesses on the path to social have technologies that are more powerful than ever before. They have access to networks of people who use their products and services. Understanding that communities are not networks is important. Understanding that communities are engaged by definition is important. Understanding the differences between real world and virtual communities is important. These three key understandings are important because they guide successful identification, communication and interaction paradigms.

Tomorrow I will investigate four principles for interaction with communities. These principles are:

  • Understanding that business is already engaging with communities even if they don’t know it.
  • Enabling and empowering virtual communities in the real world.
  • Bringing real world communities online and doing it all with a strategy that provides the story-arc for your engagement.

Come back for part two as you watch your business bloom along the path to social.

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