A funny thing happens when you write and publish an article. People respond. They reach out to you.

In my case, I had written a couple of articles about Community Managers Appreciation Day, and Justin Thorp, senior marketer at AddThis, reached out. 

It seemed like one particular aspect of my community management reporting caught his attention. I discussed the evolution of community management and how it's not only being adopted by more corporate marketing teams, but how they are learning to adapt it to their short-return return-on-investment mindset.

For instance, we cited the example of research that shows that associations that have community management tend to have higher retentions for memberships — great news for nonprofit organizations based on repeat membership.

Missing the Boat?

Thorp engaged me in a discussion about whether corporate marketers, with their conversions, KPIs and short-term goals, were missing the point about community management.

The best that community management can deliver upon is brand identity. Thorp didn't exactly say those words, but that is what he discussed.

Community management evolved out of the freeware movement. It's arose out of people who connected with something at a very core level.

They believed in freeware as much as say, someone would identify with veganism or libertarianism. It meshed with their world views and their views of themselves, of who they wanted to be.

The communities that sprung up around these communities fed these identities and shaped them.

The Branding Issue

Some companies already encourage powerful brand identities.

Think Apple and the people who wait in line for the latest iPhone. Think people who buy into the Nike swoosh or the power imbued by Under Armour.

VW used to have it. Uber and Airbnb are trying to develop it for sharers and sharees in their sharing economies. And more companies could develop it, strengthen it, through community management, Thorp suggested.

Now, what are the benefits of brand identity?

Thorp points to an organization like 500 Startups. The sense of community developed by the venture capitalists behind that startup accelerator acts as an attraction for some of the top startups around.

Entrepreneurs know that they can enter the program and gain the usual benefits — a time to concentrate and build their startup, learn from their peers, and have their classic demo day where they can pitch investors and raise funds. But after their time in the accelerator passes, entrepreneurs can forever tap into the community — to ask questions and receive answers, to seek partners and vendors and investors.

Now imagine if an e-commerce or a sharing economy brand could harness that type of connection.

Imagine if an old-world food company or brick-and-mortar retail store could harness it. It would lead to powerful repeat business and brand ambassadors. But brand identity — a force that touches people at their existential core — creates a gravity and a level of trust that few forms of marketing can generate.