Hundreds of brands, from Amazon to Uber and Walmart to AT&T, built transformative and supportive communities in cities around the world from soup to nuts in 2018.

If only this were true.

Certainly, countless organizations have declared it so. And you have likely seen the words “community,” “connection” and “belonging” plastered on all kinds of brand communications over the last year. If you’re like most people, you read those words, shrugged and moved on.

Many brands have claimed to “build community,” but very few have succeeded in meeting the fundamental requirements of such a lofty declaration. Instead, most organizations have built something resembling community that isn’t really a community at all.

Related Article: How Community Managers Can Add Value to a Digital Transformation

Mirage Community

When we look closely at many so-called communities, all too often we find what we call a Mirage Community. A mirage community may look like a community to outsiders and the untrained. But those who are close to it can easily see it’s not the real thing. Mirage communities miss fundamental infrastructure and deliver none of a community’s powerful outcomes for members or organizations.

A Mirage Community is defined as a group that aspires to form community, and may even call itself a community but lacks fundamental elements that constitute a community.

It’s no surprise then that mirage communities fail to deliver positive community and organizational results.

Why Mirage Communities Don’t Deliver on Expectations

Brands often use “community” as a catch-all term to describe an audience or group of returning customers. There is nothing wrong with audiences or customer groups, especially those who are loyal. Mirage Communities just don’t constitute a community without additional and appropriate investments and also do not have the same organizational outcomes that actual communities do.

Often, instead of building community, organizations invest in creating groups. Most of us are involved with lots of groups. An advocacy campaign (say advocating for clean Oakland streets) may never build a community, but as a group, it can serve a rich and powerful role for Oakland. The danger comes when we can’t distinguish between groups and communities and we expect more from a group than it can ever deliver.  Or we fail to invest in a group to grow a community (say an Oakland streets cleanup community) and then despair at the failure.

Specific infrastructure must be in place to both build and support authentic brand community elements, beginning with a shared decision and definition of community inside of your organization.

What Is a Brand Community?

In our work and the work of those before us (Muniz and O'Guinn, 2001), a “brand community” is (first) a community that is (second) inspired, created or influenced by a brand. In this context, a brand means any identifiable organization. This can include a for-profit, non-profit, political or otherwise driven organization.

An authentic brand community includes all of these elements:

  • Members who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare.
  • Members who share an identity founded in values (at least one value).
  • Members who participate in shared experiences reflecting the shared values.

Successful brand communities serve both members and organizational goals. Consider Salesforce’s “Trailblazer Community” for users, Harley Davidson’s “Harley Owners Groups”, and Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters” fan community.  Each organization has invested in ways that tie stakeholders (customers and staff) together, which grows all three elements. No surprise then that both members and the organizations get value, but building successful brand communities like this always takes years.

Related Article: Can Harley Davidson's Community Revitalize the Brand Yet Again?

Are You Building a Community or a Mirage?

If you are now wondering whether your own efforts are closer to Mirage Community than authentic community, ask these three questions to clarify and identify what you’re building so you can invest your resources accordingly:

1. Do members care about one another’s welfare? If yes, you have the makings of a community. If no, are you ready to invest in helping people make these connections?

It’s OK if the answer is "no" and your organization is not yet ready to invest in helping people care more deeply about one another. You may not be building a community, but you can now invest strategically in something else, whether that’s list-building, influencer marketing, advocacy software or a one-time event.

Learning Opportunities

2. What value(s) or identities do your members share? Is this value or identity separate from being a consumer of your product or service?

If the answer is no, again, that’s OK. Either invest in researching what your potential community members have in common beyond their consumption of your products and services or spend your time on other worthy projects.

3. Do members come together again and again through experiences that your brand facilitates?

Building a brand community does not necessarily mean your members must all be members of one online forum. But if people only participate in one experience with your brand, only interface with your team, or otherwise do not connect with one another to deepen relationships and outcomes, then you are not building a community. Again, there is no shame in that. Creating incredible customer experiences, giving customers the support they need one-on-one, or strengthening ties from customers to your staff are all worthy pursuits — they’re just not how you create an authentic brand community.

Related Article: Memo to Facebook: A Platform Isn't a Community

Why This Matters Now

When we ask individuals inside organizations how they define community and how they themselves understand its importance for their roles, confusion abounds. Most are hard-pressed to define the term for their work. Often the best they can conjure is: “Community is good for people.” That’s hollow at best, and meaningless at worst. It can lead to internal and external confusion, resentment and ambivalence.

Consumers are more skeptical of advertising and community building efforts by brands than ever before, largely due to the promises of connection from large corporations like Facebook. It’s vital now, perhaps more than ever before, that we take that skepticism seriously and invest in community authentically — or not at all.

Of course, it can sometimes be hard to identify “real communities” unless you get closer to them and see their infrastructure. Many brands, including Google, Toyota Motor Company and Samsung Electronics, invest in communities within their larger brands, which may or may not be visible to the general public. Because they invest in the above three fundamental elements of a brand community, they see incredible results, from reduced support costs to innovation to valuable product feedback.

Finally, the point of defining real communities and separating them from mirage communities is not to ensure that your company can fit what you already built into a definition of community that is convenient for you and makes sense to stakeholders in the existing terms of business. Instead, it’s to dissect carefully the needs of your organization, the needs of your potential community, and only invest in building community when it makes sense for all parties. Otherwise, we will continue the perpetual cycle of extraction, commoditization and distrust that has brought us to a crisis of trust, according to Edelman research, in so many of our institutions today.

We must recognize Mirage Communities to reach clarity on what to build for organizations, where to invest effectively and how to remain honest in our intentions. Real communities take more and often different investments. These investments are worth making, but they are impossible to make if you don’t even know what it is that you are creating.

Editor's Note: This is an extended version of a previous post by Carrie Melissa Jones and Charles Vogl