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Are online communities really communities at all?

Posted by Joe McNamara on 4th June 2014

Social media strategists and those who would describe themselves as digital marketers and PRs are obsessed with the concept of ‘community’. Whether it’s building a community, engaging with communities or my personal favourite, identifying a community, there’s nothing we love more than a community.

In the old days if you wanted a community you went to church. Now we go online, which seems to have confused the hell out of a lot of people. So-called communities are popping up left, right and centre. Can they all really be communities?

Well here’s a really annoying trick an English Language student taught me. People really hate it when you get your dictionary out. Having looked in mine, I see the definition of a community is:

“A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.”

That’s right. It’s not exactly the same as all the people who have decided to like your brand on Facebook or follow you on Twitter. According to Facebook I like the Spice Girls (I do quite like the Spice Girls) but I’m not a part of the Spice Girls community.

There’s no question that engagement on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn is activity that can help your build a community, but I would hesitate to call them all communities in their own right. Really, it’s an audience – it’s a step up from a list of subscribers and it gives brands more direct access to people (and vice versa).

The ‘communal value’ of every social network group has to be judged case by case. But I would argue that people liking your status updates and entering competitions to win free products is no community.

At what point do you truly have a community?

Having a particular characteristic or interest in common is the key component here. A true online community is where people flock to the same place to talk about something that interests them. Facebook and Twitter may think they’ve taken over but they haven’t at all. My friends are not my community. People who like the same bands as each other on Facebook are not a community. Apple’s Twitter followers are not a community.

The true online communities are two very different corners of the internet. One, a dinosaur we thought had died along with Myspace and MSN messenger, the other a fresh, new concept that excites social media aficionados no end.

Online forums are true communities. These are places where people with specific interests go to share ideas, problems, news or just have a general chat about a specific area of life. I will re-emphasise this point over and over. People sending ‘angry tweets’ to train companies or posting on Virgin Media’s Facebook wall because their connections are down are not members of a community.

Forum users, on the other hand, are the people who look for answers about your brand, advise others about your brand and discuss the industry in which your brand operates. The likes of Sony and Vodafone have enviable social media followings, yes, but where are their true communities located. You got it – on their websites, in their forums, where they have trained super users answering questions and true enthusiasts getting excited about their brand’s activity. That’s a community.

Niche social networks are another place for communities. Look at Twitch, and Ravelry. These are successful social networks for people who want to watch online video games tutorials, share their university experiences with fellow students only and knitting enthusiasts respectively. These are the book clubs of the internet.

What does this mean for PR and marketing?

Don’t think I’m saying we should move our digital marketing efforts away from platforms such as Twitter and Facebook – far from it. Furthermore, clever brands can build real communities on these platforms, particularly Facebook through a group where members can share advice and content with fellow brand enthusiasts.

However, it’s important not to lose the sense of what a community is. Ultimately, your PR, marketing and social media activity can be seen as a way of converting your audience into your community. To drive engagement, you’ll have to identify the people who are interacting with your brand and make them feel good. A popular tactic employed by the likes of Sony is to train super users who can offer reliable advice to other community members.

Online communities are grown organically – just like communities in real life. It starts out as a few people who give a damn about something and grows from there. It’s up to you as a brand to provide the ammunition for your early adopters to start getting their friends and colleagues involved. And that’s where all the content – every tweet you send, every competition you run and every whitepaper you write – comes into play.

Photo Credit: lumaxart

Joe McNamara