Your Group Might Not Be a Community and Here’s Why

This is the first in a multi-part series I’m putting together around the concept of Community within social media.

Community is a term that gets thrown around constantly within the social media space. Typically I find that it’s used to express the basic value of an investment of resources in an online social network. When we think about it, community is at the heart of any social media strategy which is why terms such as “Influencer” and “Advocate” matter so much. The power of social media marketing lies ultimately in the ability to transmit large scale messages in ways that seem personal and authentic. The recipients of those messages are labeled one’s “community”. That’s why we call individuals who maintain our social channels “community” managers rather than social media managers.

Where did this come from? I think that as marketers began to realize the revolutionary power of social networks they grasped for a term to describe this new way of perceiving the customer base and “Community” seemed to fit. On the one hand, I believe that the introduction of this term was a boon to social strategy because it made certain that there was a continued recognition of the human-relationship element within our strategy. It has also allowed for the introduction of social science theories into the world of business and marketing (which is actually how I ended up in this space–but that’s a story for another time).

But on the other hand, there’s a highly problematic side to the widespread adoption of the term “Community”, particularly when it comes to the job title of community manager. Simply posting social media messages and responding to posts does not create a community. A community taken in that sense is superficial at best and artificial at worst. No one can actually “create” a community. The power of a community comes in the form of a social network. To harness the power of a community, it must already exist in some shape or form and this is why every social strategy must begin with extensive research and listening. There must be a reason for a community to exist and it cannot simply be because a brand decided to start tweeting.

Community is a concept as old as human society and refers to a segment of individuals possessing some type of unifying characteristic, such as proximity, norms, interests, or heritage. Communities endure and are seen as greater than the sum of their parts. If they are broken, it is a traumatic. Groups, by contrast, can be loose-knit and a function of a time and place.

Social media of course has loosened up some of these concepts and shifted our conception of what relationships look like. For example, I have yet to meet in person some of the individuals I consider close friends. But even though they some aspects have shifted, there are still sociological and psychological roots to the formation of a community. And if those roots don’t exist then no amount of managing will make them appear.

It’s essential to define what is and what is not a community because it ultimately effects what a social strategy can accomplish. A loose-knit group that shares common interest space with a brand can be powerful in its own right. In fact, I believe that many of the online “communities” out there built around brands should by all rights be called groups. Groups can make social posts go viral, engage in lively discussion, and follow a brand on multiple social channels. Communities, however, are where relationships are formed and trust is built. They are where the real potential of social networks lie and, as I’ll discuss in part 2, why few organizations have yet to harness it.

Stay tuned for my next post which will discuss how a community gets built out of a group.

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