The Desert of Community Building

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The following is draft material for my next book, Welcome to the Fifth Estate (the follow up to Now Is Gone, which is almost out of print). Comments may be used in the final edition. You can download the first drafted chapter of the new edition — Welcome to the Fifth Estate — for free.

One of the most crystallizing moments of my online career was when Ike Pigott said social media was an organic process. This analogy struck me as inherently true, in large part because of the significant amount of time and care one has to invest in building an active community. Like a farmer who invests love and labor day after day watching her/his fields slowly yield beautiful fruits and vegetables, community developers must tend to their community and build relationships through thoughtful interactions, valuable content, and empowerment methods.

Most marketers and communicators fail to realize the imperative of engaging the Fifth Estate as a group of people just like them. Instead they analyze their consumers, and how media like Google and Facebook change with widespread adoption.

I have a friend, Meryl Steinberg, who says that when she signed on to Twitter and Facebook she didn’t sign on to be a consumer. Her sentiments mirror many others on social networks who find themselves literally assaulted with marketers’ messages trying to persuade them about the values of their wares or causes.

These communicators analyze the data hoping for the home run. They hope, even expect that when they launch their social media the results will become their own Haiti fundraising phenomena or that they can reproduce the Old Spice viral success. And they might, if they work hard over time (as John mentions in the Old Spice case study), and infuse that special mix of creativity, intentional stakeholder centric approach, and yes, timing.

When the light switch goes on and engagement begins, often the Fifth Estate does not respond. The seeds have only begun to be planted. Relationships don’t crystalize over night. Movements take time. A vast majority of organizations don’t experience overnight successes online.

The road can be long and hard, and at times, a communicator can feel like they are walking through a desert, hoping desperately for an oasis. This is the point that many organizations quit, letting their social effort lie fallow.

It’s important not to deceive one’s self about the significant effort and time one will invest to build a community, and then continue to invest in order to sustain it. The Fifth Estate requires continued interactions. As mentioned in the second chapter, the time and human resource commitments are real and significant. Have the patience to see it through, from start to finish, and the deserts that lie between moments of great interaction. Knowing this from the start helps.

5 Replies to “The Desert of Community Building”

  1. People are often startled at how much work relationships take, whether romantic or family or platonic or the kind that are fostered by online communities (which often seem to feel like a weird combination of all of the above.)

    If you go into all your relationships with the belief that you are responsible to hold up more than your end — that you should go further than 50% of the way — you will find that the other side often reciprocates and draws a bit closer, too.

    Communities respond similarly, in my experience. If they sense that you are putting the time and effort in, they’ll give you time and effort in return. Maybe it won’t be 50/50… but it won’t be 0, either.

  2. Having spent the past 12 years helping the Care2 community grow (now 14 million members), I certainly agree it takes time. And it also takes a lot of work… but I think there’s an important nuance to that statement that is often overlooked.

    In the early stages of community building, the person cultivating the community must initiate conversations, facilitate interactions, set expectations, etc. In other words, the site requires a leader to build community. However, once things start to gel, the leader must step back and fade into more of a support role. This allows other members of the community to step up, feel a sense of ownership, and each play their specific role in the community.

    This is why we seldom see large brands build true community. The aura of the brand, and/or the personalities of the employees hired to “build community” over-power/ dis-empower the potential community members. People may “participate” for a while, for recognition or other reasons, but with a strong community leader everyone else is a follower – and most of us don’t get too excited about yet another place to be a follower. We each want to own our our little role in the community, and when lots of folks start feeling that sense of shared ownership, we have community.

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