If You Want a True Community on Social Media, You Have to Create It

To Get the Customers Truly Engaged, Marketers Have to Get Past 'Likes' and Embrace People's Passions

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Don't be the one to allow your clients to confuse "community" with social media. Marketers too often mistake tweets, follows or pins about their brand as validation that they are building a community.

This past Easter, I experienced community in a profound and refreshing way. I was at church with my family. My nephew and godson, Matthew, is a severely autistic, strapping 16-year-old, and while the priest was conducting Mass, he took it upon himself to run up to the altar to blow out the candles.

What happened next surprised me: The priest asked Matthew over and announced to everyone that it was awesome to see one of God's children celebrating the Resurrection. As the priest began to clap, the entire congregation joined in and clapped simultaneously for over a minute in celebration of Easter and of Matthew. It was very emotional, not because Matthew is my family, but because this community in a downtrodden neighborhood in North Jersey joined together in unison.

Easter with Matthew made me think of marketers and how they need to be reminded about what real community looks like. After all, from their customers' point of view, interacting online requires minimal effort and many times, minimal thought. Seriously, how much effort goes into a click or share?

Marketers also get seduced into thinking that because people buy their product they want to congregate around it. Consider the all-too-common rationale: Since my customers are carbon-based life forms and they purchased my product, shouldn't they be connected to everyone else who also bought my product, and for that matter, shouldn't they engage in interaction with everyone who happens to "like" my product? Are we all deluded into thinking that current fans, followers and others are truly an engaged community? Aren't most of them simply sending virtual high-fives our way in exchange for a promotion?

That day in church reinforced the idea for me that the strongest communities are structured around shared beliefs, emotions and goals. They are places we trust and where we're inspired by support to participate. On the social web, marketers have an opportunity to guide and foster powerful exchanges on any number of issues and areas that are relevant to their audience. The most enduring communities are ones that recognize the commonalities of their audiences and embrace their passions.

Years ago, my agency was working with SoBe beverages. We aligned the brand with action-sport athletes and health-conscious consumers who cared passionately about their sports and their bodies and thought it was important to give people space to engage with one another and interact with the brand, online and off. This strategy encouraged loyalty and intimacy with the brand and led us to arguably break a new category. For SoBe, it was the right approach because the audience was demanding a forum that celebrated their commonalities.

Today, I see MyStarbucksidea.com as an example of solid community building. Starbucks recognized that its customers -- as different as they might be from one another -- were passionate about not just coffee, but the "experience" of being at Starbucks and what might be possible with new products. The community, MyStarbucksIdea.com, continues to generate thousands of ideas and real discussions about ways to improve Starbucks. It's brand listening and consumer co-creation at its best. It works with social media because Starbucks is social: You work there, date there, eat there, cry there and listen to (sometimes) crappy music there.

As agencies, we have to be honest with clients and help them figure out how big or small their footprint should be in an ever-expanding social universe. Are we crafting community strategies with the brands' objectives truly in mind? Marketers should take the time to step back, look at how many things their consumers have in common and build social presences around what their customers care about and why they are connecting.

Real social media community building isn't simple. It's not an add-water-and-watch-it-grow kind of activity. It took my nephew and a North Jersey parish at Easter to reinforce for me this very basic truth.

Anthony DelMonte is founder and president of Squeaky Wheel Media, New York.
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