Sorry but I’m not a member of your community

Summary : considering that one’s audience on the web is a community and treating it as such is more and more common. Is it always relevant ? In many cases the structure of the audience is very complex and can’t be reduced to a community approach. Most of time, communities are used to address individual issues, leverage a membership feeling that does not exist and, at the end, have a result that’s the opposite of what was expected and cause misunderstandings between brands and their audience….that’s seldom a community.

I notice that more and more enterprises, both on the web or by email, are now talking to me saying “dear community member” or “dear community”. I would not want to look asocial or be seen as an anti-community rebel, but it’s really starting to get on my nerves.

There are two reasons to that. First, I’ve seldom the impression to be a part of any community (at least those that think I am. I’m interested in what they do (for many kind of purposes…), period. But that’s not a important issue. In fact there’s worse : words have meanings and consequences. A community is something, a customer group is something else and an audience segmentation is a third thing. I don’t even mention isolated customers… The way one quality whom he addresses decided on the way they’ll be treated. In brief, by considering their whole ecosystem as a community, brands are making mistakes that may explain why they can’t get the most out of their approaches.

In my opinion, a community is characterized by a certain number of things, among them a shared interest toward something (ties between members and topic) and the will to operate together (ties between people). I’m sorry to tell that that’s not because your actual or potential customers follow you on twitter or self-declare as fans on Facebook that they are a community. The reason ? Most of times they have nothing to do the one with the other. That’s why, within communities, businesses can rely on a couple of passionate activists, the rest forming an inert mass.

In some cases, the group can turn into a community for a short time. For instance, when the majority of its members face the same issue and they get organized to fix it or weight enough on the enterprise so it will fix it. In this case, what made the transformation possible is the failure of the organization.To quote someone I heard earlier this year : “are all the people that go to the theatre to watch the same movie a community ? No. It’s rather a heap”. I’d add that if they don’t loke the movie or if it’s interrupted at the middle of the show, we may witness the formating of a  temporary but very actual community of those who want a refund.

That’s all as for ties between members. But the tie between members and the topic can be discussed too. Are communities brand-centric ? Not that sure…

In the post I mentioned above, I was wondering about what motivates fans. Real fans or people looking for recognition, attention gifts…even jobs ? Worth being checked. Most of all, some are not fans of a brand but of what it represents. Consequence : they are also fan of any potential competitor so their value has to be put into perspective as well as their “belonging”. A luxury car brand may have its own fans but also all people who are fans of exceptional cars…who are also fans of their competitors. That’s the same for airlines, restaurants etc… In theses cases, the brand community is a sub community of something wider that belongs to nobody and the brand is only a vector, a player who turns a passion into product.  So, can brands think they “own” such communities, be sure of their support, be sure that something exists between members that makes that the community is more powerful that the sum of its members ? Not always sure.

Conclusion :

• Many communities are nothing more than a group of people who join for their personal interest, without ties or consistency. Sometimes without even the will of forming a community.

• Many brand communities are communities of interest that exist through the brand because it has set up a community system and nothing more. So they are very volatile. Their members don’t like the enterprise as such but its industry, the kind of products it sells…and are also members of their competitor’s communities.

• Many community members are not here to give but to take. Their logic is purely individual.

• The easier it is to join a community, the weaker it will be. The engagement process and the effort that was needed at the time when members had to find each other and get organized has been replaced with 1-CLICK follow and like. What’s the value of such engagements ?

Finally, there’s no reason to throw out the baby with the bath water.There are true passionate people who want to share, help, support and collaborate for their own pleasure pleasure and, sometimes, to help their prefered brand. But anyone has to be cautious and refrain from imagining things are greater and bigger than they are : considering their ecosystem, their online audience, as an uniform and engaged group may ruin all their initiatives.

For example, anyone should have a look at what Bestbuy or Delta Airlines are doing on twitter. In addition to a global channel they also have one for customer care and others dedicated to precise issues. That allows them to have a specific approach depending on the need…and the related “human group”.

The latter have understood that not everything was about communities and that a brand community was not always relevant but that specific channels for some needs were.

Globally speaking it seems that businesses often consider they address communities when they talk to their ecosystem but when they start discussions, they have several one-to-one interactions, most of all when their online activity is about customer care. And since communication is more and more a service activity…. I let you draw your own conclusions…

It does not mean that all social media initiatives will fail. It’s important to identify and qualifiy the targeted audiences, their needs, and give them what they want instead of thinking that being cool and lovely with the ecosystem taken as a whole is a replacement for satisfying all individuals, one by one. “Dear community member” makes no sense when I want answers to my specific questions !

PS : don’t worry, there are true customer communities that work very well. They often have something in common : they used to exist before the brand tried to take care of them and work very well on their own without any help.

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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