So you think your brand has a community

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I thought we were done with this matter but I recently heard or was even part of discussions that did not reassure me. What are we talking about ? The improper use of the word “community”. Not because overusing buzzwords bothers me (even if…) but because when we name things the wrong way we manage them the wrong way or only do half the job.

An audience or a segment are not communities

Over time, I have the impression that community managers have replaced webmaster. From the moment people read what a brand says, interact with it, ask it anything, they are a community. They are the brand’s community.

An that’s a mistake.

It’s an audience. They are clients or prospects. Among them maybe there is a smaller community. But that’s not even sure.

A community is focused on a brand (in these cases it’s fans) or the product or service category the brands delivers. In this second case the community can be older than the brand, shared with its competitors (ex : an airline may have fans but it also shares the community of travel lovers with its competitors). And there are people who buy a given product without passion or interest, just because they need it. They are customers. Nothing more.

Not every community member is a client, not every client is a community member.

A community interacts within itself, either the brand manages it or not, it’s alive. To some extent, a community can’t be managed, it has its own life and what the brand has to do is to be accepted by the community. When the interaction is vertical (brand to community and vice-versa) and not horizontal (member to member) you don’t have a community but an audience which name you changed to look modern and give yourself the impression that people love you. And when the interaction is only top-down you’re just doing old-school communication, no matter how you name your audience.

But you can’t  handle a onlooker come for an utilitarian purchase and a true community in the same way. They don’t have the same expectations nor the same purposes. One won’t adopt the same posture, the same tone of voice, the same tools or KPIs (remind that a lurker can be a potential client while sometimes the member is not, one can buy without passion just by need while passion does not always lead to purchase…it’s a matter of means and the impossibility to accumulate too many competing goods).

Mistaking communities and the mass is the biggest segmentation mistake a brand can make.

User communities ? Not for the general public.

Users communities have been around for a long time. Historically they can be found in the software industry, taking the form of best practices sharing, technical help, use case sharing. Communities can also be found around some products but not as much as one can think. And when a general public service claims that its users are a community, it may be a good way to please oneself or please the user and make him forget theat either he pays either his personal information is being monetized because he’s the product.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on Facebook from a person complaining that Facebook has removed a content he shared because it was not compliant with the rules of the Facebook Community. That’s really taking users for idiots.

Facebook hosts communities but is not a community. If the Facebook community existed, it would have wrote the rules itself and, in my opinion, the rules would be very different that what they are today. Ready to try, Mr. Zuckerberg ? Let’s consider your users like a community and co-create the rules with them ? Afraid of trying ? So don’t say community rules but terms of use !

Last, considering clients as a community because they are clients is window-dressing. It can be true for very exclusive products, not for common ones. Are you a part of the Sony community because you own a TV ? A part of the Unilever community because you use toilet rolls ?

The community manager at the heart of crisis management ?

I was recently told about an unprepared community management facing a crisis. I won’t elaborate on the fact that when it comes to crisis management a plan must exist and that community managers must follow it, not built it. It’s a C-Level matter, not a community management one.

However, community managers have a role to play in such situations. The community is not the group that needs to be reassured the most. But fans want means to protect the brand, arguments, but the “industry community” wants sound facts and evidences. But fans will the best relays to spread the word.

As a matter of  fact, what’s critical is the mass, not the engaged fans. The mass is directly addressed by the brand and indirectly through the community. Leaving the community only in charge of spread the message can leave lots of people on the side of the road.

Claiming to have a community is presumptuous

The truth is that communities are here, they exist, are numerous, alive, active and powerful. But except a very few strong brands or iconic products, most of the people a brand interact with is a formless mass, with diverging interests and having no special feeling towards the brand. Two populations that require two specific approaches.