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Building online communities June 23, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Communities.

Having already read and written about Naked Conversations (which, for anyone interested in how digital technologies are changing the way that businesses need to talk with their customers, is a must read), I thought I would delve into the topic of community, which is the subject of the supplemental readings this week.

The interesting thing about communities in an Internet age is the collections of people are no longer restricted by geography. Traditional communities were based around location — one could not reasonably build relationships with other people who lived a significant distance because it was difficult to interact on a regular basis.

This is not true today.

Online, geography is not the only factor that shapes community. Just as important (and often more important) in shaping community online is shared interest. Wikipedia notes that the fact that geography is not the sole determining factor in the definition of community has made the idea of a virtual community a contentious one.

The fact that geography does not limit online community means that niche communities that can’t exist in the real world (because the people interested in such a community live too far apart from each other) can evolve. It also means that professional communicators who want to have “naked conversations” with their customers can build communities online for them.

O’Reilly offers great foundational principles for PR practitioners who are interested in building a community for a client:

  • Exist for a reason. This is foundation to any business decision. You should never make a community just because it is “cool” or because it is “what people are doing now.” There should be a practical purpose for existence, and the community should fill a need of the members.
  • Users draw in other users. Communities are organic. They form on their own through word of mouth of members. PR practitioners can help increase awareness of the existence of a community, but members must make conscious decisions to join themselves. Current community members are the best recruitment tools for community.
  • Mischief is inevitable. There are bullies and mean people in real-world communities. These people exist online as well. Also, be wary that those who might not have the courage to be bullies in real-world communities might feel emboldened to be pushy by the anonymity and distance that the online community offers. Robin Miller makes a good suggestion for dealing with these people: let the community police itself.

Overall, community is a good thing and can be a powerful way for professional communicators to create meaningful engagements with their audiences.



1. John Bell - June 23, 2007

In Web 1.0, communities were defined and facilitated by message boards or listservs. Today, there’s a lot more variety to what we recognize as community. Social networks like eons.com are communities (with subcommunities inside); but so are breastfeeding moms who rally around their own blogs without being “members” in some more formal federation.

How we, as marketers and communicators, can leverage communities isn’t always clear but you make an important point that there is an organic quality to them that must be respected and cannot be “gamed”.

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