12: Amplifying Your Message

The concept of communities is not a technological concept, but a sociological one: people have always existed and interacted in communities based on common characteristics and/or interests. Similarly, it's presumptuous of brands to assume that they are the creators of online communities: they may facilitate interaction or channel conversation, but they do not cause it to occur in the first place.

Said another way, creating an online community does not cause discussion to occur, but merely provides a forum to gather discussion that is already occurring, The failure of brands to create online communities has less to do with the tools they provide than with the fact that people simply are not interested in having public conversation on a given topic.

In regard to creating/fostering community, the author intends to consider the following topics:

Communities and Influencers

A community is a group of people who interact with one another. It can be a short-term gathering of people who rally around a cause, with intense and frequent interaction over a short period of time and disbanding afterward, or it can be an ongoing community in which interaction is shallow and infrequent over a long period of time.

A community is based around an actionable need, and there is generally a blend of people involved - chiefly, those who need help and others who give help. The author suggests that the "desire to help others is driven by nothing more than just that - a desire to help." (EN: I don't agree there's "nothing more." Those that give help achieve something for themselves, whether it's a financial reward or a psychological one. If you ignore that and accept a "just because" rationale, you will fail to identify the very factors that fuel and sustain a community.)

Three basic characteristics are listed:

  1. Advocacy - Members of the community seek to attract and recruit new members and advocate for one another
  2. Connection - in addition to being in touch with one another, members of the community leverage their connection to those outside the group when additional help is needed
  3. Reputation - The reward for sharing expertise is esteem within the group and greater personal influence for those who have what others need
  4. Trust - A fourth that is mentioned a few paragraphs later, but is also a critical characteristic, is that members of the community have faith in the expertise and intentions of others

There are other characteristics, some are specific to certain kinds of community while others are more general, but these three are foundational: unless they are all met, then the community will fragment and fade. Where a community is disorganized and chaotic, with little interaction and a high number of inactive or absent members, it can often be traced to one of these core characteristics.

On the topic of disorganized chaos, what follows is:

A larger community will often divide into factions of splinter groups, which is often perceived as a sign that the community is losing its cohesiveness and is on the verge of dissolution. This is not necessarily true, as it merely reflects the division of interests within the community. On the positive side, smaller groups with more specific interest should be of specific interest to marketers: their narrow focus makes them especially receptive to messages that are relevant to their specific interests.

While the community, in aggregate, is a sizable audience and provides a great deal of information that can be analyzed, you should pay special interest to the "initiators." These are individuals who have great enthusiasm for their subject of interest, and who keep the community going by initiating conversation.

Creating a community from scratch requires a great deal of effort. Until (and unless) you can find or create initiators to drive the conversation, it will require a great deal of effort to attract people and get them to interact. Some random thoughts:

In some instances, you may find that you are unable to commit the resources necessary to getting a community off the ground, and may need to accept that you will not be able to build your own community, but instead will need to focus on creating buzz in other communities. (EN: This might imply it's a choice of one or the other, but my sense is that even if you build a community, generating buzz across other communities is still a valid goal.)

Generating buzz in other communities is similar to generating it within your own: you have to identify the key people who will drive a conversation, and get them talking.

A passing mention, a bit off-topic but worth keeping in mind: "The voice of the community can often drown out the official message from the company." In fact, a single individual can have a very powerful voice if he reaches the right people, who spread his message and attract the attention of others.

The author refers briefly to the "cluster effect" in social networks: people congregate where others already are; they buy what their friends recommend; and they use the product that their friends are known to use even without recommendation.

Members of a community are similar in their attitudes and behavior, whether they consciously or unconsciously adopt the behaviors of their peers, and whether they consciously or unconsciously create or reinforce these standards.

Leveraging Interest in Social Causes

Social causes have the ability to gather attention quickly online. The author provides a few examples of Facebook memes that spread quickly because they were tied to a given social cause - for example, there was a rush of interest for breast cancer in the UK spawned by a meme in which women would post one-word status updates (the color of their bra) and, when people inquired, they mentioned the cause.

Another example is Zynga, a Facebook game company that produces Farmville and other popular games. In response to the earthquake in Haiti, the company offered players the ability to purchase limited-edition game elements, donating the proceeds to disaster relief programs. This resulted in over $1 million in donations.

Companies have also rode the coattails of charitable causes by paying people to spread the word. For example, Haagen-Dazs ice cream offered to donate $1 to a cause if people included a hash tag in their posts. Because it was a charitable cause, neither the company nor the tweeters incurred the stigma of paying for publicity - but the brand got a lot of publicity and swelled the ranks of its followers in social media.

Recording and Tracking

There's a brief mention of the desire to record and track activities in social media in order to validate the investment in social media initiatives as well as to evaluate the success of a given campaign.

Unfortunately, all the author has to offer are aggregate considerations of specific media: to use a search engine or tracking service to measure the number of weekly or daily mentions of your brand in specific forums and assume that the increase in positive mentions can be correlated to an action you have undertaken.