Community is a very rich word that means many different things at the same time. It evokes a powerful set of images which are both highly personal and deeply cultural at the same time. That only makes sense, given how important community is to the social animals that humans are at heart. Yet for all of this, community as a concept is still a hard sell as an guiding principle for businesses sometimes – a concept that I’ve been building my career in social media around. That’s a real shame, and not just because I need the work. The traditional and well understood concept of community is what makes the buzzy new world of social media effective.
Leaving aside the powerful images and long history for a moment, community is nothing more than a term for people who work and play together. They may live close by and can’t help but see each other on the street and at the store, or they may choose to hang out at the same bar or online chat space. What matters in community are the connections that are made and constantly reinforced between people.
This is a powerful concept for businesses. Any store of any kind needs to have a regular stream of income that is going to pay the monthly bills on a regular basis. It’s always nice to have a big hit from some kind of buzz based on fashion or coolness, but in the end it’s always the regulars who depend on you that keep you going. The word of mouth rep that any business generates from its community develops slowly, but it’s essential to a stable, profitable business over the long haul.
Social media works for businesses because it reinforces that rep and moves it out into the world a lot faster than simple gossip. Community centered thinking is essential for developing a social media strategy because it keeps the business owner focused on a strategic use of the many social media tools. It’s really that simple.
There are many new ways for any given business to get their message out into the world. The trick isn’t finding cheap ways of advertising that come naturally in the developing world of social media – the payoff comes from using them effectively. That’s where a concentration on developing a community pays off.
What makes this difficult is that the most common definitions of community rattling around in people’s heads rarely involve ways of making money. For some odd reason the most common image associated with community is some kind of charity or other organization going around asking for money to promote social programs. That’s terribly sad. From the beginnings of civilization the center of any physical community has always been the marketplace – the agora, stadtplatz, or plaza full of shops and carts that dispense the stuff which satisfy a population’s needs and wants.
The most important change that social media can bring is one that is in people’s heads. If it does nothing else, we can all hope the new images of community will take over from the one based on simple charity. Great advances in communication, like the internet, always work best when they allow people to go back to the basics of why we want to have more communication in the first place. It’s not a coincidence that community and communication have the same root – commune, or simply being together.
Community is a rich word that has plenty of space in it for many definitions. Yet for all of that it has an amazing ability to focus a business on what really matters to them in the long run. That’s the power of community which social media puts at the fingertips of any business which is ready to focus and learn how to use it effectively.