You've been lied to: Communities don't have to be 365
Do you have a community platform yet? A way for your community members to engage with you and each other anytime, anywhere? If not, then you’re missing the boat.
That’s what the “community experts” are telling you.
Community doesn't need to mean a 365-day online platform. In fact, trying to force your audience to interact and engage with each other every day can actually have the opposite effect, driving them away from each other instead of bringing them closer together.
The "experts" will tell you that you need an online platform for your events in order to build a community. They'll say that an evergreen community is the key to success between your events and for your brand.
But your community members are busy people, many of whom only look to their community when they need advice, help, guidance, or support, which means that your evergreen community is populated with people who only log on when they want to ask a question… leaving a trail of sadness behind in the form of a community with a sprinkling of questions and very few answers, and creating a very lonely place that can be detrimental to your brand.
The good news
So why do we all think we need one? According to online community platform Vanilla Forums, 68% of branded communities say that the community has helped create new leads. 55% of branded communities say that the community has contributed to an increase in sales. 57% of branded communities say that the community has led to an increase in brand SEO.
Vanilla is not alone in espousing the benefits on online forums and communities. In April 2021, Influitive reported that customers using their online community and customer advocacy tools welcomed over 15,000 users to their programs, more than 60,000 were engaged in the previous 30 days, generating nearly $16 million in ROI through more than 470,000 acts of advocacy.
A CMX research report from 2016, 85% of marketers and community managers believed that having a branded online community improves the customer journey and increases brand trust.
The bad news
But Gartner tells a different story, with their research revealing that 70 percent of online communities are destined to fail. In fact, despite billions of dollars being poured into online communities, nearly 70 percent of customers never even log in after receiving an invitation.
A benchmark research conducted by marketing advisory firm Demand Metric found that while two thirds of B2B marketers say they already have communities, just six percent of research participants reported that their communities are meeting all their expectations.
Why? Because your community doesn’t have to be engaged 365 days of the year. And community doesn't mean you *need* a platform for people to post questions.
At The Community Factory, we believe a community is a social group whose members have something in common, such as a shared topic of interest, industry, geographic location, culture, or heritage. Community can also refer to the physical location where such a group lives, be it in-person or online. And we believe that a community can exist in the moment, or thrive over time.
Fun fact: A community doesn't have to last more than a single day. In fact, a community can spontaneously erupt from a single moment and then disperse into the ether, never to be heard from again. And that's okay.
Think about a time that you went to a sporting event, cheering on your team. You may have briefly gotten to know the people sitting around you as you cheered together, or felt the sting of a loss together. That community supported each other through the game, and the entire team rallied around a common cause. But then you left. Maybe you didn’t exchange contact information with your seatmates… That was a moment-in-time community who banded together for a cause. That’s okay!
Think about an event you participated in where you met great people, had incredible conversations, and memorable experiences together. You got some of their contact information and you kept in touch, but there were others who were only around during that one moment of teambuilding in the event. That’s okay!
Think about the last natural disaster in your area where community members came together to help and support each other, cleaning up, offering food, shelter, even money. Maybe it brought some of your neighbors closer together. But many people were only involved for the time required to help and then you lost touch with them. That’s okay!
Think about a group of coworkers from a job you had 5 years ago. You were a family for a few years, doing *everything* together. Now you’ve all moved on, and your Facebook friends, but you don’t really see each other anymore. However, if any one of them called, you’d answer the phone and help them out immediately. That’s okay!
Think about your group of friends from college or your first co-workers at your first job. You may still have those connections and keep in touch - go to weddings, baby showers, etc. - and your ongoing community from those experiences doesn’t look like it’ll fade anytime soon. That’s okay!
These are all valid and valuable forms of community. They are ALL okay!
Types of communities
Communities of Product — Members of these communities are focused primarily on discussing and learning about a specific product, like Sephora’s Beauty Insiders, Twilio’s Champions program, or Salesforce Trailblazers.
Communities of Practice — Members are all about leveling-up a discipline or craft, and connecting with other practitioners, independent of any tools or platform. Examples include cohort-based learning community On Deck, or design communities, like Dribbble.
Communities of Play — Members of this category come together around a common interest, like sports, gaming, athletics, arts, and more. Think gaming communities on Discord, or NBA Top Shot.
These align well with our Fans vs. Locals theory and also points to how often and on what platform these communities want to engage. Understanding what type of community you are building, the types of people who will be in it, and the kind of personalities who will be active and passive will help you build a successful community strategy.
How to win at community
The truth is, it’s not all bad news for those online communities, either; Pew Research revealed that 40% of online community members say online communities have helped them become more involved with groups to which they already belong. Using online communities to further a cause helps keep the participants connected, and acts as an incredible pre-sales opportunity for your brand in addition to the retention and development of existing customers.
Knowing when to create a community to bring people together for longer times and deeper conversations is the key to a successful community. Wood argues - and I agree - that community does not equal marketing. And, in fact, you need a completely distinct go-to-community strategy alongside your go-to-market strategy.
Wood says, "The classic metaphor of the “funnel” has defined most go-to-market strategies. It’s focused on optimizing every step of the process — from awareness and discovery to evaluation, engagement, conversion/sales, loyalty, and advocacy — pushing leads through linearly, extracting value at each stage. Community, on the other hand, isn’t about pushing people toward a binary endpoint, but about creating an environment so compelling that it naturally attracts people toward its center."
At The Community Factory, we leverage the Social Influence Process, which we call Power in Company, to spark the energy that drives connection. That means that we can help you with that kick-off moment to create community for a day or spark the connections that will continue on for years to come. Adding these shared experience moments into your go-to-community strategy is pivotal to the ongoing success and engagement of your community members.
In addition, there are incredible offerings that can truly help you build real, long lasting communities - communities of REAL PEOPLE. Take a look at Moving Experience. Expert facilitators and corporate community gurus Daniela Plattner and Heidi Bianchi have developed programs that connect participants in small groups through facilitated conversations for months after an initial gathering. These small circles help participants move from stuck to imaginative, bored to energized, reserved to open, and perhaps most importantly, isolated to connected. The old "long tail of content" is now the "ongoing hug of community."
Communities can truly be the cure for workplace loneliness, but a poorly-run online community with no true connection can exacerbate the problem. Stop trying to force your community to stay together forever and embrace the moments when they are bonded in the now. In fact, a community can be alive 365 days of the year without an online presence at all. The deepest communities share multiple ways for community members to stay in touch personally or in groups, and the bond and loyalty to the community doesn't dissipate just because their activity isn't being tracked online. (We'll dive more into your go-to-community plan with metrics that matter in a future post.)
Let your community be what it wants to be, and watch as it grows and changes over time. (And it's okay if your community has a sunset moment and get reborn months or years later in a new format.)
You might be surprised at how much more engaged and connected your audience can become when you stop trying to control the conversation and just focus on finding the right ways to spark it.
Liz Lathan, CMP, is co-founder of The Community Factory and pioneered Haute's Return on Emotion℠ business metric for experiential programs. The Community Factory creates better belonging through transformative gatherings that activate, grow, and engage your community. Contact Liz at firstname.lastname@example.org