In my last post I said a community is a living organism, because it’s made up of people and because it evolves. These people are all gathered around a mutual interest and cause. It is, therefore, only logical that a true community manager is first and foremost a part of the community.
The community manager is a leader that grows from the community and with the community. In order to efficiently manage a community of people you have to lead them, and leadership, true leadership comes only from an authentic place and real understanding. Otherwise, it’s just like being a forum or chat moderator, or a museum tour guide. You have a responsibility and some authority but you are not a leader, the people you guide or manage do not believe in you, they do not necessarily trust you and they may follow you just because they feel they have to.
When it comes to Community Management, you want your community to be engaged. You need it to be inspired and you need your community members to inspire others. You want them to become your brand advocates and evangelists and they can’t do that if they do not believe in the brand.
But how can you build trust and faith in a “brand”? A brand, after all, is a completely virtual thing. It’s a name, representing a product or a service. It’s not a person and there is nothing inspiring about that.
Also, how can the Community Manager become a leader who grows from within the community and with the community, if he or she is the one that has to build or form the community in the first place?
The answer to both questions lies in the understanding of what a Community is and how it is formed.
What is a Community?
A Community is a group of people who share an interest and/or a cause. There is a common axis around which the community revolves. In that sense anything from the kids in a class, through families, employees, online forum members to Facebook page fans is a “community”. With some communities the common ground is clear. The kids in the classroom all share the same experiences, schedule, teachers and goals (to learn and to make it through the day/week/year and to succeed). When it comes to family it’s very clear too. You don’t choose your family, but you share connections, traditions, values and often goals.
Online Communities, however, are different. Naturally, if you join a forum or an online chat formed to address a certain topic, you expect to find people like you, looking for the same information/inspiration/answers/support. It’s easy to perceive how a group of people communicating on a forum or in a chat form a community.
It is a little more difficult to see how a bunch of Facebook page fans, twitter followers, LinkedIn followers or YouTube channel subscribers, are a community. Indeed when you look at it from the narrow perspective of a group people all liking or using the same product or service, they’re not a community. They are a target audience, passively waiting for you to push your sales messages to them. But if you throw in free multi-sided communication into the mix, you give each and every person in that group the opportunity to engage, inspire and evolve into a leader. You then transition from having a group of potentially interested audience into a real living community. The community members can then mold your message into something different. They translate it into the language of the community if you will.
How Communities are formed
Many people believe that creating/building a community is as easy as giving them a place to communicate and a common ground topic. The truth couldn’t be further.
Let’s suppose you have a great service or an app that helps businesses market and track their marketing. You create a Facebook page, you set up your LinkedIn Company page and perhaps a few other social media channels. You commission fancy graphics for the cover images, you have an amazing Logo and you even know your way around keyword research so you make sure your descriptions are written correctly with all the right “buzz words”. You may even run campaigns to gain more followers. You target your ads specifically by market segment, keyword and whatnot. The result is an impressive online presence with hundreds or thousands of followers and fans.
Does that mean you have a Community? – No it does not. It only means you have gathered together a group of people who, one should hope so, have a common interest (preferably in your service or app).
Does that make you, or whoever did this on your behalf, a “Community Manager”? – No it does not. It makes you a person savvy in the basics of social media.
So how do you transition from that – into a community?
The simple answer is: you provide value and meaning. The not so simple reality is, it’s not always easy to do.
To continue with the previous example. Let’s suppose your marketing app rocks! Let’s suppose your ads campaign was very appealing and all the fans you collected are relevant to you as potential clients. Some of them may have already signed up for the service or downloaded the app, others may still haven’t made up their mind. Here’s what you want:
- You want them to become your paying clients
- You want them to recommend you to their friends and colleagues
- You want them to be happy with the service so they stay and sign on for many many years
- You want them to support your positive branding and reputation
- You want them to have your back and defend your name if you have a reputation crisis
- You want them to help you grow and develop more services and products for them and for all their friends.
In other words, you want them to become a community whose joint axis is you and your product. In order to do that you have to give them value and meaning beyond the specific service you provide. In that sense your app doesn’t help them market – it helps them succeed. You are their success partner. Your app doesn’t help them track and optimize their marketing, it helps them save time and money so they can be better at whatever value they provide their own customers.
The first step in forming a community is, therefore, making sure you send the right message out to the group of followers you collected.
If you get that part right, they will engage and what will follow, will be an organic process of evolution and transition. They will communicate their feelings and thoughts back to you and if you reciprocate, transparently and authentically, the communication will continue and you will learn a lot from them. If you apply what you learn the evolution continues and very soon you will find yourself leading the community because they grow to trust you and your willingness to really listen to them and apply what you’re getting from them.
In large online communities we also see a process of additional leaders and community managers rising organically from within the community and leading their own little sub-communities within the large community. If you see this in your community, you hit the jackpot! Embrace it and work with those leaders to inspire as many more people as you can.
Authenticity – what’s that got to do with anything?
If a Community Manager is a leader than Authenticity has everything to do with it. People, as I said in the beginning of the post, don’t relate to brands, products or services. They relate to values, meaning and to other people.
When the process of forming your community is done correctly, then you must realize that you, the Community leader / Manager are really the first member of the community. You are not a separate entity looking down at the group and managing it. You are a part of them, equal to them and you have to share the same values and meaning with them. Talking the talk is not enough. It’s not just about a sophisticated marketing message with the right buzz words and some hash tags. You have to walk the walk. You have to actually believe in the values you sell and you too have to find meaning in the content you provide.
This is why it takes a special personality to become a Community Manager. It takes someone who can listen, understand and embrace the values. Once that happens, anything that comes out of that person’s mouth or keyboard is genuine and authentic. And the community feels that. Especially if that person also makes him or herself known and accessible – really becoming part of that living organism, which is a community.
Authentic leadership inspires trust and loyalty. But loyalty, as Harvey Specter put it, “is a two-way street. If I’m asking for it from you, then you’re getting it from me”.
The takeaway from this lesson
- Communicate & Engage with value – Don’t Market or sell
- Lead & Inspire with authentic meaning– Don’t Manage
- Be loyal to your community – Don’t just ask for their loyalty
[Republished from my original piece written for BizCatalyst360].