13 January 2010

Paying It Forward - How Do You Build Community?

I was surprised by my co-workers yesterday with an office celebration for my birthday (which was technically Monday, but I worked from home that day to edit some videos and therefore wasn't in the office to receive cake, flowers and singing on my actual birthday).

Though I promise not to prolong my birthday too much longer by blogging about it repeatedly, when yesterday's offline surprise turned into tweets, Twitpics and Facebook posts, it made me want to blog about community and how companies go about building them.

This weekend, I blogged about how Anthropologie builds community by bringing customers into the Anthro lifestyle. Along similar lines, Catch Up Lady recently blogged about how Patagonia builds community for the eco-conscious outdoor enthusiast. I was also privileged enough to hear Kristian Bush from Sugarland talk about building community in a declining music industry through homegrown YouTube videos and authentic fan interactions. I think it's also safe to say that Apple has not only built a community, but a whole culture around its brand.

Yesterday's unexpected birthday celebration showed me that Ogilvy builds community by valuing its employees and celebrating them (the birthday surprise is only one example of many nice gestures). The company doesn't have to, but it does.

This gesture reminded me that community building goes beyond creative ideas and clever campaigns. Building community is about paying it forward and remaining loyal to your audiences. It's also about recognizing that your target audiences are real people who should be treated as such.

For companies that follow these principles (like the companies and band I mentioned above), marketing and PR become vehicles by which brand enthusiasts can discover, explore and glean inspiration.

For Rob BonDurant, VP of Marketing at Patagonia, building community is about creating a tribe and selling a story. The story, however, also inspires intent to purchase. Does this mean a company's goals can be reached by building good karma?

Marketers often approach me asking how to best use social media tools. They don't often ask how to build and cultivate a good community. They focus more on one-off campaigns and less on relationships built over time, an ROI which is tough to measure. And yet, I'm fascinated by the relationship of offline activities over time to online word of mouth and community building (see my blog post on how American Express builds authentic customer communities with Meetup).

As a result, I'm now inspired to explore this topic more, perhaps via a series of interviews and blog posts. Stay tuned and, in the meantime, tell me: how do you build community?


Anonymous said...


I loved your post on how Anthroplogie builds community. I think one reason Anthropologie can build a community is that the people that work at Anthropologie and the corporate culture promote community. Community-based selling is definitely the way to go .. I recall a quote from Marc Benioff where he said "customers don't listed to vendors anymore, they listen to other customers".

One challenge (coming back to the Anthropologie example): how does a company that does NOT have a "community-mindset" (e.g., Oracle, SAP) build community? Is it possible to change a company culture so that it can adopt the community mindset?



Thanks for taking the time to comment! I think you're right about the fact that not all businesses are built to foster community. When I meet marketing and communications professionals who want to start using social media (or improve their current use of social media), I sometimes find they're not prepared to be social. In other words, they tell me they want to leverage Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn (or whatever social platform), but they don't want to really open up and engage. They want to continue with 1-way communications rather than opening up conversations.

I think it is possible to adapt a company's culture to be successful at fostering community, but this also depends on the company's leaders being willing to adapt and experiment.

For the enterprise tech space, I am not as familiar with what companies like Oracle and SAP are currently doing with regards to building communities, but I do think one area to start would be asking customers what they want and see what's possible to give. For example, would posting a video demo of a product instead of requiring someone to register for a demo help decrease barriers to obtaining and sharing information about the company's products and services? What about hosting meetups or tweetups with customers across the country versus focusing more on big tradeshows and impersonal interactions? How about real-time instant message customer service options for the sys admin whose servers just crashed? These might already be in place, but the point is: what tools or services can these companies offer to make customers' lives easier when buying and using their products and services?

Ultimately, community culture also depends on balancing the cost of paying it forward with business gain and profit, and this varies by market and by business model. And, of course, authenticity is also key. Just saying that you have an online community doesn't work if you focus on locking in customers and nickle and diming them.

As a software industry professional, are there any small steps you think companies can take to build community when they might not seem community-minded?

Anonymous said...


You are right - the companys' leaders have to be willing to adapt and experiment with community-building. And, the leaders have to have a genuine interest. In the case of the enterprise software companies they have some structural advantages that make them complacent - in other words, it is unlikely that a competitor will beat them anytime soon, and so they cling on to their old ways. Consolidation in that sector has reduced the number of competitors and so they are somewhat sheltered for now (... so they think ;) .. see below)

Having said that, there are a few trojan horses out there! For example cloud-based companies (e.g., salesforce.com) and open-source companies (e.g. Pentaho) believe in community-based selling and are challenging the Oracle/SAP/Microsoft types of companies.

I think you have an opportunity to sell your services to these new types of companies - the ones who engage in community-based selling. Maybe you can even persuade the Oracle/SAP types of companies as well - they certainly have money to spend ;)

Good luck - I love community-based selling!

Craig Oda said...

Shankar, like you, I like Jenna's post about Anthropologie. Her blog is really improving.

I work with enterprise tech companies like Cisco and SAP to develop their social media strategies and develop a community. I also work with a range of open source companies like Jaspersoft, which is a competitor to Pentaho and has a community strategy.

I've been working with Cisco for 2 years and with Jaspersoft for 5 years.

I'm not sure if I understand what you mean by these companies not being community-minded. Let's take SAP, they have hundreds of Twitter feeds, hundreds of blogs, thousands of forums. They also have 2 million people registered in their SAP Community Network.

The Cisco CTO has 1.5 million followers on Twitter.

I'm not trying to knock down your comment. I actually am not sure what you meant by the community mindset. I've always been in awe of the large tech companies that can generate registered followers in the millions.