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All in the family: How to build a community that accelerates business

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Community is everywhere these days, from your IPO filings to your farmed vegetables. While some have abused the term unashamed, a growing number of organisations are actively tending to their communities in a thorough and responsible way.

Community is still to this day one of the most effective forms of social organisation humanity has ever known. Harnessing some of its compelling influence can be a highly rewarding endeavour, but it’s not always a straightforward affair.

Having been on a fascinating journey of trying to apply community thinking to business for the past few years, I thought I’d share some of the things I am grateful to have picked up along the way from experts, brilliant community managers, and many trials.

The soft part is the hard part

In order to account for its many forms and intensity levels, I find community best defined as: one of the (highest) form of relatedness between humans; where people who are unrelated, will decide devoid of direct reward, to become accountable for the well-being of each other. More than an outcome, community is a state of mind.

We can build structures around it, peg valuations against its potential for business, but its core is based on the relationships between its members. As valuable as it is elusive, community is a perfect example of the expression the soft part is the hard part.

The main point of friction when adopting a community mindset in business comes from, I believe, the fact that community stretches the capitalist concept of a worthwhile exchange to the brink. Operating on the verge of the traditional action-reward framework, community thinking places more value on engagement than the outcome.

In our consumption-led society this corresponds to shifting from “I do A’ and therefore I get X, at time T* (I buy A’ from a merchant, get the product X I wanted, upon delivery at T*)” to “when I do A’, I can get anything from A to Z in return, at T?; and it shouldn’t matter as long as I contribute.” This radical difference in measuring success calls for adjustments in any business that wants to rely on its community to create value. Here are some of the few that have guided me:

The community can’t be sold as a service

You can’t buy the service of being part of a community, money can only grant you exposure. Unless I take active steps to become part of it, I will be a bystander, not a community member.

If you can buy your way into belonging to the group, you don’t have a community, you have a club, a customer base or an interest group, etcetera … Community building requires generating active engagement from members.

The same way students are not the consumers of their education but the product of it, community members are not entitled to belonging or getting a certificate – becoming part of a community takes accountability and commitment.

Accountability here is the willingness to accept your part of responsibility in the well-being of the whole; commitment is the willingness to care for the well-being of each, with no expectation of return and not conditional on another’s action.

These two concepts are the cornerstone of community and their altruistic nature, one of the reasons why your community will live best next to your business, and not directly subject to its objectives. Building a community relies on ever-fluctuating amounts of trust, reciprocity, and willingness to help others between members, it can’t be pressed for results like a product line should be.

Community requires co-creation from members

Being part of a community entails shifting our mentality from consuming to co-creating. There is nothing passive about community, you are entitled to nothing more than being given a chance of being part of the group. Being able to contribute is your reward. The underlying source of motivation of the community is helping each other.

Community has no room for hierarchy or entitlement, people are the actors and audience all at the same time. In a community, the people should own the experience, no matter who is in charge. People best create which that they own.

The essence of community building for business is to create structures for belonging that is centered around your product, be ready for those not to be picture perfect. By building your community around your business you discover and create the means for engaging people with your product – in a way that makes them feel like it’s theirs. Dissent, disagreements and conflict are part of the process, do not fear or try to muffle disharmony.

If it ain’t a little ugly, it ain’t human. You will probably witness questionable behaviour between members or even with your product. It’s natural.

As a community leader, the first thing you should do is back-off; actively do nothing. To decide to build a community is to make a commitment to the power of the group, you demonstrate that commitment by trusting it to solve its problems.

You will, of course, stay alert to the right moment to step back in (when the security or integrity of the members of the customer experience is at risk).

Community is fostered not designed

The most pro-active you can be in creating a community is encouraging the spirit of it. The moment you try to push towards an outcome, no matter how good you think it would do, you veer off community and into politics. Leading a community means creating an environment where people lead themselves. You take up an active role, but a modest one.

Let go of the idea that the community needs steering. It needs opportunities for members to engage, the steering happens on its own. You might be worried the community is not going in the direction you want, but that’s mostly your insecurities as a community leader popping up.

You trust a plant to find the sun on its own. You can place a stake in its soil to provide it with support, in a way that fits your growth objectives, but you wouldn’t think of shaping exactly how it grows its foliage and flowers. What gives power to your community is leading the imagination and sense of authorship of your members, through a process of engagement, not explanation or demonstration; in order to produce a feeling of co-ownership around your product.

Focus on creating relationships

Building community is essentially about expanding the depth and reach of relationships. The time when you gather is when your members draw conclusions about the community they live in. And the focus needs to be unequivocally on facilitating relationships. At community events, décor and context are supporting acts, showcasing the invitees is the main show.

As a community leader, focus on creating this engagement between people, be consistent. Where the experiences you create showcase in themselves, the level of relationships you wish to see grow between members.

Sometimes fostering relationships can feel unnatural, and that’s ok, leadership is the art of knowing what not to compromise on, here it’s relationship building. Don’t hesitate to use kind and generous authority to create serendipity. Always aim to empower others, not yourself or your business.

The pressures to deliver visible results or meet your “business requirements” can hamper the trust the community puts in you. Set-up a conceptual “China Wall” between pushing sales and fostering relationships between members, and hold steadfast. Community leadership is not a marketing exercise. Community leadership is servant leadership.

Community needs stories

The tightest bonds will form with a group of up to six. At 12 you’ve lost intimacy, at 30 it’s a band of sub-groups. Beyond that there is no chance the group can bond without the glue provided by narratives about what we are doing together.

To grow beyond walls, communities need a combination of narratives set around: a shared identity built on a common and moral purpose, reciprocal obligations within the group, and a link from individual actions to the well-being of the group, to show it’s done with purpose.

Tell the stories of your community at each level: intimate (6), familiar (12-30) and remote (>30). This helps crystallise the idea of bigger than self, a core of community at any level. It’s important for members of a community to know that others like them are out there looking to create something similar. Stories tell us how to belong.

Community is like porn

Community is hard to measure, but like porn, you know it when you see it. And that’s when, what are essentially strangers, start helping each other. (That’s also where the comparison with porn ends). Actively building your community of users helps not only build a relevant offering, but it is also one of the most rewarding things to watch grow in itself.

Knowing that every step you take creates the possibility of a better future, where people care more for each other, even if it’s one tiny little step at a time.

Voilà, a first blurb about some lessons learnt about the possibility of community. I hope this will help spark off some thinking about how community can help your business. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the many thinkers and doers that have shaped these thoughts and would love to hear yours in comments.

The article was first published on e27, Jan. 20, 2020.