By Kathleen Smith
Community as an aspect of our daily lives – not the television show – has become another buzzword. We want to live in a community -sometimes a gated community-, we want to be part of a community to learn, share, become popular; entrepreneurs want a community to make revenue and recruiters want a community to build a talent pipeline.
But what is a community?
When you experience community you know you have it and more times it isn’t even labeled a community.
It dawned on me that I was in a community when I tried to get somewhere and I had been there long enough to know the back roads. I further realized that I was in a community when I went to my farmers market and connected with others from my “community”. I enjoyed being there, said hello to others by name and I knew what they were doing there and I knew what I was doing by being there. I go to my farmers market weekly to buy my groceries but more importantly to feel part of something. My contribution to my community is acknowledged and I get a returned value in the camaraderie ( and great food) I experience being with like minded individuals.
Community is an experience and contrary to the stock valuation companies who feel that “community” has monetary value, the community experience is the true value of the community.
Communities serve particular needs – the early settlers had communities because there was protection in numbers and different services were needed to keep the community going; exchanging of values, goods and services to keep the community alive, vibrant and growing
Other “communities” were started by meeting simple needs. LinkedIn was started as an exchange of start-up contacts in Silicon Valley. Facebook for Harvard kids to be able to connect about campus life. Here in Washington DC, we have recruitDC which connects and supports folks involved in various aspects of recruiting specific to the capital region. Each one of these communities was created to serve one or a small number of purposes and structured to support itself and its members.
Finding “community” is an interesting balance and that many strive for it, but few succeed. Dead giveaway community killers are not supporting the community with resources, not being in the community for the long haul and allowing others to take advantage rather than add value to the community i.e. spamming aka most LinkedIn groups.
Todd Wilms, Social Media Marketing at SAP gave a great example at the Online Marketing Summit of what many think building a community is. He likened it to starting a family. You meet someone and you tell them “I want a big family with lots of kids” and you continue to date and continue to talk about how you want this great big family with lots of kids. You finally get married and start having kids. And you keep talking about how you want more kids, and you have more kids until you become grandparents. You have a family reunion and talk about how great it is to have a large family with lots of kids. You get together to have the family reunion picture, everyone is all lined up with their best clothes out and you step out of the picture. You get in your car, drive away, splash mud on everyone and give a profane gesture as you drive into the sunset saying “all I wanted was the picture”.
One component that some tend to not agree on is the need for offline interaction. When the dot com era came about, the demise of brick or mortar was upon us. But in an interesting reversal, some old and some new types of brick and mortar establishments have popped up; banks have now added more retail operations in smaller and drive thru locations, coffee/bar combos shops abound and everywhere you go wi-fi is available so you can on online and offline in the same place. Yelp, Foursquare, Gowalla let you share where you are with others – but you are sharing this in cyberspace but not talking to those around you.
While we tend to say we don’t want to be together, we actually do even if it is to sit together in the same coffee shop and ignore each other or pass each other by in the mob at the shopping mall, offline face to face interactions are key to sustain any community.
Just look at the surge of Tweetup, Meetups, and Mashups. While some conferences, may be on the decline there are a variety of reasons for this. Travel costs, changing attitudes, people don’t have the jobs they used to go to those meetings, or the right contents is not being offered but we still want to be together offline especially if we have established on online connection first.
People believe that a community can be built on the fly, become viral quickly and then become profitable. The challenges are that most communities will take off, hit some rough road and then have to readjust. This is where the rubber meets the road – how to keep the community alive, and vibrant but not about the wrong exchange of values or about being monetized.
It is too much in our culture to monetize relationships (not talking about Match.com) but the nature that says “ok, I have built this, they have come, now how can I sit back, watch it flourish and become rich.”
Building a community for a talent pipeline is also been an interesting notion. Build a community and you won’t have to recruit, people will just come to you, you will save costs by not having to purchase job boards, ATS or any other marketing, managing or tracking systems. (Sure, just like the feedlots in the Midwest where most Americans get their beef. Feed the animals crap, let them come to you and you can use them and by the way you won’t be very healthy.)
But building a talent community serves what purpose? To make candidates easier to find? What value does this have for the candidates? For candidates to find a job, what value does this have to the recruiter? Will there be some unwritten law that you can only be part of this community if you meet certain criteria. Who votes people off the island?
As Todd, shared in his presentation, communities cost resources to build and maintain. Putting up a Facebook page or building a LinkedIn group is not necessarily building a community. It is an ad place or a news sharing. Follow the good rules of community building that many folks have done and be in it for the long haul.
Communities have key components
Purpose: Simple or magnanimous – saving life on earth or coffee talk for recruiters.
Resources: Having resources or tools that the community participants can utilize together or individually is important. A challenge with some community platforms – Facebook – is that the tools and resources change weekly or almost daily – is this serving the platform or the community? You don’t need an office or website but community tools to share ideas, news and conversations. Be sure to include some form of offline interaction as well.
Sustainable growth: The most challenging aspect of any business, group or community is how fast you grow. Success tends to go to people’s heads and they build, and build and build before they realize that they have lost their purpose or have built something so large that is not sustainable and it crashes.
Support: Key personnel – paid or volunteers: Leaders, influencers, evangelists, and worker bees. Some folks can have multiple roles. This also helps have a few different voices for the community as it is a community and not a monarchy.
Communication: There will be many ways in which the community will want to communicate – there is no one silver bullet communication channel. As a community organizer, be sure you are using all the formats as everyone communicates very differently – tweets, posts, email, cell phone, text, chat
Communities will continue to exist both online and off as we humans tend to want to congregate and be with one another – online and offline. Communities require focus – you can’t be in many communities all at once, pick one and stick with it to truly experience what a community is all about.