Community vs. Marketing

This is Part Three in a Four-Part Series on Observations on Community Building

What’s the difference between community and marketing? Moving from the all-encompassing view I took in my last post, and back to the more specific realm of web companies, this is a question that me and my peers are asking often as we figure out our teams and our strategies.

This would be my take on it: metaphorically, marketing gets people off the street and in the door, and community makes sure they want to stay once they’re there. They’re situated at different parts of the “funnel”.

I tend to find that doing marketing work vs. community work really do involve different types of thinking. In the marketing mindset, you’re thinking in terms of what’s going to catch people’s eye, and how to maximize appeal. When you’re in the community mindset, I find you do more thinking about the emotions and the behaviors of large groups of people, and trying to tweak a network to maximize harmony. They both still have a lot to do with company values and identities, which is why people in both roles need to see eye to eye.

Especially in really early stage companies, one person often fulfills both needs. In the context of the startup where everyone wears 5 hats, this makes sense. However, what’s best from a community perspective isn’t always best from a marketing perspective. That’s why when your company gets to the point where it makes sense to have one person handling marketing and another heading up community it can be a beautiful thing, so long as they’re upholding the same values.


What Are Communities Made Of?

This is Part Two in a Four-Part Series on Observations on Community Building

For the second week of my experiment, I want to share thoughts on something I’ve been working to crack for a long time. What makes a community?

For those of us asked to build communities for a living, we really need to define the overarching principles of what constitutes them. While the internet is one of the best community building tools of all time, our thinking shouldn’t be limited to it. With this mind, here’s my best shot:

A community is a group of people who

1) Have a shared stake in something

It could be a baseball team, a neighborhood, or an online network. Usually, people have come to feel this ownership because they have similar values, and the thing they’ve chosen to identify with are an expression of their values. 

2) Are willing to provide value to one another without immediate return. 

Whether that’s neighbors holding the door for one another in a local shop, or an experienced member of an online forum doling out helpful advice to a newbie, a community doesn’t work if its members don’t feel its worth their time to ‘pay it forward’. Members give now to the community without asking for anything in return, because if they need something in the future, they have good reason to trust they’ll get it. Of course, this can get violated by certain individuals within the group. That leads to #3…

3) Have a set of guidelines for their dealings with each other.

In order for a community to flourish, there need to be social norms. You know how with your closest group of friends, you probably have a unique way of speaking with one another; you can trade comfortable good natured teasing, and at the same time, you know there are lines you just don’t cross. I see community guidelines being very similar, just on a larger scale. Customs for how people deal with one another are helpful for letting people know how they can share positivity, as well as for spotting someone who’s violating the code of conduct from a mile away. Guidelines are needed in order to keep the community cohesive.

I hope the above serves as a useful building block for others. This is a starting point though, not an end in itself. What do you think I’m missing?


When Building Communities, Simple Actions are Sometimes Most Powerful

This is Part One in a Four-Part Series on Observations on Community Building

I wanted to try an experiment on my blog where for four consecutive weeks, I write down and share one thought or observation that’s been kicking around in my head regarding communities, and aspects of building or managing them. I really hope to spark some conversation from others in the comments, so please weigh in.

To start with, I’ve been considering the pattern I keep on seeing where often times, the things that really make a powerful impact on communities are simple, low-tech actions, applied thoughtfully. No new platforms, new technologies, or engineering cycles needed.

For example, at Shapeways in the last few months, I’ve put together something we call the Materials Status Page. Each of Shapeways’ different materials have different lead times associated with them. But what happens when there are issues with a particular material, and things don’t go as planned? While our real goal is to make the Materials Status Page obsolete, for now, we update the page to reflect what speed the material is running at (green, yellow, or red like a traffic light), let you know how many days behind it is, and offer a comment or two to provide some context. This page is nothing more than a table, written in HTML, and me and another non-tech member of my team were able to throw it together (hi Nancy!) in an hour or so. But as soon as we published it, it was adopted instantly, getting passed around our community to help people in their decision making process about what and when they order. It’s also become an important tool for our Support team.

Another more general example is the rise of coworking, as a movement. It’s really nothing fancier than a bunch of people who have decided to sit together and work in a room (versus sitting alone to work in a different room). However, because of the people who have driven the movement, and the way they’ve set the tone, this incredibly simple act tends to draw a particular type of person (entrepreneurial, creative, people-driven) and the practice of coworking has created a happier, more meaningful work experience for thousands of people.

My point is that you don’t necessarily need anything complex in order to meet your community’s needs, or create meaningful experiences for them. It’s got a lot more to do with who you are, who your team is, and the motivating factors behind your actions.