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Truths About Building Community

This post is inspired by a conversation with @billhandy and @freshpeel on Twitter, and by Bill’s (lengthy, but good) post about the science behind communities.

My key takeaways/thoughts on the subject are:

Bigger isn’t necessarily better
The ties in your community matter
Work yourself out of a job if you want to matter long-term

Bigger isn’t necessarily better because the value of a community must be defined through a particular set of lenses. Think about the value of your home. The key question is… value to whom? We all think about value of a home as the price we’d get if we sold it to another person interested in living in it. What about the value of your home as potential raw material for a new project? The value of just the land your home is on, to a non-residential user? The value of the goods/furnishing inside? The lens used to evaluate value makes a difference. You need to define the purpose of a community before you can assess its value. If the purpose is to create “a community of bicycle enthusiasts” you need to re-think. You’ve defined who you’re after (bicycle enthusiasts) but not WHY they’ve come and WHAT you hope they’ll do for or be to each other. A better purpose (lens) would be seeking to create “A place where bicycling enthusiasts can share knowledge about the best trails/rides so others can discover and enjoy them, too.”

NOW we have something… we know we’re seeking current riders to anchor the community (new riders would be welcome, but won’t necessarily have the foundational knowledge about best trails/rides to share). We know we’ll need to try to build that community in a space where sharing and organizing information, including potentially maps, photos, written descriptions, even user calendars, will be easy and seamless. We know that search/discovery within the community will be important. AND… if we build it smartly, we can define value to potential marketers of trail-proven cycles, gear, lodging and food/supplies.

ALSO… we have a community built on shared, strong affinity for not just a hobby (cycling) but a particular aspect/segment of that hobbyist community (longer rides/trails/trips). The strength of the ties in your community matter… they’ll drive longevity and advocacy. If people self-identify as belonging to that group, our carefully constructed place should give them a portal to other like-minded individuals and space to share their passion. They’ll seek out others to join who also share that passion if they love the space.

The group’s owner/moderator won’t matter… the group’s own cohesion will serve as glue. If you successfully work yourself out of a job building the community, the value of that community as a sellable, marketable thing increases. “Ownership” can be transferred easily since the group’s members feel ownership… it’s their space. If the community remains a hub-and-spoke connection (each person individually connected to the center, but not many community-member interactions) it’s in danger of becoming irrelevant, regardless of how large it is at the moment. Miley Cyrus had a huge Twitter following. She quit Twitter. Other than tweets lamenting the fact that she’s gone, that community is fast becoming irrelevant on Twitter.

So… to wrap it all up:

Know why you’re building a community, regardless of the venue.

Have a clear purpose and direction and take deliberate actions so you attract the right kind of self-elected community members.

Make it a place where people are there for the THE BIG IDEA so the community won’t falter if you need to back away.

What do you think… how do you best build community?

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7 Responses to “Truths About Building Community”

  1. mike mancino November 5, 2009 at 11:22 pm #

    the concept is comparable to a key word search. without a narrowed down search, your results will be great in number but lack specificity. Without a well-directed community, your community will grow in members, but the impact the community has for the members will be minimal. A well built community with specific goals, purposes, and targets will reap a greater turnout as far as impact for members.

    • Mandy Vavrinak November 6, 2009 at 6:06 pm #

      I think your analogy about specificity in a key word search is spot-on, Mike. Knowing why the community exists (building with a purpose from the beginning… and a purpose that matters to the participants, not just to the organizer!) is key to longevity and value.

  2. Laura Walsh November 8, 2009 at 10:51 pm #

    Mandy,

    This is so true. Online communities dependent on the individual contributions of the community’s moderator or “owner” are not sustainable, scalable or salable in the eyes of a VC or other potential buyer.

    (Reminds me of a company I knew whose intellectual capital and products were dependent on the ongoing micro-management of its founder and CTO.)

    Does Dunbar’s number apply here?

    Seth Godin wrote about it recently. You can find the post at: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/10/the-penalty-for-violating-dunbars-law.html

    It would be fascinating research for someone to explore in more depth what the tipping point is (or tipping points are) for a community to be considered active and sustainable.

    Thanks for writing about it.

    • Mandy Vavrinak November 9, 2009 at 11:42 am #

      I have read Seth’s post.. and I think the whole field of communication/relationship metrics is evolving as old, established (and true) theories are applied to a newer way of communication. Does the relationship limit still apply in a more connected world? Do we need to redefine what constitutes a “relationship?” I’m not sure, but I lean toward “Yes!” because technology can augment our brains… in the old days, we could only effectively relate to the number of people we could keep in our brains… who they were, where they worked, what they did/knew/said. Now, those details don’t have to be remembered… they can be digitally accessed. I think this means we can relate effectively to more people in more ways, provided the technological support doesn’t disappear to do so.

  3. Suzanne Vara November 10, 2009 at 3:53 am #

    Mandy

    This was discussed on sunday on #blogchat and a great discussion was had. A community is starts with a leader however through that comes new leaders with conversation. It evolves.

    Reality is that not everyone is going to love or find value in what you post on a blog but when you have good one the community engages

    • Mandy Vavrinak November 12, 2009 at 12:17 pm #

      Yes… I loved the community discussion on #blogchat. I’d actually written and posted this post several days before, so it was a nice convergence of timing to then be part of the whole blogchat bunch discussing the ideas of community. I always learn from those chats 🙂

      And I agree that having a point of view is key… you will not please everyone and if that is your goal you’re done before you’ve started.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Building Community | Social Media Mastermind Tulsa - October 28, 2009

    […] do it. And I believe he’s right about a few key points, shared above and explained in detail in this post. Bottom line? Know why you’re building a community, regardless of the venue. Have a clear purpose […]

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