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Don't Manage Your Community Like a Company Town

Lithium Alumni (Retired)


Phil Soffer is Vice President of Product Marketing at Lithium Technologies. He has held a number of positions at the company influencing the direction of the platform, most recently running Product Management.


He is active on Twitter as @phsoffer and is a regular contributor in the Lithosphere where he is PhilS. 8WZ39PE8TDKD



Jonathan Salem Baskin had a great post over at Social Media Today called "Company Towns Never Work: The Case for Third-Party Online Communities."
Using historical analogies from the Pullman Company to the California Gold Rush (the original one, that is, not the Internet one), and informed by Jane Jacobs's study of urban spaces, Baskin argues that in the real world, communities form organically from the needs of participants and tend to whither when they're controlled by corporations who sponsor them to advance their own interests. By analogy, he suggests that most branded communities will not stand the test of time.
This post caught my eye for a couple of reasons. Naturally, I have a professional interest in the success of branded online communities. But on a personal level, when I studied history in the early 1990s, one of the hot areas of interest was the degree to which people can carve out social arrangements that serve their own needs even in the midst of apparently hegemonic controlling forces.
My graduate advisor Larry Levine was one of the most vocal proponents of the idea that people make their own communities in almost any situation, even -- or especially -- in the dehumanizing world of the slave quarters or the Jim Crow South. Surely they would also do so within a community hosted by a corporate brand.
And so I can say with the epistemological certainty of a former student of the humanities (that's supposed to be a self-deprecating joke, by the way) that Baskin is right on in his diagnosis of the potential problems, but not necessarily correct in the how smart companies actually engage with their communities.
Unlike the offline world, the online world offers almost complete mobility. If you're not getting what you want out of an online community, you can leave with no switching cost whatsoever. By contrast, if you don't like living in Pullman, it's kind of a pain to move. And since it's expensive, you can't do it on a whim.
A couple of things follow from this: first of all, if companies run their branded communities in ways that don't serve their users' needs, they will die just as Baskin predicts. This is one of the most important aspects of the community management training that we provide to our clients. There is a strong market incentive to do right by your customers. We think this is a Good Thing.
Secondly, the company's brand on a community is a way of signaling to users that some organization cares enough about this to spend the money and effort that it takes to manage a community. Baskin's claim that branded communities are tenuous may be true in some instances, but I think it's more often true that the branded nature of the community signals to potential members that it's worth spending their precious time there because 1) it's going to be around for a while; and 2) someone is going to protect them against trolls, shysters, and other miscreants. That promise helps attract the volume of people on the street, which -- as Jane Jacobs told us so eloquently -- is the lifeblood of a community.
Far from tenuous, some of our sites have been running since Mark Zuckerberg was in high school! We see very few companies that start down the community path and then stop.
Ultimately, there are going to be a lot of different places where customers can talk about things that interest them. Branded communities are an important part of that ecosystem because they create a critical mass of people interested in a brand who come together under rules that are fairly well understood and articulated. If these communities fail to meet people's needs, they die. That's why we counsel our customers to do as Baskin suggests and encourage the wide variety of behaviors that make a community vital. And why most successful branded communities are ultimately managed and policed largely by their members.
The answer is not that brands shouldn't have communities. They should. But they need to manage their communities as though they may be ghost towns tomorrow. They could be.
But in the meantime, branded communities keep companies honest while giving customers something valuable in return.

About the Author
Phil is Vice President of Product Marketing at Lithium. He has also managed product management and engineering at Lithium.
Not applicable


Wow. Thank you so much for taking the time to ponder my essay. You have definitely helped me evolve my thinking and I agree with much of what you say.

I shouldn’t have said that company towns/online branded communities are destined to fail. It’s simply not true, and you gave ample evidence why. A more refined statement would have been that most branded communities are destined to fail, and those that succeed do so because they are something other than communities or groups. I’d offer that the successes are really services by any other name.

I still maintain, however, that online communities are not communities in any historical sense of the word. You noted the cost or pain of moving in/out of geophysical communities, and I think that’s a core attribute of place (other offline attributes are hierarchy, laws, commercial transactions of some sort or another, and an organic dynamic for change). When you contrasted the fact that online communities allow for easy and immediate mobility -- people can move in as easily as they move out -- it suggests to me that they’re never really there between those two actions. Online communities are no-places compared to the structures and functions of places in the real world; call people members or citizens but they’re really just visitors. It’s just too easy to arrive and leave again. They stop by and give brands their attention for a nanosecond (and for free). That’s less community and more glorified freeway gapers block, isn’t it?

Perhaps the ultimate differentiator is whether brands choose to address consumer “wants” versus “needs.” Again, the motivators for residency in any community throughout all of history were the needs of survival, not wants. Wants come later, after the requirements of need have been met, or not, if they haven’t. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a community without addressing needs, and yet so much of online community experience is really focused on addressing wants...for entertainment, mostly. I often quip in front of audiences that nobody wakes up wanting a robust multimedia relationship with their toothpaste brand, but they probably have the need for an automatic reminder to visit their dentists for a cleaning. I think many communities spend too much time trying to come up with the content (i.e. “stuff”) to address the former vs. providing the tools to deliver the latter (like send me the item for my iCal and give me an ongoing discount on my brand because I’m a good brusher).

This makes me think that much of the transitory nature of online membership that you noted might be self-inflicted by design, whether consciously or not. Do online communities have to be constantly trying to re-earn their members’ attention and, if so, to what ultimate end? The communities that are most successful, at least as far as I can tell, are those that address specific needs directly, efficiently, and reliably. Customer service forums are one example; product recall campaigns are another.

So would it be too scary to change the paradigm and re-imagine “community” as “service?”


Why couldn’t every marketing behavior be a service that addressed real consumer needs instead of trying to tickle their wants (or at least regularly did the former before riffing on the latter)? Skip trying to earn their involvement and offer benefits that are impossible to ignore. Based on your essay I think you do something like this already but perhaps without using such bold and contrarian language.

I guess my essay was intended to challenge everyone to get more explicit. I don’t think many online communities are really communities. They’re not even groups, per se; they’re marketing campaigns masquerading as something else, and they are as tenuous as the corporate-sponsored utopias of yesterday. But I do think the idea of online engagement as a service has a lot of potential.  

Again, this is great conversation. Thank you for it.


Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Thanks so much for the long and thoughtful response. I think we agree more than we disagree, and perhaps there is a definitional issue about "community."


In my opinion, lots of things companies do with social customers are doomed to be transient, by design, because they are in fact marketing campaigns, or at best social marketing campaigns. But they are not communities. If people call them communities, that's an unfortunate muddying of the definition.


We have a lot of people in this community (and yes, I believe this is a community) who might want to weigh in on the definitional question of what constitutes a healthy online community, but we generally say that it has a lot of different people involved in it, they keep coming back and participating, they respond quickly when others speak, and there is a common understanding of what constitutes appropriate behavior that people follow. There is also a hierarchy, as there is in a real world community. Some people are more important, more influential, more central than others.


This is outside of the scope of my professional interest, two things you bring up are also very interesting to me. Do communities meet members' needs, and are they really "no-places."


I don't know, and I don't know if it's for me to judge, what an individual's real needs are. As Maslow noted 60 years ago, we all have a hierarchy of needs, and probably most people in the industrialized world who are participating in branded communities are in the top two levels: they are looking for esteem and self-actualization. If a person can find that through an online interaction with a toothpaste brand, I'm not sure I can condemn that. It's surely no crazier than finding it through identification with a sports team. If I were the master of the universe, I would probably prefer that this person use his cognitive surplus to compose symphonies, but I am not He. I can say with confidence that I'd rather that toothpaste brand give people an opportunity to self-actualize than, say, blow more money on TV ads.


It's often necessary, as a practical matter, to tickle people's desire to be entertained in order to generate a critical mass of people who will be able to do higher level things. I am not sure that this is a bad thing.


As far as online communities being "no-places" compared to the real world, I think it's an interesting debate. I wonder how "real" the real world is. All that is solid melts into air. There are many places in the real world that don't exhibit much of the spirit of community that you and I would idealize. And there are places online that probably do, at least moreso. So I'm not sure it's an online/offline divide, or even a divide created by profit motives. I would say that broadly, one of the greatest things about the online world is that it gives more people than ever before in human history the ability to find ways to self-actualize, regardless of where they are physically or socially.


The online world is lumpy, but sometimes this results in places that exhibit wonderful community-like characteristics. If companies can profit from this, is that really something to be condemned?

Not applicable

Phil, this is helping me a lot, so thank you again.


I respect your definition of community in paragaph three of your most recent comment, but I wonder if you're elevating "form" over "function" in order to make your point. Engagement and purpose are two different things (they're certainly not synonyms), and the qualities you reference as evidence of an active community could easily be used to describe any pointless activity. There's no inherent value in activity, is there? Real communities have purpose other than ensuring their own existence for the benefit of brands.


Regarding your modesty on judging individual needs, I think that's exactly what your job is as a marketer and busines person. I'm not suggesting that you should presume to possess some all-seeing ability, or that you need always be right, but this presumption that brands are supposed to 'give up' responsibility for identifying, understanding, and anticipating/delivering on customer needs is laughable, in my humble opinion. Businesses are supposed to do just that, and the idea that we should somehow engage with consumers or the outside world at large without staying laser focused on this purpose has absolutely no precedent nor support in history. It's an invention of the Internet Age and, as such, I think it's suspect.


I love your riff on what's "real" in the world. Add the quantum nature of reality to your mix and there's a convo worthy of a few drinks if ever we meet!


Finally, no condemnation here. I'm all for companies making money; it's just that a lot of the social activities and 'communities' don't make any money whatsoever...instead, they deliver on these convoluted, abstract models of ROI that are invented to affirm a priori expectations of their value. Giving people their say in the online world is a wonderful thing but there's no money in it unless it's linked to identifying, understanding, and delivering on needs, not just wants. Services are the answer, some some amended and imperfect definition of community.

Honored Contributor



I think you are absolutely right that community can = service, in that a successful one returns value for the participants.  If there is no value, no service to the user, then I agree that it is likely to be short lived.


I think company run communities will be successful if they do think in terms of the unique value that they are creating for the customer, and don't become completely pre-occupied with ROI and optimizing solely for the company interests.   In theory, as long as the company is spending most of it's time and energy providing value in the community - ensuring questions are answered,  the environment is kept friendly and inviting, and the majority of the users feel recognized at some level I think a company town can be be successful.




It would be interesting to see what makes one boom or bust in the first year, and then what factors shape the trajectory in subsequent years.  What happens when an outside agency runs the community for the company?  What happens if the founding community leaders move on and new management takes over?  



Lithium Alumni (Retired)

"If I were the master of the universe, I would probably prefer that this person use his cognitive surplus to compose symphonies, but I am not He." Don't be so modest, now 😉

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Count me as someone who doesn't find the perennial argument about "is an online community a real community" to be very fruitful.  This may be because the debate hasn't advanced very far since 1968, when J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor first used the term "community" in relation to computer networks.  "They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest," said L&T.  Smart guys.  Hard to improve on that when trying to describe what brings people together -- and keeps them together -- online. 


But I think you can improve on that, by acknowledging that online communities can also be united by geographical, family, or institutional (education, employment, commerce)  relationships imported from the "real" world.  That's the world of Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.  L&T didn't see it because they didn't see quite all the implications of a time when you, and you brother, and your neighbor, and your boss might all be part of the same online network. 


Brand communities -- which we haven't really defined, but by which I believe we mean communities created by companies for customers and prospects -- are united by interest and by the institutional bonds that link companies and customers (i.e., contracts, warranties, support agreements, tacit expectations about what it means to be a customer or a product/service provider).  Brand communities are a means by which the effort of  individuals pursing individual goals (information, help, entertainment, recognition) is converted into a collective benefit to all participants, including the company.


Ok, that's a description of "what a brand community is," which is independent of the question of whether they look or feel like your neighborhood, town or village.  (In fact, it is somewhat similar to your neighborhood, town or village, since the latter also have an institutional "host" (i.e., the city or county government that paves the streets, keeps the peace, etc.), a small percentage of the population that devotes the effort that benefits the community, and a large percentage of the community that supports it largely by not breaking the law.)


On to the questions of whether a brand  community can succeed, and what makes a brand community successful:


Re whether a brand community can succeed, I simply direct you to Google and say, with Dr. Johnson, "I refute it thus."   A little searching will turn up hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of successful communities created by brands for their customers.  Most of these, as JSB predicts, are aimed at meeting needs.  They are "how-to" communities -- they address, with regard to the product or service the brand provides, how to find, how to buy, and how to use those products or services.   This type of brand community is the normative case; the community of "come look at my marketing materials" is the edge case.  When JSB says "brand communities are destined to fail," he is generalizing on the edge case.   Which isn't to say that there aren't a lot of examples of that particular edge case.  It's a big world out there.


Re what makes a brand community successful, I'd direct you to the Lithosphere, including the advice Mark and Phil have shared here over the years.:)