To continue where I left off earlier this week, I was talking about the large number of uses the word 'community' is being put to, and wondered if that was making it harder for organizations to come up with effective community strategies. If the term community is going to avoid becoming a grab bag of any social concept we want to attach to it, we will need to put some definition around it.
Let me begin by saying I don't expect to definitively answer the question of what is community in all its forms and expressions. This is a concept that many better equipped than I are engaged in researching and refining. But I would like to try to come up with a working definition for organizations to use as they start thinking about how to approach online community as an objective to advance their goals.
So perhaps the best way to talk about community is to start at the result: what do we want a community for?
I would argue that earning the trust of members is the ultimate benefit organizations can obtain from communities. Trust is fundamental because it enables everything else, from increased sales and satisfaction to improved product development and adoption. These objectives cannot occur without sufficient trust. And if that is true, how do communities help to build trust? Or better yet, how do online communities in particular facilitate the building of trust better than other methods?
I feel the key is in the coalescence of a shared identity among community members. Membership and affinity become possible because we are naturally disposed to associate with others who are like us. We say that we belong to communities or groups, that we are a part of something that is larger than ourselves and we identify with and trust other members as a result. A prime examples of this is in politics: how often do we see that people vote along 'party lines' no matter who the candidate is? Americans, for example, will frequently assert that they vote a particular way because they are either a Democrat or Republican; because their party affiliation is ultimately a part of who they are. An example at the extreme end of the spectrum perhaps, but we do define ourselves through our associations and that definition creates a degree of trust.
So it is this shared identity that I think ultimately differentiates a community from other groups of individuals. And once that common emotional connection exists, you benefit from the network effects possible online to build relationships and trust further and faster than prior methods could accomplish.
Next up: if shared identity is the foundation for trust among groups, how do you get there? What are the common elements of communities that enable these associations to form and interact?
Photo by by Joe Shlabotnik
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