Artificial Communities Suck. Let Your Community Grow Naturally.

WordCamp SF - Community - Chris Pirillo (Lockergnome.com)If you’ve been looking at the future of social media, it’s not about the tools or the tactics on engaging your customers. It’s your customers engaging each other. This was the central theme that was offered by Chris Pirillo in his presentation during WordCamp last Saturday. When you’re trying to build a community, it’s not something that has structure and comes with an instructional manual. It’s simply not possible for you to assign a timeline on when you want it to be up and running.

Take for example something that Pirillo mentioned during his presentation: the iPhone. He made it clear that he wasn’t really interested in it at first but then it grew on him. Then gradually he got used to it. The thing is that the iPhone miraculously formed its own community. Apple did nothing to create it, but once they saw something emerging they supported it. But just what is a community? It’s a group of people who join together based on a common interest (or you could read what dictionary.com has). So in the case of the iPhone, there’s a bunch of people who are enthusiastic about the product, thereby making sense to reach out to these groups of people and strike up a conversation.

It isn’t about a company it’s about a culture. That’s according to Pirillo and I wholly agree with him. You try and create a community and get people to join, it’s almost a bit self-serving and probably akin to bullying. Here you have product X and are inviting people you may know online or are your friends to join & have them spread the word and have more people join. But if none of them even care about your product, purchased it, or even know about it, then what good does it do for them? Setting up a community based on what the company is can be like pulling teeth – no one likes that.

So what’s the next steps?

Look at where these communities are forming and then go to them. Don’t have them come to you and ask them for help. These are your evangelists and you should be encouraging them to help you innovate. Why would you turn away a community when you know they can be a focus group for you. I suppose you can see them as your biggest cheerleaders but also your most vocal opposition if you screw things up with a product they once liked. They may even be quite fickle with your decisions so you’ll need to occasionally reach out to them to appreciate them – and I’m not talking about putting on a front. Legitimately appreciate them and support the community.

Chris Pirillo makes a good point that communities are becoming increasingly distributed. This goes back to my last point about going to them. You won’t see them setting up shop on at your domain. So a community for brands like Toyota won’t have them all in a subdomain of Toyota.com. Nay. On the contrary, these communities are rather scattered throughout the corners of the World Wide Web. You may find them discussing your product or brand on Facebook, FriendFeed, YouTube, message boards or forums, chat rooms, Twitter, or even blogs. Do your research and make it a point to go out in search of these communities. You won’t be able to bring them into the fold, but at least you can interact with them.

Community requires tools that can’t be built. Let’s look at conversation more than invention software or tools that will solve everything. They won’t. Common interest is one of the tools that I think should be used to help build a community. You can’t physically build common interest. It’s not something that is tangible or can be monetized immediately that will galvanize people to your brand.

Lastly, I’d say that communities grow their own leaders. You can pick someone out of the group of people to be their leader. Natural selection will have its say to make one the leader of the pack that they all respect and who will have a lot of influence over others. By your interference in trying to “select” a leader, you are only corrupting the process and stripping the community of its innocence. They want untainted leaders that haven’t been sullied by your company’s presence or influence. These leaders will emerge to be the ones that people believe have a genuine affinity towards your product. So if you interfere and choose someone, you’re going to have a revolt of folks who say that you have basically created a “sponsored community”, which will, in a manner of speaking, bury your chances at having evangelistic community members.

Remember, you can have cheerleaders in your community or you can have opposers. Your brand either suffers or succeeds. Listen to Pirillo’s statement on people: Community is a commodity, but people aren’t. Treat them with respect and they’ll treat you right.

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the stories of the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently the Technology Editor at Flipboard, where he observes what's happening in the space while also identifying new topics of interest. In addition, he co-hosts the weekly internet show "The Created Economy," which focuses on what's happening to creators and influencers. Previously, he was a reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding. Ken also has a newsletter you should also subscribe to called "Filed."