Does Self-Promotion Really Equal Community-Building?

“Community” is a popular buzzword nowadays, even more so since the explosion of social media. But are we really using it the right way?

Think about the most high-profile proponents of social media. The people you think of likely have large followings and significant engagement with their work. Now, ask yourself – does that mean they have built a community around themselves ? Or are they just talented self-promoters who know how to build fans?

The answer seems obvious, right? I mean, we rail against overt self-promoters and embrace community builders… or do we?

Wikipedia looks to the definition of true community as defined by Scott Peck, as “the process of deep respect and true listening for the needs of the other people in this community.”

“Community” is an easy word to throw around. It’s easy to say that because people comment on your site, or re-tweet your Twitter posts, that you have a community. However, if those people aren’t truly engaged with you (and vice versa), is it really a community?

Does a community have to be a two-way dialogue?

I can think of some ‘A-listers’ who have reached out to me privately to head-off a discussion, but when I responded to their intervention and attempted to engage in a friendly discussion, I received no response. That suggests to me that those people haven’t built a community – there’s no true listening and there’s no deep respect. They’ve used social media tools in a traditional marketing-based fashion to build numbers, but have little connection to those people.

To make the conversation even more interesting, we could also debate – which gets better results for businesses? From my perspective, a following can get you short-term benefits but a community is more likely to be successful in the long run.

Some of the people who, I think have been successful in creating a community for themselves, their product or their initiatives include Joe Thornley, through meetups like Third Tuesday TorontoChris Brogran and the folks at Radian6.

Part of the problem, as I’m sure people like Brogan can attest, is scaling. As volume goes up, the amount of attention you can pay to each community member goes down. When that happens, you can start to approach that line of promotion/community-building again. I suspect the difference comes down to the bonds you’ve created to and within your community – does it pull together and support others in the community, or does it always look to the figurehead. In other words, is it a true community or is it a group of followers with a leader?

I’m curious to hear what community managers like Amber Naslund, Erin Bury, Melanie Baker, Keith Burtis and David Spinks have to say on this. Is there a line, and where is it, between self-promotion and building a community, and how do you deal with the volume issue?

How about you? How would you separate people who have built a community from people who just have a large audience, and which approach do you think makes sense for businesses?

58 comments
Nate Holland
Nate Holland

It's always quality over quantity for me when it comes to business. Sure, it is nice to have a large audience especially for business. But that's way different than building a community. A community is a place where two people interact with each other - it is not a one way thing. For you to have "quality customers" you need to provide them with quality service. And what is that? Talking to them, showing you are interested in their opinions etc. Soon, even with a small number in your community, you're sure to be more successful because these quality customers will be referring you to their friends and family. I think it's the best and only way to go.

Nate Holland
Nate Holland

It's always quality over quantity for me when it comes to business. Sure, it is nice to have a large audience especially for business. But that's way different than building a community. A community is a place where two people interact with each other - it is not a one way thing. For you to have "quality customers" you need to provide them with quality service. And what is that? Talking to them, showing you are interested in their opinions etc. Soon, even with a small number in your community, you're sure to be more successful because these quality customers will be referring you to their friends and family. I think it's the best and only way to go.

Sonya Goldman
Sonya Goldman

Intention plays a key role here. Your post reminds me, as a niche website marketer, to be clear about my intentions. Do I truly wish to build a community with my site or to be seen as a leader (hopefully) offering a service. Either intention is fine, but you've helped me realize that if I want to build a community my users need a different experience on my site and different kinds of interaction with me and each other. Thanks for the insight.

Sonya Goldman
Sonya Goldman

Intention plays a key role here. Your post reminds me, as a niche website marketer, to be clear about my intentions. Do I truly wish to build a community with my site or to be seen as a leader (hopefully) offering a service. Either intention is fine, but you've helped me realize that if I want to build a community my users need a different experience on my site and different kinds of interaction with me and each other. Thanks for the insight.

Peter Holleley
Peter Holleley

Does Self-Promotion Really Equal Community-Building?

No, Dave, it doesn’t; just as one wall doesn’t make a house.

In building a community (or anything else of any permanence!) we need to do the job properly. “Two-way dialogue” – effective communications - is a good start but not enough; “dialogueS” says it better but at least four dynamics of them are necessary. (1) self-perceived leader to follower/member A, (2) member A back to leader, (3) member A to member B, and (4) vice versa … across an increasing pool of people.

Clearly effective communications are VITAL to creating anything of real lasting value.

Wikipedia’s “true listening” is really the recipient understanding, duplicating, in his own universe (all or some of) what was communicated by the originator across all the preceptors, including body language and ESP. When the message is ethical and its recipient has a willing and open mind, “deep respect” and mutual benefits can ensue.

Self promotion? That is building one wall and hoping that it’ll stay up while the other 3 and a roof get built! Surely such is merely one-way data dropping on the principle that “if you throw enough $!*# at the wall some of it will stick.” (Tip: Don’t let anyone call this the Information Age and expect you to nod your head. The word information pre-supposes attention, interest, understanding, applicability, maybe deep pockets … a host of assumptions. The more appropriate tag is Data Age … we’re deluged with ever-more data from all directions every waking moment; maybe it even gives us nightmares too! Data only becomes information when it is effectively communicated so that we understand it, and its (possible) importance to us: big difference between data and information!)

Dave, your name dropping was below my horizon but let’s look at Barack Obama. He sure built, and caused to be built, a very effective (that word again!) national community, and is moving out internationally. Michael Jackson created an effective world community with the magic of his music, dance and performances – magic that overcame personal negatives.

Will the character Bruno that the movies have invested millions to present and self-promote become an endearing and persisting cult (an effective community, in truth, but not for me!) or is he merely a freaky one-day wonder? Communities of influence will decide!

Respectfully submitted by Peter Holleley, Toronto.

Peter Holleley
Peter Holleley

Does Self-Promotion Really Equal Community-Building? No, Dave, it doesn’t; just as one wall doesn’t make a house. In building a community (or anything else of any permanence!) we need to do the job properly. “Two-way dialogue” – effective communications - is a good start but not enough; “dialogueS” says it better but at least four dynamics of them are necessary. (1) self-perceived leader to follower/member A, (2) member A back to leader, (3) member A to member B, and (4) vice versa … across an increasing pool of people. Clearly effective communications are VITAL to creating anything of real lasting value. Wikipedia’s “true listening” is really the recipient understanding, duplicating, in his own universe (all or some of) what was communicated by the originator across all the preceptors, including body language and ESP. When the message is ethical and its recipient has a willing and open mind, “deep respect” and mutual benefits can ensue. Self promotion? That is building one wall and hoping that it’ll stay up while the other 3 and a roof get built! Surely such is merely one-way data dropping on the principle that “if you throw enough $!*# at the wall some of it will stick.” (Tip: Don’t let anyone call this the Information Age and expect you to nod your head. The word information pre-supposes attention, interest, understanding, applicability, maybe deep pockets … a host of assumptions. The more appropriate tag is Data Age … we’re deluged with ever-more data from all directions every waking moment; maybe it even gives us nightmares too! Data only becomes information when it is effectively communicated so that we understand it, and its (possible) importance to us: big difference between data and information!) Dave, your name dropping was below my horizon but let’s look at Barack Obama. He sure built, and caused to be built, a very effective (that word again!) national community, and is moving out internationally. Michael Jackson created an effective world community with the magic of his music, dance and performances – magic that overcame personal negatives. Will the character Bruno that the movies have invested millions to present and self-promote become an endearing and persisting cult (an effective community, in truth, but not for me!) or is he merely a freaky one-day wonder? Communities of influence will decide! Respectfully submitted by Peter Holleley, Toronto.

Amber Naslund
Amber Naslund

Hi Dave,

Sorry for the delay in my reply. Was soaking up some vacation time.

Scaling one-to-many isn't easy. But to me, the secret to *real* community isn't just about connecting me, the community "sherpa", to the masses. It's about connecting the community members *to one another*.

I suppose on my blog and the way I approach the community on Twitter, I look at myself as a node rather than the tip of a mountain. I'm a bridge and a connector, but I'm not the show. The point is for the community - if it's got merit - to survive beyond me and even without me. I'm a catalyst, but I'm not the glue holding things together.

That's a bit different on my personal blog I suppose since I'm the one generating the content. But many of the best discussions take place in the comments among the readers, without my intervention. It's about starting conversations, not just finishing them.

It's not an easy balance all the time. I try super hard to engage and connect with as many people as I can while making time for my closest friends in a personal way.

Community building isn't easy. But then again, nothing worth having and keeping ever is.

Amber Naslund
Amber Naslund

Hi Dave, Sorry for the delay in my reply. Was soaking up some vacation time. Scaling one-to-many isn't easy. But to me, the secret to *real* community isn't just about connecting me, the community "sherpa", to the masses. It's about connecting the community members *to one another*. I suppose on my blog and the way I approach the community on Twitter, I look at myself as a node rather than the tip of a mountain. I'm a bridge and a connector, but I'm not the show. The point is for the community - if it's got merit - to survive beyond me and even without me. I'm a catalyst, but I'm not the glue holding things together. That's a bit different on my personal blog I suppose since I'm the one generating the content. But many of the best discussions take place in the comments among the readers, without my intervention. It's about starting conversations, not just finishing them. It's not an easy balance all the time. I try super hard to engage and connect with as many people as I can while making time for my closest friends in a personal way. Community building isn't easy. But then again, nothing worth having and keeping ever is.

Joseph Fiore
Joseph Fiore

Dave,

Thanks for advancing such a thought provoking discussion. IMHO, the line between self-promotion and community building is blurring primarily because value of contribution finds itself in a strange predicament. Where does the idea originate? Is it being repackaged or is the idea a first unique offering to the community? How loud is the volume of that message? Is it an audible bright light bulb that goes on, or a noisy neon ballast that annoys and distracts us? Personally, if I see the same group of folks cranking-up the volume of the same circle of contributors messages, it starts to appear more of a "promotional" shill machine than a message that has been crowd-sourced by a "community." Lastly is the notion of sponsoring voices, and based on the mixed views on the topic, I think this will have a much greater impact on the subject at hand, and the overall impression Web audiences will form towards A-listers - more so than any issues that have arisen from scaling for listening or engagement and, I dare say, even the mired ghost tweeting.

Joseph
@RepuTrack

Joseph Fiore
Joseph Fiore

Dave, Thanks for advancing such a thought provoking discussion. IMHO, the line between self-promotion and community building is blurring primarily because value of contribution finds itself in a strange predicament. Where does the idea originate? Is it being repackaged or is the idea a first unique offering to the community? How loud is the volume of that message? Is it an audible bright light bulb that goes on, or a noisy neon ballast that annoys and distracts us? Personally, if I see the same group of folks cranking-up the volume of the same circle of contributors messages, it starts to appear more of a "promotional" shill machine than a message that has been crowd-sourced by a "community." Lastly is the notion of sponsoring voices, and based on the mixed views on the topic, I think this will have a much greater impact on the subject at hand, and the overall impression Web audiences will form towards A-listers - more so than any issues that have arisen from scaling for listening or engagement and, I dare say, even the mired ghost tweeting. Joseph @RepuTrack

Brian Russell
Brian Russell

My quick-take of community is a common interest that binds. It can be give-and-take or two-way, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. For instance, it'd be difficult to argue that Apple's is a two-way street. The community is there, nonetheless. That won't work for everyone, though.

Brian Russell
Brian Russell

My quick-take of community is a common interest that binds. It can be give-and-take or two-way, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. For instance, it'd be difficult to argue that Apple's is a two-way street. The community is there, nonetheless. That won't work for everyone, though.

Shari Weiss
Shari Weiss

I enjoyed the community-feel of this post . . . for many reasons:
1) As a relative newcomer to the Awesome Potential of Social Media Marketing [to improve business and the world], I see COMMUNITY-BUILDING as the Key Value of building a business's online presence.
2) Thinking about, listening to how others define community, and re-thinking my own definition has been a beneficial exercise for me as I drafted my own comment.
3) Authentic connection is a critical objective to obtaining the ultimate goal of satisfaction for everyone in the community group. So, yes, the leader and/or manager is important, but everyone inside the community has an opportunity to help everyone else. And, in that case, the leader no longer needs to feel the responsibility to handle every problem or challenge.
4) I most agree with Brian Hamlett's idea of community as "online relationships and conversations that allow us to listen, share, connect, and help one another." In a nutshell, that is the power for Good of all our social media efforts.

Shari Weiss
Shari Weiss

I enjoyed the community-feel of this post . . . for many reasons: 1) As a relative newcomer to the Awesome Potential of Social Media Marketing [to improve business and the world], I see COMMUNITY-BUILDING as the Key Value of building a business's online presence. 2) Thinking about, listening to how others define community, and re-thinking my own definition has been a beneficial exercise for me as I drafted my own comment. 3) Authentic connection is a critical objective to obtaining the ultimate goal of satisfaction for everyone in the community group. So, yes, the leader and/or manager is important, but everyone inside the community has an opportunity to help everyone else. And, in that case, the leader no longer needs to feel the responsibility to handle every problem or challenge. 4) I most agree with Brian Hamlett's idea of community as "online relationships and conversations that allow us to listen, share, connect, and help one another." In a nutshell, that is the power for Good of all our social media efforts.

Jennifer Wadsworth
Jennifer Wadsworth

While my non-profit is only 6 mos old, we are already planning for growth by encouraging members to form Action Groups or create Sustainable Hubsites each with their own "gurus", etc. The thought is that once these groups are up and running (and are representing the mission and goals of the original group), they will take on some of the interactive tasks - those that they are best qualified to answer.

Ok - so that's our goal - now I need to find out just how to make that work =)

Now I'm wondering if a great community (as defined above) is not intrinsically "self promoting" just by its existance. Because who doesn't want to bask in the glory of deep respect and true listening for their needs?

Jennifer Wadsworth
Jennifer Wadsworth

While my non-profit is only 6 mos old, we are already planning for growth by encouraging members to form Action Groups or create Sustainable Hubsites each with their own "gurus", etc. The thought is that once these groups are up and running (and are representing the mission and goals of the original group), they will take on some of the interactive tasks - those that they are best qualified to answer. Ok - so that's our goal - now I need to find out just how to make that work =) Now I'm wondering if a great community (as defined above) is not intrinsically "self promoting" just by its existance. Because who doesn't want to bask in the glory of deep respect and true listening for their needs?

Brian Hamlett
Brian Hamlett

This is exactly why I don't just follow everyone who follows me on Twitter. As well as not immediately adding people on Facebook and LinkedIn. I have a desire to create a "community" as you define, by developing ongoing relationships and conversations that allow us to listen, share, connect, and help one another! The other methods are sort of what I call the "King Kong Approach." Climb to the top of the tallest tower, pound your chest, and declare yourself king of a pile of people you really don't know!

Brian Hamlett
Brian Hamlett

This is exactly why I don't just follow everyone who follows me on Twitter. As well as not immediately adding people on Facebook and LinkedIn. I have a desire to create a "community" as you define, by developing ongoing relationships and conversations that allow us to listen, share, connect, and help one another! The other methods are sort of what I call the "King Kong Approach." Climb to the top of the tallest tower, pound your chest, and declare yourself king of a pile of people you really don't know!

Sue
Sue

I think this depends on the community and the individual. Sometimes it's the "brand" of the individual that attracts followers to the community that the person is associated with.

Sue
Sue

I think this depends on the community and the individual. Sometimes it's the "brand" of the individual that attracts followers to the community that the person is associated with.

Chris Brogan...
Chris Brogan...

Okay, me personally: yes, it's really fricken hard to respond to everyone, and I can't, but I do my best, and I try to be earnest, and I continue to try and cultivate other voices in my online community such that they will answer the easier questions, and get me a chance to focus on the harder questions.

Second, I've had to pay VERY close attention to giving time to friends and people who are important to me, instead of accidentally running out of time for them by saying hi to everyone who says hi to me. This manifests itself visibly at conferences. I can talk to EVERYONE and diss my friends, or I can try and sneak off and have a few private conversations, and then do what I can to talk to the masses.

But that's all just me.

Done right, a community should always have managers (who maybe deserve the better title of facilitator or maintainer), and they should always have a few strong voices, not just one.

Does it always go that way? Hell no. Do all online communities survive? Hell no. Should they? Hell no.

I love this post. I wonder if the title matches the heart of the post. I was worried you were going to call me a self-promoting bastard (which, of course, I am).

Chris Brogan...
Chris Brogan...

Okay, me personally: yes, it's really fricken hard to respond to everyone, and I can't, but I do my best, and I try to be earnest, and I continue to try and cultivate other voices in my online community such that they will answer the easier questions, and get me a chance to focus on the harder questions. Second, I've had to pay VERY close attention to giving time to friends and people who are important to me, instead of accidentally running out of time for them by saying hi to everyone who says hi to me. This manifests itself visibly at conferences. I can talk to EVERYONE and diss my friends, or I can try and sneak off and have a few private conversations, and then do what I can to talk to the masses. But that's all just me. Done right, a community should always have managers (who maybe deserve the better title of facilitator or maintainer), and they should always have a few strong voices, not just one. Does it always go that way? Hell no. Do all online communities survive? Hell no. Should they? Hell no. I love this post. I wonder if the title matches the heart of the post. I was worried you were going to call me a self-promoting bastard (which, of course, I am).

Flavian Delima
Flavian Delima

I associate community managers with great teachers who listen. It turns out rather than lecturing, they are awesome at facilitating engaging conversations between once strangers who often become friends and sometimes close friends. After all, shared experiences through common interests, passions, values and goals is why two people connect with a third and so forth.

When friends allow each other to be heard through open dialogue, authenticity and engagement, those friends sometimes grow in ways not completely obvious to one other. A friend takes time on the sidelines to help another friend often on an entirely different life issue because they care. More often than not, community managers/leaders/coordinators/hosts get raised as a result of others feeling bigger and better than before they invested their time and effort in a particular community. I suspect for the process to go smoothly, it seems a facilitator must do things to remind themselves of their unique talent and skill for bringing people together long enough to create meaningful conversations in whatever direction the community deems appropriate. If offering value implies self-promotion, then we should all be a tad better known tomorrow if a few more people benefit from our efforts today. Great post Dave!

Flavian Delima
Flavian Delima

I associate community managers with great teachers who listen. It turns out rather than lecturing, they are awesome at facilitating engaging conversations between once strangers who often become friends and sometimes close friends. After all, shared experiences through common interests, passions, values and goals is why two people connect with a third and so forth. When friends allow each other to be heard through open dialogue, authenticity and engagement, those friends sometimes grow in ways not completely obvious to one other. A friend takes time on the sidelines to help another friend often on an entirely different life issue because they care. More often than not, community managers/leaders/coordinators/hosts get raised as a result of others feeling bigger and better than before they invested their time and effort in a particular community. I suspect for the process to go smoothly, it seems a facilitator must do things to remind themselves of their unique talent and skill for bringing people together long enough to create meaningful conversations in whatever direction the community deems appropriate. If offering value implies self-promotion, then we should all be a tad better known tomorrow if a few more people benefit from our efforts today. Great post Dave!

Teresa Basich
Teresa Basich

This is a great post, Dave, that offers some good food for thought.

I feel People like Amber and Chris do very little to "promote" their independent brand -- they engage with certain people in their community, address the concerns and comments that pop up when they feel it's needed, but you don't see them replying to every person who stops by or tweets a link to one of their posts. They say things that people agree with and believe in, and common beliefs and feelings are what connect people and build communities. While I'm sure certain followers just jump on board because of the person, I think it's mostly because of what's been said and the ensuing conversations that pop up from initial thoughts.

Also, I think the camaraderie developed between community members to some extent removes the impetus for managers to reply to everyone. Members can talk to each other, and have great conversations without the participation of the head honcho. That's often just as useful and rewarding to a community member as direct contact with the manager.

Like David said, I think community managers have to find a balance between self promotion and following up with the needs of their communities. I can't imagine that scaling is easy, but I would think that the community members who find the most benefit are those who understand a manager can't respond to everything they say; they also see more value in their community than just the attention of the men and women at the top.

Teresa Basich
Teresa Basich

This is a great post, Dave, that offers some good food for thought. I feel People like Amber and Chris do very little to "promote" their independent brand -- they engage with certain people in their community, address the concerns and comments that pop up when they feel it's needed, but you don't see them replying to every person who stops by or tweets a link to one of their posts. They say things that people agree with and believe in, and common beliefs and feelings are what connect people and build communities. While I'm sure certain followers just jump on board because of the person, I think it's mostly because of what's been said and the ensuing conversations that pop up from initial thoughts. Also, I think the camaraderie developed between community members to some extent removes the impetus for managers to reply to everyone. Members can talk to each other, and have great conversations without the participation of the head honcho. That's often just as useful and rewarding to a community member as direct contact with the manager. Like David said, I think community managers have to find a balance between self promotion and following up with the needs of their communities. I can't imagine that scaling is easy, but I would think that the community members who find the most benefit are those who understand a manager can't respond to everything they say; they also see more value in their community than just the attention of the men and women at the top.

Keith Burtis
Keith Burtis

"I can think of some ‘A-listers’ who have reached out to me privately to head-off a discussion, but when I responded to their intervention and attempted to engage in a friendly discussion, I received no response." -From Above

This has been my experience as well. One of the key phrases I use in community building success is this, " Check your Ego at the door, and learn to appeal to others" Now, this does not mean that you need to run around kissing the butts of every person you come across, but you need to treat humans like humans. People have feelings and no one likes to feel like they are beneath you.

This being said, it is VERY difficult to scale, but you can set up tools for business that help. Sometimes a simple forum helps act as a clearing house to answer questions in a community. Tools like batchblue, radian 6, and salesforce allow you to stay more organized and bring in information to one place.

We have a long way to go in how we handle the size of our communities and I surely don't have all or any of the answers, but I am working damn hard to scale.

As a last thought, sometimes we need to get help! Virtual assistants and the like will become more and more popular as the social media space progresses. What do you think about receiving email from an assistant rather than the real person? Also, in order to fford these types of luxuries we will need to show profit and ROI.... another sticky subject.

-Keith Burtis

Keith Burtis
Keith Burtis

"I can think of some ‘A-listers’ who have reached out to me privately to head-off a discussion, but when I responded to their intervention and attempted to engage in a friendly discussion, I received no response." -From Above This has been my experience as well. One of the key phrases I use in community building success is this, " Check your Ego at the door, and learn to appeal to others" Now, this does not mean that you need to run around kissing the butts of every person you come across, but you need to treat humans like humans. People have feelings and no one likes to feel like they are beneath you. This being said, it is VERY difficult to scale, but you can set up tools for business that help. Sometimes a simple forum helps act as a clearing house to answer questions in a community. Tools like batchblue, radian 6, and salesforce allow you to stay more organized and bring in information to one place. We have a long way to go in how we handle the size of our communities and I surely don't have all or any of the answers, but I am working damn hard to scale. As a last thought, sometimes we need to get help! Virtual assistants and the like will become more and more popular as the social media space progresses. What do you think about receiving email from an assistant rather than the real person? Also, in order to fford these types of luxuries we will need to show profit and ROI.... another sticky subject. -Keith Burtis

Melanie Baker
Melanie Baker

I guess it really depends what the point of the promotion is (self- if it's you, or company-based if you're part of but not necessarily driving a larger entity). We're here to do business, after all. People are generally cool with that. Most of them are doing the same thing on some level. Those companies or individuals that invest in community management are, presumably, interesting in doing business in a particular way. They are encouraging a certain level of access to the company and those who work there, but also encouraging a certain level of access among customers/users/etc. (Which, really, is something you only do when you've got nothing to hide.)

Of course, not every interaction has to be community-building. I don't need to make friends with the people at the grocery store when I go to buy milk. And people will continue to go to movies or see concerts even though it's not viable for most celebrities to ever have personal interaction with those fans.

However, the aforementioned fundamental thread of respect is a catalyst, and it applies to all relationships and engagement, even if the interaction is single-serving. It sends a message that we're all in this together. Business is, after all, an ecosystem, where, without a company or person creating a product, there's nothing for people to buy to make life better or solve a problem. And if there are no customers buying the product, the company will cease to exist.

When you respect your customers or users or just those who've expressed interest in what you do (whether as the community manager, or more ideally, as anyone in the company, since rarely can you utterly control who is customer-facing and who never is), it shows you understand the balance of the ecosystem and know that they're as important as you.

Respect doesn't mean you're BFF, but it does mean you do your best, even though that will sometimes mean you can't give people what they want (implementing a requested feature, giving freebies, telling them proprietary information, etc...) Certainly there will be a few people you can never do enough for (their opinion), but doing your best will usually put you head and shoulders above a lot of efforts out there, and people will recognize, appreciate, and rally around that. (Buy your stuff, recommend you, answer questions about your stuff for newbs on forums, etc.) As has also been noted -- they will start building communities, but amongst themselves. Their interests, their experiences -- you're just a reason to do so (you should be honoured).

Certainly you can build an audience or customer base without much respect. Some personalities will always have fanboys/girls because their expectations aren't very high. However, the business ecosystem is evolving, and more and more of us are expecting better. Google sucks and you'll see no end of websites that are the result of that "in it for me" approach. Many of us remain customers of those companies only due to lack of viable alternatives. Of course, this approach builds community, too -- of people who've bonded over the ways you've screwed them over. And they can be all kinds of passionate. Eventually, though, the ecosystem will fail. Viable alternatives will arrive, and they'll abandon ship.

Regarding scaling, that's hard, because it starts to feel like your best means less and less to fewer and fewer. There are some blessings in disguise to it, though, in that it forces you to be smarter in managing interactions -- adopting tools to be more organized, developing resources to handle questions or issues that come up often, not spending too much time on things that aren't really terribly important in the long run, etc. And, again, I think most people get that. There are simply ways that mom and pop shop size/style businesses can afford to do things that aren't options for bigger companies.

If your respect for your customers/users/community is there, then you'll probably make the right decisions even through the growing pains. I think resolve is very important in managing scale, though, too. You need to determine policies and scope sooner rather than later. You need to determine how you'll handle things -- and be consistent about it (when you think about it, consistency is also a big part of respect). You need to communicate policies to explain how you've decided to handle things, and your responses need defined edges and conviction. If you can't do something or suspect you won't be able to, say no, period. It's okay to say no, whether it's to a specific request or to requested interactions you simply can't commit to due to other responsibilities. Anything less and someone will consider that a yes, and then consider it your failing when it doesn't happen (and in the timely fashion they're used to).

Bottom line, business will always be a type of community of limited potential and tight-knit-ness (I refuse to use "intimacy"), because it exists for a specific (limited) purpose. And that's as it should be. But at the same time, just because something's limited in scope doesn't mean there has to be anything inferior about it, and that especially applies to how we treat those populating and nourishing our ecosystems.

I think I just wrote a blog post on your blog post. How rude... Oh well, you asked. ;)

Melanie Baker
Melanie Baker

I guess it really depends what the point of the promotion is (self- if it's you, or company-based if you're part of but not necessarily driving a larger entity). We're here to do business, after all. People are generally cool with that. Most of them are doing the same thing on some level. Those companies or individuals that invest in community management are, presumably, interesting in doing business in a particular way. They are encouraging a certain level of access to the company and those who work there, but also encouraging a certain level of access among customers/users/etc. (Which, really, is something you only do when you've got nothing to hide.) Of course, not every interaction has to be community-building. I don't need to make friends with the people at the grocery store when I go to buy milk. And people will continue to go to movies or see concerts even though it's not viable for most celebrities to ever have personal interaction with those fans. However, the aforementioned fundamental thread of respect is a catalyst, and it applies to all relationships and engagement, even if the interaction is single-serving. It sends a message that we're all in this together. Business is, after all, an ecosystem, where, without a company or person creating a product, there's nothing for people to buy to make life better or solve a problem. And if there are no customers buying the product, the company will cease to exist. When you respect your customers or users or just those who've expressed interest in what you do (whether as the community manager, or more ideally, as anyone in the company, since rarely can you utterly control who is customer-facing and who never is), it shows you understand the balance of the ecosystem and know that they're as important as you. Respect doesn't mean you're BFF, but it does mean you do your best, even though that will sometimes mean you can't give people what they want (implementing a requested feature, giving freebies, telling them proprietary information, etc...) Certainly there will be a few people you can never do enough for (their opinion), but doing your best will usually put you head and shoulders above a lot of efforts out there, and people will recognize, appreciate, and rally around that. (Buy your stuff, recommend you, answer questions about your stuff for newbs on forums, etc.) As has also been noted -- they will start building communities, but amongst themselves. Their interests, their experiences -- you're just a reason to do so (you should be honoured). Certainly you can build an audience or customer base without much respect. Some personalities will always have fanboys/girls because their expectations aren't very high. However, the business ecosystem is evolving, and more and more of us are expecting better. Google sucks and you'll see no end of websites that are the result of that "in it for me" approach. Many of us remain customers of those companies only due to lack of viable alternatives. Of course, this approach builds community, too -- of people who've bonded over the ways you've screwed them over. And they can be all kinds of passionate. Eventually, though, the ecosystem will fail. Viable alternatives will arrive, and they'll abandon ship. Regarding scaling, that's hard, because it starts to feel like your best means less and less to fewer and fewer. There are some blessings in disguise to it, though, in that it forces you to be smarter in managing interactions -- adopting tools to be more organized, developing resources to handle questions or issues that come up often, not spending too much time on things that aren't really terribly important in the long run, etc. And, again, I think most people get that. There are simply ways that mom and pop shop size/style businesses can afford to do things that aren't options for bigger companies. If your respect for your customers/users/community is there, then you'll probably make the right decisions even through the growing pains. I think resolve is very important in managing scale, though, too. You need to determine policies and scope sooner rather than later. You need to determine how you'll handle things -- and be consistent about it (when you think about it, consistency is also a big part of respect). You need to communicate policies to explain how you've decided to handle things, and your responses need defined edges and conviction. If you can't do something or suspect you won't be able to, say no, period. It's okay to say no, whether it's to a specific request or to requested interactions you simply can't commit to due to other responsibilities. Anything less and someone will consider that a yes, and then consider it your failing when it doesn't happen (and in the timely fashion they're used to). Bottom line, business will always be a type of community of limited potential and tight-knit-ness (I refuse to use "intimacy"), because it exists for a specific (limited) purpose. And that's as it should be. But at the same time, just because something's limited in scope doesn't mean there has to be anything inferior about it, and that especially applies to how we treat those populating and nourishing our ecosystems. I think I just wrote a blog post on your blog post. How rude... Oh well, you asked. ;)

Tanya McGinnity
Tanya McGinnity

I think so much of this involves being authentic with both yourself and the other members of your community.

It's easy to pick the self-interested folks out of a crowd and this kind of reputation follows people around like a bad odor. If you're constantly name-dropping your company, it's projects or how awesome your work is, then chances are, I'm not likely to be paying much attention to you in the long haul. This is pretty much the reason why I'll turn off the tv during an infomercial. The same is true for a high level of self promotion.

Folks that are truly about community know the power of listening, sharing and contributing. Thanks for sharing this post with us.

Tanya McGinnity
Tanya McGinnity

I think so much of this involves being authentic with both yourself and the other members of your community. It's easy to pick the self-interested folks out of a crowd and this kind of reputation follows people around like a bad odor. If you're constantly name-dropping your company, it's projects or how awesome your work is, then chances are, I'm not likely to be paying much attention to you in the long haul. This is pretty much the reason why I'll turn off the tv during an infomercial. The same is true for a high level of self promotion. Folks that are truly about community know the power of listening, sharing and contributing. Thanks for sharing this post with us.

Brian Sharwood
Brian Sharwood

Great post Dave. What I find the most fascinating thing about the discussion of community building among this great Toronto group here is that community is almost always meant online, or at least online enabled. At HomeStars we have a community of contractors and home improvement specialists we work with every day - and, to some extent, we are their community managers (and, of course, sales managers to, because we need to make some money).
In order to build this community we call them personally on their phones (as many don't use the internet), invite them to events, and try and communicate with them online.
How do we scale this? It's challenging? Do we, as Yelp does, have community managers in each town building a local following? Or can we do it online? (but moving our community online can be tough - many are still on basic web skills)
Communities have been around forever. Community managers are new. What distinguishes the new from the old is that now the community can organize the organization. We listen to the feedback from both our homeowner users, as well as the contractors, as do the folks at ZooCasa, Freshbooks, and I'm quite certain Redwire, to make the product what the community wants.

Brian Sharwood
Brian Sharwood

Great post Dave. What I find the most fascinating thing about the discussion of community building among this great Toronto group here is that community is almost always meant online, or at least online enabled. At HomeStars we have a community of contractors and home improvement specialists we work with every day - and, to some extent, we are their community managers (and, of course, sales managers to, because we need to make some money). In order to build this community we call them personally on their phones (as many don't use the internet), invite them to events, and try and communicate with them online. How do we scale this? It's challenging? Do we, as Yelp does, have community managers in each town building a local following? Or can we do it online? (but moving our community online can be tough - many are still on basic web skills) Communities have been around forever. Community managers are new. What distinguishes the new from the old is that now the community can organize the organization. We listen to the feedback from both our homeowner users, as well as the contractors, as do the folks at ZooCasa, Freshbooks, and I'm quite certain Redwire, to make the product what the community wants.

An Anonymous person
An Anonymous person

It makes me wonder how someone obtains the title of Community Leader. Did the community decide they wanted that person as a leader, or did the person self-proclaim it? Was it a job title granted to someone? Maybe it's a new business title to replace Public Relations.

A leader is a person or group chosen by the community to represent and lead them by whatever means is appropriate for that community.

Self-appointing a title of Community Leader just doesn't cut it. It qualifies about as much as the X thousands of people claiming to be social media experts on Twitter or Facebook.

An Anonymous person
An Anonymous person

It makes me wonder how someone obtains the title of Community Leader. Did the community decide they wanted that person as a leader, or did the person self-proclaim it? Was it a job title granted to someone? Maybe it's a new business title to replace Public Relations. A leader is a person or group chosen by the community to represent and lead them by whatever means is appropriate for that community. Self-appointing a title of Community Leader just doesn't cut it. It qualifies about as much as the X thousands of people claiming to be social media experts on Twitter or Facebook.

Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson

Great post and great comments - all useful as I build my online community for researchers in Ontario.

Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson

Great post and great comments - all useful as I build my online community for researchers in Ontario.

Lynda Partner
Lynda Partner

In my humble opinion, a true community is one where members have the strongest relationships each other, not with the community manager. Like a wise CEO, the community manager's job should be to create a self-sustaining team that runs itself. Any time a community manager or CEO is indispensable, something is wrong. You get scale by letting go, any other behavior is self-serving.

Lynda Partner
Lynda Partner

In my humble opinion, a true community is one where members have the strongest relationships each other, not with the community manager. Like a wise CEO, the community manager's job should be to create a self-sustaining team that runs itself. Any time a community manager or CEO is indispensable, something is wrong. You get scale by letting go, any other behavior is self-serving.

David Spinks
David Spinks

Really interesting post Dave. You bring up some great points.

When I think of community, I think about the relationships that are involved. Everyone puts a great deal about the "contribution" aspect being the most important part, but when you focus too much on contribution, and not enough on engaging other's contribution, that's where you start to cross the line into self promotion.

As you said, for a personal brand, a big issue can be scalability. At the same token, who says Chris Brogan has to accept anyone who sends him a reply into his community? The community is a strong one, that provides a lot of value to those that truly contribute and engage. Is it wrong to be selective in who you allow to join the community? Not to say it's a social club that's too good for anyone, but when you have that many followers, you kind of have to start being selective in who you engage with on a regular basis.

Let's be honest, we're all here for a reason. Self promotion is always going to be an aspect of how we "contribute" to the community. You just have to balance it with the promotion of others, and genuine concern for other members in the community.

You shouldn't always focus on what you can get out of the community. Those people, are self promoters. Those people aren't building a community, they're building a business model.

David

David Spinks
David Spinks

Really interesting post Dave. You bring up some great points. When I think of community, I think about the relationships that are involved. Everyone puts a great deal about the "contribution" aspect being the most important part, but when you focus too much on contribution, and not enough on engaging other's contribution, that's where you start to cross the line into self promotion. As you said, for a personal brand, a big issue can be scalability. At the same token, who says Chris Brogan has to accept anyone who sends him a reply into his community? The community is a strong one, that provides a lot of value to those that truly contribute and engage. Is it wrong to be selective in who you allow to join the community? Not to say it's a social club that's too good for anyone, but when you have that many followers, you kind of have to start being selective in who you engage with on a regular basis. Let's be honest, we're all here for a reason. Self promotion is always going to be an aspect of how we "contribute" to the community. You just have to balance it with the promotion of others, and genuine concern for other members in the community. You shouldn't always focus on what you can get out of the community. Those people, are self promoters. Those people aren't building a community, they're building a business model. David

Brad Buset
Brad Buset

Great post Dave. Just a quick comment in regards to a community supporting itself through growth beyond the initial scale. I think an important early indicator of success will be, does the community share the ethos that the original leader(s) represented. If so, hopefully the community will breed and foster the same sentiments regardless of growth (to a point). If not, there is a good chance the community will dissolve into factions sooner rather than later.

Brad Buset
Brad Buset

Great post Dave. Just a quick comment in regards to a community supporting itself through growth beyond the initial scale. I think an important early indicator of success will be, does the community share the ethos that the original leader(s) represented. If so, hopefully the community will breed and foster the same sentiments regardless of growth (to a point). If not, there is a good chance the community will dissolve into factions sooner rather than later.

Saul Colt
Saul Colt

Hey Dave.

Great Post and I am glad you included the Scott Peck definition because in my opinion it all comes back to respect. If you respect your community or followers or whatever you want to call the people who are interested in you (and if you respect them it means you are interested in them as well) you treat them more like people and not faceless customers.

A long time ago my Dad gave me a piece of advice. He sat me down, looked me in the eyes, hands on my shoulders and said those sage words "Don't be a dick and care about the people around you"

If you care about the people around you and never look at your community as part of your job then you can scale because friends understand when you are busy and friends cut you some slack but the same time, friends do things for each other and if you are not responding to your friends email or requests you are not going to stay friends for very long.

I am very fortunate because I have a small following of people who like what I do and I appreciate these folks more than I can verbalize because I consider them friends, well all but one person...he or she really bothers me (<--- that was a joke), and I go out of my way for them so it is far from a one sided relationship.

As long as Community Managers treat people like friends (and you are a good person) you will see communities grow and thrive and while this may seem like a vote for the self promotion argument (and it is) I feel that the reason companies are investing in Community Managers are to put a human face to their companies and add a personality because people fall in love with people and not multi nationals.

Saul Colt
Head of Magic!
Zoocasa.com

Saul Colt
Saul Colt

Hey Dave. Great Post and I am glad you included the Scott Peck definition because in my opinion it all comes back to respect. If you respect your community or followers or whatever you want to call the people who are interested in you (and if you respect them it means you are interested in them as well) you treat them more like people and not faceless customers. A long time ago my Dad gave me a piece of advice. He sat me down, looked me in the eyes, hands on my shoulders and said those sage words "Don't be a dick and care about the people around you" If you care about the people around you and never look at your community as part of your job then you can scale because friends understand when you are busy and friends cut you some slack but the same time, friends do things for each other and if you are not responding to your friends email or requests you are not going to stay friends for very long. I am very fortunate because I have a small following of people who like what I do and I appreciate these folks more than I can verbalize because I consider them friends, well all but one person...he or she really bothers me (<--- that was a joke), and I go out of my way for them so it is far from a one sided relationship. As long as Community Managers treat people like friends (and you are a good person) you will see communities grow and thrive and while this may seem like a vote for the self promotion argument (and it is) I feel that the reason companies are investing in Community Managers are to put a human face to their companies and add a personality because people fall in love with people and not multi nationals. Saul Colt Head of Magic! Zoocasa.com

Kelly Rusk
Kelly Rusk

As for self promotion vs community building. I don't think self promotion is bad as long as what you are promoting is adding value to the audience. In social media a great way to add value is to open up the dialogue and communicate back & develop relationships with your readers (community building!).

However that's not necessary, as people like @techcrunch and @mashable will show you. Even most of the celebrities on Twitter are using it as a one-way marketing push and have many, many more followers than most of us. It's all relative I suppose.

Kelly Rusk
Kelly Rusk

As for self promotion vs community building. I don't think self promotion is bad as long as what you are promoting is adding value to the audience. In social media a great way to add value is to open up the dialogue and communicate back & develop relationships with your readers (community building!). However that's not necessary, as people like @techcrunch and @mashable will show you. Even most of the celebrities on Twitter are using it as a one-way marketing push and have many, many more followers than most of us. It's all relative I suppose.

Erin Bury
Erin Bury

Another thought-provoking post as always Dave. I agree with you that the term "community" is thrown around often - I'm lucky because at RedWire I truly do get to interact with a community of people every day - in this case a group of entrepreneurs & people involved in the startup community around the world. I agree with you - there is a line between self-promotion and community engagement. I think the key is two-way dialogue. As Arik said above, the reason some of these community leaders are successful is because they respond to any inquiries & comments, and truly care about the opinions and well-being of those in their communities. This can be hard when you are dealing with a large community, but it's definitely manageable - I think it's all about setting goals for yourself. I've been lucky at RedWire because we've grown organically, which has allowed me to connect face-to-face with many members of our community (through Wired Wednesday and other community events), via messages and welcomes to each member on the site, and through other platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Had our membership exploded from the get-go I may not have had the opportunity to add that personal touch - and it's definitely a concern when we launch our new site. But I think it's all about motivation - I'm motivated to keep the community engaged, happy, and educated - I want every person to feel like they can reach me within 5-10 minutes (and it often shocks users that I respond to their requests in that short a time frame) and that there is a live body who cares on the other end. This won't change when we grow - it will just mean that I'll work harder to do it. As the wise Saul Colt shared from his days at Freshbooks, you should always strive for the 4 E's - Executing on Extraordinary Experiences Everyday. As long as you do this, and do it for the right reasons, you should have an engaged community.

Erin Bury
Erin Bury

Another thought-provoking post as always Dave. I agree with you that the term "community" is thrown around often - I'm lucky because at RedWire I truly do get to interact with a community of people every day - in this case a group of entrepreneurs & people involved in the startup community around the world. I agree with you - there is a line between self-promotion and community engagement. I think the key is two-way dialogue. As Arik said above, the reason some of these community leaders are successful is because they respond to any inquiries & comments, and truly care about the opinions and well-being of those in their communities. This can be hard when you are dealing with a large community, but it's definitely manageable - I think it's all about setting goals for yourself. I've been lucky at RedWire because we've grown organically, which has allowed me to connect face-to-face with many members of our community (through Wired Wednesday and other community events), via messages and welcomes to each member on the site, and through other platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Had our membership exploded from the get-go I may not have had the opportunity to add that personal touch - and it's definitely a concern when we launch our new site. But I think it's all about motivation - I'm motivated to keep the community engaged, happy, and educated - I want every person to feel like they can reach me within 5-10 minutes (and it often shocks users that I respond to their requests in that short a time frame) and that there is a live body who cares on the other end. This won't change when we grow - it will just mean that I'll work harder to do it. As the wise Saul Colt shared from his days at Freshbooks, you should always strive for the 4 E's - Executing on Extraordinary Experiences Everyday. As long as you do this, and do it for the right reasons, you should have an engaged community.

Trackbacks

  1. Twitter Comment


    Good points: RT @davefleet: The line between community-building and self-promotion. [link to post] (via @SeanMoffitt)

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  2. Twitter Comment


    Was about to post nice comments about @davefleet’s excellent post on communities [link to post] but the weasel is telling me not to

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  3. Twitter Comment


    RT@chrisbroganSo @davefleet has a killer post on community – [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  4. Twitter Comment


    @davefleet – great post & ensuing discussion on community bldg vs self promo [link to post]. Wise & insightful comment by @saulcolt

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  5. Twitter Comment


    Posted comment (awaits moderation) [link to post] about @davefleet’s awesome post on self-promotion vs communities http://bit.ly/qezQ2

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  6. Twitter Comment


    Does Self-Promotion Really Equal Community-Building? – [link to post] #fb

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  7. FriendFeed Comment


    Do… [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  8. Twitter Comment


    ARE WE REALLY BUILDING COMMUNITIES? Does it matter? Does community have to be a two way dialogue? [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  9. [...] Fleet asks some thought-provoking questions about self-promotion, community building, creating a following, and engaging in a [...]