Community Alone Isn’t Enough

One of my favourite roles to play (and one that likely annoys my colleagues the most) is that of devil’s advocate. I try to constantly question the things that everyone takes for granted, because one day things will change. It happened to many traditional PR folks, and if we don’t keep a close eye out for that day, we get left behind ourselves when it comes.

Today I’m turning my mind to an old social media chestnut – the idea of “giving back to the community.”

I see it written so often – something along the lines of:

“To be successful in social media, you have to give back to the community.”

Sounds great, right? Group hugs all around, everyone gets along and no-one loses.

But does it really work like that? I mean really, when you move past the “well it should work like that” and on to the “does it really happen?”

Nice guys finish first?

There are certainly plenty of people who would appear to have made it work. The Chris Brogans; the Shel Holtzes (show me a dictionary that says I spelt that wrong…), the Brian Solises and so on. I, and my employer, also subscribe to the notion that what goes around comes around.

Nice guys finish last?

Still, there are plenty of other people who do equally well with little input into the community other than money. I won’t name them, but they’re easy to spot. They sponsor events, they show up at the events they sponsor, they rub noses when big names come into town, and they schmooze at conferences. That’s about it. What’s more, they appear to rapidly get ahead – their organizations grow and their stars appear to shine ever brighter.

One thing that stands out from both groups: they’re all excellent self promoters. You’ll see them in magazines, you’ll see them name-checked widely, and you’ll see them promoting their companies in a wide variety of forums.

Is there anything wrong with this? Absolutely not. They’re simply practicing for themselves what our clients pay us to do for them.

It does, however, lead me to one conclusion.

Community alone isn’t enough for business.

As an individual, doing something as a hobby, community is absolutely enough. In fact, it may be the sole end goal for hobbyists and that’s wonderful. For companies, however, you can’t only give back. You need to withdraw push for yourself, too. Community alone doesn’t pay the bills. Revenue and growth does.

That’s why the Brogans, the Holtzes (seriously, deal with it) and their like do so well – they contribute but they also market themselves and their organizations.

Pure altruism may seem like a lovely concept, but it seems to be those who both give and take that get ahead.

My thoughts on this are still evolving. What do you think?

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  • Hey Dave,

    I agree with you on this: “it seems to be those who both give and take that get ahead.” But I have to ask, is this really that separate from the social media community?

    Mabye I’ve begun to drink the special juice as well, but there’s a lot of emphasis on providing value. If everybody’s focused on providing value, you’re out there giving out something valuable that others can take. Give and Take is right there with the community.

    I thought it was well accepted that at some point (like you say), you need to pay the bills. Promotion is acceptable, as long as you provide value. Basically if you’re a great giver like the Brogans and the Holtzes (I’m adopting it too), then you get away with being a taker.

  • Dave, you’re right on as usual and this is something that I’ve come to learn very quickly with my first days here at my job. And speak of the devil, Chris Brogan actually just had a post discussing a similar idea, that you still need a Marketing Frame. Being good at social media isn’t enough.

    His post is here: http://www.chrisbrogan.com/you-still-need-a-frame/

    I used to think of it as, you can create strong relationships, build a loyal focused community, and word of mouth would kind of take over and do the rest. Unfortunately, that thinking is idealistic, not realistic.

    As I commented on Chris’ post, I think a lot of people get caught up on those success stories like “pitchengine” using nothing more than word-of-mouth and still growing exponentially. It’s a companies dream to just have your loyal users do the marketing for you while you just sit back and watch them roll in…unrealistic.

    Dave

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  • Interesting post, Dave. And I’m glad you played devil’s advocate because it definitely got me thinking this morning.

    I’ll admit that I am a firm believer in the value of community. I love the opportunity to connect and interact with people I may not otherwise have found. And for my personal use and goals – which basically boil down to learning and exchanging value – that’s fine.

    For others, though, especially businesses, I think you’re right; community is not enough. It’s a great starting point, but as David said, thinking a loyal community will fulfill all business-growth needs is idealistic. That’s why it’s vital to plan a social media strategy that addresses goals and how to achieve them.

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  • Good post this morning, Dave. I certainly agree that you can’t be successful as a business by giving back selflessly to a community as a main marketing initiative. That’s not going to bring in the revenue you’re looking for – at least, not in a consistent, measurable manner.

    What is interesting is the benefit that provides on a company just starting out in the space. A company can consistently hold events like that to get their name out – at least on a hyperlocal level – will end up growing their listener base much quicker. However, often this can be a bad thing, in my opinion. If what the company is doing to give back to the community isn’t correlated with its business model, it can feel like it’s reached a certain level of success without actual results – and that can turn into serious shock when that company runs out of funding, or has to shut its doors due to lack of revenue. That’ll also send ripples through your community as well.

    Interesting post, as I said – thanks for writing it.

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  • Agreed. It isn’t enough to have a community. You have to actually do something with it in order to be successful in any sense of the word. Otherwise you will have just accomplished nothing.

  • What I see changing in the world of ‘community’ is its direct correlation with business development. Now, more than ever, are these two worlds intermingled. People may question that community is only for conversation and relationships – and it is, to an extent. Take those relationships to the next level, of promotion (without being ‘that guy’), of turning that community into potential customers/clients.

    It’s how these social mediums work today. Social media is as much, if not more, customer service, than it is marketing or communications. Same goes for word-of-mouth bundled in with community and biz dev.

    The trick though is to figure out how you can activate your community and implement the right strategies to make that possible for your business.

    Great thought here, Dave!

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  • I don’t think it’s as simple as “those who give” and “those who take”. That’s not what builds a community. I like to think that community works because of the contributions of the many and how we then grow together. My saying has always been, “you can’t have a strong business without a strong community.” That’s why I (and my company) gets involved – in associations, at events, by creating content and conversation, through charitable efforts, by speaking and by doing the evangelism. It probably seems foggier to most of us, because we are the ones creating it as we go, so the dynamics and the relationships are not as defined as they are in more traditional communities.

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  • Dave — your thinking resonates with me. Not so nice guys (or gals) might finish first over the short term, but nice gals (or guys) finish first over the long term. To me it’s like the difference between price gouging for short term gain vs. value pricing as a long term investment in business growth. Investing in and building community is absolutely critical to long term success — it’s just not the only success factor.

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  • Phil

    Another sterling comment by you Dave