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?

  • This is an interesting discussion–and one that will continue well beyond today, obviously.

    I tend to think of community more in terms of give and take. Helping others. And making personal connections around common interests. When I think of the community managers I respect and admire, people like Amber, David and Connie Bensen come to mind. Why? Because they contribute in meaningful ways. They respond–no matter who’s inquiring. And they continue to look for ways to make our relationships stronger. That’s a community manager to me. And that has nothing to do with self promotion.

    Not to say self-promotion doesn’t exist online, but I think it’s pretty easy to spot those that are in it for themselves, and those who are in it for the benefit of the community.

    @arikhanson

    • Thanks for starting the discussion, Arik. You’re right – common interests stand out as an important factor. That interest could be a hobby, a geographic area, a product or need… but there’s still a connection.

  • You just have to be honest with EVERYTHING going on and be completely transparent when you talk about your processes. People understand that Chris Brogan probably isn’t going to get back to every single person who tweets, comments, or sends him an email. Because of the community and mantra that he has built himself though? You know he’s going to try.

    Communicating your desire to effectively practice great community leadership is one thing. It’s another to admit that you can’t do everything and that you are human. I respect the humans far more then those who just blow smoke.

    • Stuart – perhaps that’s a problem with communities built around personal brands. How scalable are they? That’s also where the line between community/followers comes in – on one hand Chris has gone a long way towards creating a large community around social media, but how much of that is people following him because he offers great advice and is a nice guy, and how much is community?

      Questions, questions…

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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

  • 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.

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  • 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

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  • 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.

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

  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

  • 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. 😉

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  • “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

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  • 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.

  • 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!