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?

88 Responses toDoes Self-Promotion Really Equal Community-Building?

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


  • 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.

  • Peter Holleley
    ago11 years

    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.

  • Sonya Goldman
    ago11 years

    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.

  • 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.

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