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?

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.