It’s easy to be cynical, important to be cautious, and worth being curious about the idea of community – and how it can help brands and businesses create more value and make better stuff (products, services, and ideas.)
Disclaimer: I’m leading brand strategy at ScienceMagic, a creative and strategic company helping businesses and talent build brands that matter in a better world – and yes, we believe that community is a (if not the) key element in doing that. The below represents some of our work-in-progress thinking – and some of my personal builds and amends to it.
If you work in marketing (and if you’re reading this, chances are you do) you have probably read at least one piece about Community. Most recently, TikTok weighed in and proclaimed communities the new demographics. And you (and Marketing Twitter) probably have thoughts. The word makes more and more appearances in agency credentials and brand mission statements. Big promises and overpromises included. And when there is a promiser, a sceptic can’t be very far. With every hype comes a doubt.
Normally, this is the moment I’d scroll on and get back to work. But ever since joining ScienceMagic a few months back, I’ve gotten more and more curious about the value that community actually can create for businesses. It’s one of the things we talk a lot about, it’s at the heart of our thinking, and it intrigued me enough to join the company. (And yes, we do have the word in our creds, busted.)
To crudely summarise the debate: some promise that Community is the silver bullet for all your marketing, maybe even business challenges. (It is not.) Others argue that Community is just a costly distraction for marketers. (It is not.)
So if community is neither a silver bullet nor a distraction, what really is it? Does the truth sit somewhere between those extremes? (It does.) And, more importantly, is it worth your time? (It is.)
This piece is an attempt to get to what it is about. (And it gives you a glimpse into the constantly evolving conversations here at ScienceMagic.)
Why community works
It’s not a big surprise that after a global pandemic with its enforced social isolation, a tech-induced erosion of group cohesion, and ever new spanners being thrown by an angry planet and even angrier politicians, people are turning towards a concept that is inherently about social connection and our deeply ingrained human needs. It is maybe also not a big surprise that overconfident marketers think they can now fill the void left by more conventional markers of social identity (e.g. religion) by simply swapping one C in their brand models for another: customer to community. But, spoiler alert, it’s not that easy. It requires more than shift+command+V-ing a word into a model to tap into the value of community. It requires a shift of mindset and some serious commitment.
What is community?
There are probably almost as many definitions of community as there are communities out there. But almost all of them talk about community as something that is collective and bigger than the individual.
In ecology, the term refers to groups of organisms in a specific place or time. In biology it describes an interacting group of various species in a common location. In social sciences it’s, as always, more complicated. Communities are defined by three traits: (1) a community is a group of people who interact with one another. (2) This interaction typically occurs within a bounded geographic territory. (3) And the community’s members often share common values, beliefs, or behaviours.
David Spinks, who’s been building communities for brands for years, defines it by its outcome: the shared sense of belonging community creates. Which feels true – but it’s hard to action if you only know it once you see it.
At ScienceMagic, we refer to a community not only as the physical community of your street or the followers of your social channels or the users of your (online) platform. (Even though they might well be a part of it.) We define community as a group of people connected and contributing to a shared ambition, beliefs, and contexts.
It’s not about the people, it’s about what connects them
Groups of people are always potentially impactful. The more, the merrier, etc. We believe in that so much that we wrote this into our creds: There’s no bigger force for change than a group of people with an idea. Gather a group of people around an inspiring idea and things will happen. (Good and bad, that is.) The Twelve Apostles around Jesus. Engineers around the idea of putting a man on the moon. A group of geeks around the idea of free access to knowledge.
Communities aren’t necessarily about the people, they are about the stuff that’s happening between them: the things that connect them, the ideas and ambitions they share. (I’m *this* close to say mindset, but an old colleague of mine, Armando, would roll his eyes on me for that.) Yes, demographic descriptors are helpful to understand their context, but it’s the emotional connection between them that helps you find the thing that sets culture ablaze and gets the world (or at least a relevant amount of people) talking. (If fame and relevance are your thing, which it should be as a marketer wanting to grow your business.)
It’s not physical, it’s emotional.
A common misperception around community based marketing is the link to physical community (and the associated lack of scale.) Community doesn’t have to be physical. It can be (and increasingly is) virtual. It’s based on an emotional connection that can span time and space. The fame and relevance that can be created by contributing meaningfully to and rallying a community behind you is how the idea of an intimate emotional connection (what community can provide) can be reconciled with the scale that marketing theory demands for business growth (what lots of new and infrequent buyers can provide.)
It’s not about brands, it’s about ambitions
As with most good things in life, communities are rarely about brands and mostly about things that are dear to people. Communities are about identity. The reason why community is so powerful as a concept is because they have little to do with business and a lot to do with people.
Some communities might have started around a product or a brand – but if they are a healthy community they are not about that brand. They are the experiences and successes (and failures) on a journey to a shared ambition supported by a product or service or institution. Communities are bigger than me, you, or a brand. Even the communities that exist around celebrities and influencers have a shared ambition that is bigger than the person they follow: a certain point of view on style, beauty, a certain kind of lifestyle, a certain way of cooking.
Communities aren’t just about being into something but about having an ambition with that interest. It’s not just road cyclists, but road cyclists who want something specific out of their passion. It’s not just about living in a certain street, but about wanting to contribute to that neighbourhood. It’s not just about being into food but about advocating for eating better. It’s passion with a purpose.
It’s not a revolution, it’s an evolution
Community works. But it’s not new news. Everyone who has been paying attention – and even those who have not – know that humanity has been reaping the benefits of community for a while. A long while. Whether it’s roaming grassy prairies hunting and farming for food or pixelated game maps chasing fame – people’s ability to survive and thrive has often depended on their ability to exist in some form of community. The fact that we’re here today having an argument about the importance of community is proof of its potency. Broadly speaking.
Even critics of the current community obsession aren’t really criticising the concept of community. Many moons ago, I asked some smart people about their views on community. Often they are criticising the naive application of the term. Or the tendency of an industry to suck the very meaning and life out of any concept it lays its eyes on. Or the opportunism of businesses. Neither is a problem of the concept of community. It’s a problem of the application of the concept by the world of marketing.
It’s not about communication, it’s about contribution
Building community-first brands isn’t as easy as replacing the word consumer with community in your briefings. But it also doesn’t mean every company now needs to invest in expensive infrastructure to build their own community. It does, however, require making an effort to understand what people’s ambitions are, how they are connected, and how your business can contribute to those. It requires a mindset shift and seeing your consumers, customers, audiences, segments, users, shoppers as (at least part of a) community.
It also doesn’t mean that the community is going to do the heavy lifting for you. Community focus isn’t an excuse for sloppy marketing or brand strategy or for ignoring the basics. Quite the opposite. You’ll have to give to make people give back – and do some lifting, too. The more you want to involve your community, the clearer you need to be on your brand foundations.
A while back, Nathan Makan and I talked loosely about this at the Berlin Film and Fashion Festival when we suggested brands should “Go F*ke Themselves.” We called it open minded brand building, which I felt quite smug about at the time: a solid core with blurred borders would make for best cultural adaptability and meme-ability. (I’m paraphrasing.)
Applied to community, it simply means: know what your brand is and isn’t and what you’re willing to give up before you open the doors and invite others in – because community is a two-way street and if your people can’t influence your brand, they’ll quickly notice you’re paying lip service to what matters to them and their idea of community. And they’ll move on.
Too valuable to ignore
I’m not arguing that every brand, every business, every organisation needs a community. I am arguing that every successful brand, every successful business, every successful organisation has realised that (1) their user base are all part of a community already and (2) is treating them as a community. They might not say it explicitly, but the way they behave and interact with their customers, fans, user base, readers, and shoppers is influenced by the idea of contribution.
Even if a business is not ready to full-heartedly embrace the concept, at its most basic level, community thinking is a crutch for answering a very important question: how can my business distinctly create long term value? We’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to that can often be found in its contribution to the ambition of a community.
On a deeper level, community is a powerful way of thinking about the relationship and role of your business in the wider cultural and commercial context. It has inspired successful business creation, transformation, and turnarounds. A thriving community can be a valuable distinct brand asset. Maybe intangible, but too powerful too ignore.