The importance of community can't be underestimated. People are naturally social creatures and require connection with other people.
But individualism is also a strong drive.
However, even anti-establishment types, that claim they aren't motivated by social goals, usually find themselves a part of a subversive subculture that coalesces around similar ideas.
But community is a very nebulous term since it is hard to determine who and what constitutes a community. Communities rise up and form, then can break up just as quickly.
However, as a basis for looking at communications between a company or organization and those that matter to the organization, community is a much more vital approach than the more sterile and one-way concepts of markets, publics and audiences that have been pervasive in both communications theory and practice.
It's About People
Malcolm Gladwell attempted (very well I might add) to explain the phenomenon of social epidemics in the The Tipping Point. Basically, he discusses how an idea can bubble up from an small subculture to be adopted into wide acceptance. Gladwell brought to life that dusty communication theory I learned in college called the Diffusion Theory that seeks to explain how a cultural innovation moves from the innovators to eventual majority acceptance. But Gladwell added a few twists with his Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen.
In other words, he emphasized the people in the process. And where there are people, communities form.
Community at the Center
Community Relations is one of the many disciplines of public relations but has usually been practiced mostly in the non-profit world. When practiced in the corporate world it is often called Corporate Social Responsibility and has much to do with the philanthropic relation the company has with the community around it rather than a wholesale change in how communication is undertaken as a whole.
By taking many of the same tenants practiced in the discipline of Community Relations and applying them to social communications, we can start to see how to have more effective communications.
I found a really enlightening paper (pdf) by Kirk Hallahan, Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism and Technical Communication, Colorado State University, that was revised in March of 2003, that suggests that ‘community’ should be the foundation for public relations theory and practice.
The paper goes on to set forth some interesting arguments to use the community as the basis by which we build our public relations programs. One of the most interesting is that while individualism and community are often at odds, the idea of community as a social construct has been pervasive. While each person may have their own circle that they call community, there are patterns that tend to emerge.
Community Relationships Scale
Last week, I wrote a piece about building quality online relationships, and one of the most intriguing arguments against this involved the question about how such “relationships” scale. Jen Ziongsheim called this scaleability problem the Achilles Heel of online communication.
And I completely agree with her.
However, having actually participated in big outreach campaigns for some big brands, I will say that the secret, if there is such a things, for success in these efforts lie in the brand's ability to become a contributing part of the communities (cultural as well as geographical) that they serve. This builds relationships, but not with each individual person, though some of that will also naturally occur.
This community-based approach scales much more readily than the one-to-one relationship approach. In other words, you can't see these two-dimensional “relationships” that are formed out of common interest and needs as being the kind you share with a sister, brother, or those in your closest circle where Dunbar's number is the rule – which has a limit of about 150 people.
This is a different understanding of relationship.
Again, I would say that it is important to understand that there are many kinds of people online pursuing many kinds of goals, and sometimes more than one of these goals apply:
- Finding information
- Sharing information
- Networking or Socializing
- Seeking Entertainment
The goal of the interaction will determine the relationship. However, companies can build relationships with communities and certainly they can build their reputation with said community through their actions.
What do you think?