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April 19, 2010

Who owns Community?

This blog, about building community, has been inspired by two scenarios:
  1. Today I received an email inviting me to an event where I would learn how to earn £millions by creating great marketing copy to get people to “subscribe” to things.  A case study used was a new property forum, where people were marketed to via a free webinar where the up-sell was to a new membership forum.
  2. Rupert Murdoch apparently asked Mark Zuckerberg (founder of FaceBook) how to build a great community like FB, and Mark Zuckerberg replied “You can’t”.

You see, what I have learned from founding the Property Tribes forum, is that you cannot build a community.  Why?  Because it’s already there - you can't build anything that was not yours in the first place.

Photo courtesy of officailpsds.com

What you can do, however, is provide a platform and facilitate people using the site to have an enjoyable and rewarding experience.  You can help them feel connected, you can help them feel valued, you can help them learn, you can help them feel that they “belong”, you can provide a space where they feel comfortable and among friends.  Then let them run with it.  Let them make the community what they want it to be, not what you want it to be.

What you can do is enable a community to organise itself.
Getting people to pay to join a site will not build a sustainable community - you will have tumbleweed blowing through it in no time at all. However, they may want to pay to have a method to organise themselves.
A membership/subscription site means that no one can look at the site without paying to join - barriers to entry will not help build community.  In fact, I believe they will stifle it.
A subscription/membership site also excludes a lot of people.  I think it is fundamental to build a platform for others to play in. Not just your users, but for people who want to reach your users.  Open, random, and supportive encourages community.  Closed, selective, and controlling will suffocate it.
I do not believe that anyone can “own” a community.  I don't think you ever could, but today in the land of the web you most definitely can't.
As Property Tribes has grown, we have taken a step back from it.  Yes, we set the tone, stimulated the initial discussions to help get the ball rolling, and drop in every now and then to support and encourage our members and let them know we value their contributions, but that is where it stops.

Now I'm more focussed on giving them what they want.
In his recent blog, “The tribe of normal”, Seth Godin shared this insight:

“People don't coalesce into active and committed tribes around the status quo.
The only vibrant tribes in our communities are the ones closer the edges, or those trying to make change. The center is large, but it's not connected.

Heretical thoughts, delivered in a way that capture the attention of the minority--that's the path that works”.

What Vanessa and I have tried to do is make Property Tribes stand for ethical and transparent business practices and treating property investment as a business, not a “get rich quick” scheme.  This is definitely a minority view, but it has gradually gained traction and now it has become one of the busiest property forums in the U.K

If a site has a huge amount of new members joining, but they do not feel like they “care” about the site, or “own” it, or do not engage with it, then all it has become is a database of people who have no loyalty to the site.  It’s just another profile on another forum.  It’s akin to replying to a party invite but not turning up to the party.

A forum designed to aggregate audiences to that you can sell to them is also destined to fail.  “The end result of spam (email spam, blog spam, Twitter spam, comment spam, phone spam, politician spam) is that it eats away at your brand. If you don't have a brand, you might make some short term cash but it gets tiresome creating annoyance everywhere you go. If you do have a brand, you don't notice the brand erosion... until it's too late”. ~ Seth Godin

What will work, however, is a community where people are supported in being more successful in what they are doing.  If they become more successful as a result of their contributions to the community, then the founders of the community will become more successful as a by-product of that.  Allowing people to leverage the network for their own visibility and credibility is key to their success and our success!

One of the by-products of the success of the Property Tribes community is that I have been able to watch and learn from the community, therefore, now I can see what they want.

There is the short-term way and the sustainable way to build community.  One erodes your brand, the other empowers it.

We formed the Property Tribes forum as a resource for the community, not ourselves.  We recognised that none of us is as smart as all of us.  We recognise that we are nothing without the people who “fuel” the forum hourly with their contributions and content.  Without the community, it’s just another one of a thousand sites with no activity on it.

Conclusion:  You cannot buy community and you cannot sell community.  If you are creating all the content yourself, and asking people to subscribe to that content, then that is a completely different business model and will not create community.  It’s also very hard work and time-consuming.

There is community there, it's always been there and you will never own it.

What you can create is a great venue for people to congregate and get to know each other.  Then leave the rest up to them.  User generated content is the secret to a successful community.  How you monetise that is another matter.  Community comes first.  Without it, you have nothing more than an expensive echo-chamber for your own opinions - this is self evident from the lack of "action" on certain forums.

Google is successful because it allowed us to organise our searches. LinkedIn is good because it allowed us to organise our business contacts and shuffle CV's. Facebook is good because it allows us to organise our friends. Twitter works because it allows us to organise our conversations. Amazon organises our purchasing, YouTube our Video and Flickr our pictures.

Question: How are you helping people organise themselves - or are you?

My top tips for building community:
  1. Engage.
  2. Contribute.
  3. Pay attention.
  4. Let the community know they are valued.
  5. Connect people to each other.
  6. It's about them, not you.
  7. Share.
  8. Don’t try and compete with your members.
  9. Be social.
  10. Be a friend.  Care.
  11. Don’t police or “moderate” the forum unless absolutely necessary.  The community will do that in their own way.
  12. Facilitate trust within the community.
  13. Understand that a community cannot be all things to all people.
  14. Celebrate the heroes in the community.
  15. Try and lead by example.
  16. Show respect.
  17. Believe in,  and encourage,  the wisdom of crowds.
  18. Enjoy it.
  19. Never stop trying to make it a better place for a community to organise itself - what ever your niche

What tips might you have?

Regards N  



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Excellent tips & thanks for sharing.

In terms of building and strengthening community the one tip I would add is use online to get offline.

I saw Meetup.com Founder, Scott Heiferman, speak in London last month. The theme of the meeting was 'How How real time web is facilitating offline interactivity'. Scott shared how meetup was started after witnessing the power of community in post 9/11 New York. He wanted to create a site to help strengthen community. To give people the opportunity to use the Internet to get together in local communities each day with the goal of improving themselves or their communities. Their mission today is to revitalize local community and help people around the world self-organize.

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