Communities of Purpose – Part 2

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(part I here)

People have aggregated into communities because of shared purposes since time began. A shared cave to avoid getting eaten by saber-toothed tigers. Walled medieval villages to make silk or conduct trade. Suburbs to avoid cities, and cities to avoid the country. Every community in the real world got together, and stayed together (or not) because its residents needed one another to accomplish something(s).

The only communities without purpose are online.

Well, the purpose of most online branded communities is to get people to join those communities. They’ll get entertaining content and the chance to comment at one another, and perhaps receive promotional deals now and then, but they’re not organic and therefore meet no need. Brands spend money and time working to perpetuate them, equating endurance (and # of members) with quality and benefit. Most branded online communities would disappear the moment after the sponsoring marketing departments cut-off funding, however.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Online communities with purpose aren’t a new idea, and they occur in the non-profit world quite frequently, like when members join a project or campaign. They happen organically all the time when individuals collect around bloggers or simply frequent the same chat rooms (or sign-on to their IM) and discuss issues about which they rely on one other for discussion. Parenting issues. Car problems. Political POVs. Most other departments in most companies have been organizing communities of purpose for years now, only they don’t call them that, per se: They’re groups of vendors and suppliers to compare notes on their activities, or the recruiting networks that HR departments manage.

Actually, brands are the one category of participants that seem mostly absent from these communities with purpose. Branded communities are too busy producing an endless stream of content solely intended to keep consumers coming back for more content. Membership is defined by the attributes of the brands. So I joked in my last post that people don’t wake up in the morning wishing they had a close relationship with their brand of toothpaste, but right now there are toothpaste brands working overtime to make just that a reality.

The P2P online revolution is being driven by people getting together for shared purposes — from serious things like curing diseases and toppling governments, to fun stuff such as riffing on new movie releases or favorite boy bands — and brand marketers are still thinking of the place as if it were a glorified channel through which they can talk about themselves.

Oh, sorry. There’s lots of language and complicated PowerPoint slides to label it otherwise, but fancy research gibberish and extended ROI calculators (courtesy of the folks who sold you on the approach and tech in the first place) doesn’t change what’s going on.

So if you’re heading into a meeting about your online or community strategy next week, here are a couple tidbits you might want to ask, or consider:

If you stopped producing your glorious content immediately, how many people in your community would write in and complain? If the answer isn’t a lot, you’ve got a problem, don’t you?

How much of your community content do you create vs. stuff your members do? If the answer is anywhere near at or north of half, you probably don’t have a community as much as a glorified distribution list. Call it what it is, and maybe you could do a better job of creating stuff for that channel?

What would purpose look like to your community? Could your toothpaste brand propose that you want X number of your customers to get their kids to willingly brush their teeth every evening? Are you trying to reduce the incidence of cavities by Y%? Consider crafting a campaign based on something with a goal and a specific activity for your members vs. measuring their participation in consuming your latest hilarious video.

There are “bigger” ideas you could raise, too:

Have you located the three most vibrant organic communities that address subjects related to your business? How do you contribute to them, if at all? Could you find in them topics or purposes for you to embrace and base your own communities of purpose upon?

Could it be that brands aren’t supposed to be “in” communities any more than they should “own” them, insomuch that brands are topics to be talked about and not with? If you simply propagated raw content — i.e. truth, or facts, if you must — and let people work up their own conclusions, how would that affect your brand? If you’re worried what they’ll come up with, you have a problem that isn’t fixable via social media.

Finally, what if your online communities weren’t supposed to be any more enduring than communities throughout all of history in the real world? Could you re-imagine your online presence as a series of purpose-based aggregations of people, focused on accomplishing something and then moving onto the next one? It might drive your agency nuts but it just might make your activities there needed, not just tolerated or mildly enjoyed.

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