The Next Phase of Community

Photo credit: Christian Battaglia

The story of human progress is really a story of community.

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari explains how 70,000 years ago, the cognitive revolution empowered Homo sapiens to communicate more efficiently and form larger groups. As a result, we outnumbered and outlasted the six other human species who once walked the earth.

The size of our groups increased once again in the agricultural revolution bringing with it the invention of writing, math, and currency as methods to better manage the fast-growing societies that formed around our new static lifestyle.

The industrial revolution caused yet another massive expansion in the size of our groups, forming cities and fueling the need for things like railroads, government and healthcare.

During every human revolution, the definition of community and business is reinvented.

Now we find ourselves in the thick of another revolution: the digital revolution. Once again, the context, scale, and depth of human connection and how we exchange value as individuals and businesses is changing.

In 1995, Robert Putnam proclaimed that community and social capital in America is declining. Many would say that trend continues. Recent studies show us that religion is on the decline. You no longer needed to rely on your local neighborhood to find connection.

The truth is community isn’t on the decline, it’s just different. It is once again evolving. Community has transcended borders. We can now participate in many more communities simultaneously, in any obscure topic that interests us. We can connect with people all over the world instantaneously. The concept of a single “global community” is, for the first time in history, a reality.

Even within the digital revolution, community and business have seen multiple evolutions, which I’d like to break down here for you. If you understand where we’ve been, you’ll understand how people view community today, and where things are going.

Today, specifically in the business world, people view “digital community” in one of two ways.

Of Two Minds

Things today move quickly, and when you say the word “community” in the business world, people will conjure up very different images in their mind.

On one side, some see it as new, exciting, and innovative, changing the very fabric of how businesses function. They see that of the world’s top 50 startups, over 60% either employs a community team and/or community and collaboration is CORE to their business model. And that 43 percent of employed Americans are now working remotely, meaning their interactions are happening not in an office, but on digital platforms.

They see that it’s more than forums. In our recent CMX research study, we found that companies are increasingly switching their community program focus to advocacy and product ideation and away from support forums. Community isn’t just about forums and support anymore, it’s becoming about growth and innovation. It’s about creating new brand value for customers who are hungry for more all the time.

On the other side, many still see community as old, boring, and profitless. To understand why, you must understand the experience that people have had with online communities over the last few decades.

From a business standpoint, the internet’s opportunity was initially all about sales and distribution. Businesses rushed to offer their products online in the dot com bubble. They could reach people all over the world.

Soon communities were created, mostly recreationally, by regular people who were passionate about a topic. The business-to-consumer relationship remained largely one way but there were some, like Apple, that started to recognize the opportunity to reach out and form a connection with their customers.

In 1985, Apple created the Apple User Group Connection (AUGC). As Wikipedia explains, AUGC was a community formed by Ellen Leanse, Apple’s original Community Evangelist, in response to concerns from users in community user groups that, with release of the Macintosh, development for existing Apple II and Apple III computers was compromised.

At CMX Summit 2014, Ellen shared the AUGC story:

“The wealth of user-generated, crowdsourced intelligence rivaled, or maybe even was more than, anything that originated in Cupertino”, she explained. “Fortunately, some people had the vision at Apple to reach out and forge a connection. The rest, as they say, is history.”

It was around this time that professional community management was born.

Soon, social media would change everything, yet again. Suddenly, people could communicate with each other on public channels from anywhere in the world and messages could spread like wildfire. If a consumer was treated poorly, they could share their experience on online networks and the backlash would be enormous. And when someone posted about a brand publicly, they expected a response. Companies were forced to start caring about their customers. Companies like Zappos set an example for how customer service could be a competitive advantage.

Social media experts started springing up everywhere. Suddenly there was an entire industry built around this new idea that a business could avoid disaster, and actually increase sales, if they started to treat their customers like a “community”. They needed to listen and to engage.

But something wasn’t right. Companies were spending millions in their social media management strategies but weren’t seeing results. The problem was that they were “engaging” people, but to what end? They became beholden to these large platforms, and social media felt more like a shackle than an opportunity.

And that brings us to today, where community lives in these two worlds in people’s’ minds: the old and the new.

It’s this challenge that those in the community industry find themselves up against when describing the work they do or getting buy-in from their bosses and teammates.

If the person they’re talking to sees community as old school, then they probably also see a community manager as a low-level position, and a community as a “nice to have” for the business. It’s just a forum, or it’s a social media manager.

If the person sees community as new and innovative, they don’t know what the role and success looks like. They lack standards to follow, and struggle to define the right metrics to track. That’s what let us to conduct this study on the business value of community.

The True Value of Community

Those who still look at community in the traditional light will miss out on a massive opportunity.

The value of building community as a business is simple when you recognize that your business IS a community. Every person your business touches, whether it’s the founders, the executive team, the employees, partners, customers, advocates and followers, are all members of a community working together to accomplish a goal. That goal is your company mission.

So it makes sense that, according to our study, retention is the most popular metric that businesses track in order to prove the value of community. You want all those stakeholders to be happier, and to stick around for a longer time.

There are a lot of specific ways that community can drive value for a business beyond just retention. The study, which surveyed 533 companies, also found that while support is still popular, advocacy and engagement are growing as a focus.

While support was the most common value, very few businesses are switching to focus on these kinds of communities. The most popular community programs to switch to are focused on community innovation and advocacy.

We can see that what it means for a business to invest in community is shifting.

And ROI isn’t the only reason businesses need to be focusing on community today. It’s more than just an opportunity, it has also become a cultural imperative.

Consumer expectations have changed, and it’s no longer okay for a business to sacrifice ethics and impact for profit. Uber has served as a recent reminder. They may be the most valuable startup in the world, but its days will be numbered if they continue to prioritize profit over doing the right thing.

Millennials, now the largest generation in the workforce and the future executives of the world’s largest businesses, expect businesses to focus on impact. Almost nine in 10 (86 percent) believe the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance.

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg set a new direction for the future of the world’s largest network with his 6,000-word manifesto. He kicks it off, “History is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers — from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media, and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.”

No one ever imagined that over one-fourth of the world’s population would use a single platform every month and that all humans would be connected by just 3.5 degrees. Now that they are, the question is what impact will that have on the world and what can we do as individuals, and businesses, to ensure that we’re using this vast network to create ethical communities?

Zuckerberg continued, “Today we are close to taking our next step. Our greatest opportunities are now global — like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses — like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics. Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”

A global community is a concept we’ve never really had to consider before. Until recently, the world has always been disconnected. But now we’re all connected, and it’s the world’s brands and online networks that are defining our world’s culture.

It’s up to us to shape what that culture will look like but we have a long way to go.

Despite these obvious shifts, community professionals still struggle to get the support and resources they need. In fact, another study CMX conducted showed that of communities that fail, one out of three fail due to lack of internal support and resources.

Rob Shapiro, a community strategist and former Sr. Director of Community at Oracle, describes a challenge that most community professionals face today, “On the one side, we have to be constantly educating the people around us as to who we are and our roadmap. On the other side, we also need standards. Adjunct and equally important, today, our industry has no consistent and disciplined reporting standards.”

This is both our burden and our opportunity: to properly communicate the value of community and create the standards for how to do this work ethically and successfully in the future.

So the next time you meet someone that believes building community is old, boring, and profitless, you can help them see the real opportunity in front of them: to fuel innovation and growth at massive scale, and to shape a more connected, collaborative, and compassionate global community.