Don’t call it a community

As a community leader in the marketing industry, I often find myself interrupting conversations with colleagues, peers, and clients to ask for clarification. “When you say you want to build a community, what do you mean exactly?” And I get a wide range of responses. Sometimes they mean “the local, geographic sense of community” or more often, “our community of followers on social.”

In order to have a real conversation about how or why to build community, it’s helpful to step back and define what exactly we mean by that. Let’s refer to the definition of community from a few leaders I admire in the field:

Carrie Melissa Jones and Charles H. Vogl (Building Brand Communities): “a group of people who share mutual concern for one another”

Gina Bianchini (Mighty Networks): “a group of people going deep to master something interesting together”

Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto (Get Together): “groups of people who keep coming together over what they care about”

Most of the time, what marketers are talking about when we say “community” is actually an audience — a group of people who follow your brand on Instagram or sign up for your email list. While these individuals may all share an interest in your content, they have no relationship with each other. No mutual concern. No coming together.

I’m not here to argue that audiences have no value. They sit at the top of your marketing funnel and without them, you’d have nobody to purchase your products or services. But the strategies for growing an audience and building a brand community are quite different.

Building community requires turning typical marketing funnels on their head. Instead of starting with a broad audience and narrowing as potential customers move from consideration to purchase, we start small and seek to serve a core group of deeply invested founding members, who will then help us scale. As a community builder, your role is to connect individuals — often manually, especially at first — who have common interests or goals so they can explore or achieve something together, in the process forming lasting relationships that keep them coming back to your community and bringing their friends.

Forging a community from an audience isn’t impossible, but it requires a commitment to developing personal connections where they don’t yet exist — first between yourself as the creator/brand and your followers/customers, and then among those followers. You have to spend time, one-on-one, understanding why each person is there. Who are your followers as individuals? What keeps them up at night? What gets them up in the morning? What do they hope to gain from being part of your community? And what (if anything) are they willing to give?

When someone decides to follow you on Instagram, they’re not signing up for anything more than seeing your photos in their feed. Their presence isn’t contingent upon participation. For a community to truly be a community, its members must interact with each other, care for each other, and be willing to give something of themselves in order to learn from each other.

Building a real community requires time, effort, and shift in perspective for many marketers, but the benefits abound.

The Minted Artist community is one of the most vibrant brand communities I’ve had the pleasure to help grow, and it began with an inefficient, time-intensive, personal commitment from Mariam Naficy, the brand’s Founder & CEO, to forming individual relationships with every early member. To this day, Mariam hosts Minted Meet-ups (initially in person, now virtually) with small groups of artists in cities across the country and around the world to connect over coffee.

This commitment to understanding Minted artists as whole people has persisted throughout the brand and community’s growth, and is a differentiator for the platform — driving brand loyalty among artists who have plenty of options to take their work elsewhere, and a desire to help each other improve even while in direct competition to have their designs selected and sold. For Minted, it isn’t hard to understand why an engaged artist community would be valuable — after all, these independent artists supply the designs for nearly every product sold by the company.

When you’re launching a new venture, there’s also less downside to investing your time in one-on-one conversations — in fact, it’s exactly how you should spend your time. And if you continue to nurture those relationships as you grow, they can form the basis of a community on which to build your brand. But brands built with community at their core are few and far between, and for most, it’s difficult to justify the painstaking process of building a community later in their journey.

When a marketing team at a more mature company has to choose between paying for Instagram ads or building a community to acquire new customers , you can guess which tactic is better suited to hit their Q1 targets. And there’s no shame in that. Where brands set themselves and their “communities” up to fail, is when they approach community building as another short-term marketing strategy.

This isn’t to excuse community teams and programs from being required to measure and deliver results, especially to their members, but it’s often unrealistic to expect those results to align with short-term business goals. Instead, invest in community for its long-term benefits — to make your brand more resilient and innovative by building with rather than for your customers.

There aren’t any shortcuts to forming the personal relationships that set the foundation of your community, but strong relationships are the key to sustainability and scalability. Start by identifying and empowering a core group of allies who are invested in your community’s success. These allies will then recruit new members, model desired behaviors, defend you against detractors, and provide valuable feedback to you and your team. Their contributions will spark the network effects that make real brand communities so powerful and sought after.

As it turns out, in a digital-first, highly-networked world, unscalable personal relationships are the key to a community that scales.

Head of Community @ AspireIQ. Formerly Minted and eBay.