In today’s marketing environment it is harder than ever to get noticed. Regardless of the quality of your product/service, or the insightful thoughts of your content marketing, capturing prospects attention and engaging customers remains our biggest challenge. A challenge that grows exponentially as new competitors arise, and more content floods our channels.
In response, organizations frequently talk about the desire to create a community of followers around their product or service.
We have the belief that a community will create loyalty, encourage sharing and advocacy, and overall make it easier to generate revenue through sales.
This sounds like a noble mission, however, do we really understand the difference between community, repeat customers, and loyalty? And, do we understand the essential elements necessary to build and foster a community?
What is a community?
A community is a social group of any size that is connected either geographically or relationally. By definition, this does little to excite or identify the value to your business or organization. It is only when we move away from the tangible definition, to the more esoteric, sense of community, that we get to the heart of our desires.
In their paper, Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory, social psychologists David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis presented their theory on understanding what makes a community. By their definition;
“Sense of community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together (McMillan, 1976).
This sense of belonging is what most organizations are interested in when they refer to creating a community.
We understand that everyone wants to belong to something, and if we harness that power, we can attract loyal members.
But, why do some communities excel while others flounder; failing to establish that emotional connection? The answer is relatively simple when we examine what McMillan & Chavis define as the factors that contribute to a sense of community. It becomes a formula from which we can identify why some communities thrive, and the missing elements of others.
4 factors that contribute to the sense of community
McMillan & Chavis identified 4 essential elements, and corresponding sub-elements, that contribute to the sense of community. If your goal is to build a community, but your model is lacking one of these pieces, you are unlikely to be successful.
Membership is the sense of belonging that is most frequently identified with a community. In order to belong, there must be boundaries to determine who is part of the group, and who is not. An important aspect to boundaries is positioning the positive benefits that boundaries provide to communities over the potential harm of rejection.Emotional safetyrecognizes the broader need of security, or intimacy, in being a member of the group.
Sense of belonging and identification involves the feeling, belief, and expectation that one “fits” into the group allowing for the belief, “this is my group.”
An important contributor to an individuals feeling of belonging involves personal investment. When an individual works for inclusion, they feel like they earned a place in the group. The larger the investment, the larger the sense of pride. This personal investment plays a large role in the emotional connection to the group.
A Common symbol (logo) serves several important functions in creating and maintaining a sense of community including identifying other members and establishing boundaries. Providing easy access for members to display symbols is important for strengthening their connection to the community, as well as, creating awareness (marketing) to those outside the community.
Influence is a bilateral concept with the need for energy to flow both to and from the group. Members must feel that their role is important and that someone is listening to them. This is a piece often overlooked by intentionally manufactured communities where the focus is on the group’s ability to influence their members. Members need to feel like someone is listening, and they will reward those members who acknowledge that others’ opinions matter with power and influence.
Ultimately, individuals will be most attracted to a community where they feel that they can be influential.
In addition, the group needs to provide members with value that they do not want to lose by leaving the community. This value can be provided in both tangible and intangible ways.
- Integration & Fulfillment of Needs
Integration and fulfillment can be defined as reinforcement for behavior. When a member joins a community, the association with the group must be rewarding for it’s members. In other words, members need to gain what they had hoped by joining the community. If members are not rewarded for their participation, or feel that any of the elements listed here are lacking it will be difficult to retain their involvement.
- Shared Emotional Connection
This final factor is often considered the “definitive element for true community.” It identifies that through mutual experiences we form long lasting, emotional connections. In other words, we have shared stories to tell. Interestingly, in order for there to be a shared emotional connection, members do not have had to participate in the history, but it is necessary for them to identify with it. This emotional connection is ultimately the bond that ties members together.
The first step for identifying the relevance of community to your organization is to determine if building a community is truly your goal. A community is a dynamic system that requires both give and take. Not all organizations lend themselves to the necessary elements for a community. As you can see, a satisfied, loyal customer base is not within itself a community.
If you do decide that growing a community is your goal, I would suggest going through each of the elements above and identifying the corresponding elements within your organization. If you are unable to identify the corresponding element, resolve that issue before moving further.
Creating a community will not guarantee success to your organization, but if you are going to pursue this path, understanding these elements will assist you in a greater potential for establishing a successful community.
Footnote: Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory, David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis, George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, Journal of Community Psychology, Volume 14, January 1986