by Tobias Gould, Director of Social Innovation – Community Enterprise Engine
All modern businesses have digital relationships with customers and the best ecommerce build communities that have higher-level relationships with their customers than simply following or consuming content. No matter what you sell you will need to build better online communities in the future. Online customers want genuine relationships with you that provide satisfaction and involvement.
In a saturated online world they don’t have to come to you to make their purchase, they can migrate away to the platforms, spaces and communities that provide most value. We are going to share with you the gold standard ‘real world’ principles borrowed from Asset Based Community Development by Cormac Russell, and apply these to making better digital communities for your business. These tips will give you the magnet to pull your customers towards you and the glue to make them stick around for longer.
Usually a business thinks about its market, customer segments, or an audience. It’s time to rip up this rulebook to think more about communities. A community is a group of connected people with shared skills, interests or goals. Your task in building a great community is to create a ‘thick network’ where members grow in their confidence and collective action to co-create activity which nurtures and satisfies members, pulling ever more people into the community.
It is not good enough to use the word ‘community’ whilst thinking in the same way about markets. You need to shift mindset to a ‘pro-community’ focus to innovate your business model and deliver wonderful experiences online.
Here’s why you need better community development:
Your business needs to be visible online in a space where there are thousands of websites and trillions of posts every day. Even Netflix level content won’t be sufficient if no one cares enough to find you and tune in. You need to create human relationships in a digital space.
We know how to behave in the real world: we smile, we listen, we engage, and take turns in conversations. If someone approached you at a party or conference and only spoke about themselves then we would see them as selfish and sense they have mental health issues. A conversation that includes one person talking about themselves, is not a conversation.
Community building is a lost art. Modern culture is private and individualised to the point we are suspicious if anyone knocks on our door or talks to us in the street and yet we all know what good community feels like. There is a deep feeling of satisfaction that comes from being part of a group. This can be a group of friends, neighbours or colleagues.
We know the difference between a group of people with whom we are known, valued, trusted and liked; and being with strangers. When we are in a community we feel better, perform better and live longer. Connection is good for you.
Unfortunately around 85% of you are about to switch off. You just won’t get it. You are likely to have your ‘business hat’ on at the moment and won’t be able to absorb the value of real world community building. The language of the tips below are going to sound political, socialist, and radical.
However, those that stick with it, re-read it, keep pondering, and apply the tips to change ‘how they do business’ are going to be better placed for the new digital futures of the metaverse and beyond. Trust me, I’m a Community Champion.
Here are the tips
1 – Be Citizen Led: Forget what you do and your business models for now and re-engage with the human dimensions of your community. Ask yourself this positive question and keep asking it until you get great answers: “What is it that the citizens are best placed to do in association with each other?” This is the opposite of your normal question of what value you can deliver for them. A real community needs to have a plan and a goal about what is best for them, so that the activity within the community is satisfying and resonating.
A great community has a great purpose that starts with what people love, their passions and pleasures, and then touches on multiple parts of their life including what they need, what they are good at, and what they can get paid for. Take your professional tools off the table and use human tests to assess the worth of any community activity.
2 – Be Asset Based: This is such an exciting question for business but again it is counter intuitive to normal business processes and uses a different definition of what an asset is. In this context an ‘asset’ is what people are good at, rather than a ‘deficit’, which is someone’s weakness or problem. People’s assets are their strengths, skills and interests. Don’t look to fix, save and deliver customers from their problems, but instead look at how the community can take what is strong in it’s members and make it stronger. Ask how the community can amplify what its members love and what they do.
3 – Be Place Based: A small local place is the primary unit of community development. The goal here is to avoid providing a service but instead enabling people living or working in a place to have an impact on each other’s lives. A place is improved by increasing the connections between people and activity that people have within it. It is great to be known, and it is satisfying to have something to do. Whilst geographic communities are important, it is often the ‘communities of interest’ which pull people together to meet in their neighbourhood.
4 – Be Relationship Oriented: The relational power of communities to produce sustainable and satisfying activity is rarely tapped by commerce. A real community has members that associate with each other to make something great happen. It is the plural power of the community we want to create. This is not about us servicing a community or providing them with better content, it is about enabling a social movement which amplifies people to do more.
5 – Be Inclusion Focused: Communities need to welcome in new members of the tribe to develop and grow. A good welcoming process will actively listen to new members, recognise skills and talents, and enable people to take part to create pathways to a deep sense of belonging. Communities need diverse memberships to ask more questions and create more activity. The goal is to create a community where everyone’s skills, interests are welcomed, nurtured and grown.
Applying the principles of ‘Asset Based Community Development’ to creating better digital communities gives us a completely different language for business, marketing, financial or digital strategy.
This new language for thinking about your customers won’t make much sense at first, it is a new tool box for you, and it will take time for you to become good at using these new tools. Real community building forces us to think about people in a more human way, and encourages us to create worlds where each of us feels valued, recognised and useful.
Developing online communities will help you look after your customer in new ways, listen better, and collaborate on improving your products and services. Your customers will also begin to help you in new ways, delivering value in the business model such as helping you find new customers.
All of this online activity will produce loads of data. The winners in the future will be businesses that are great at both tracking and harnessing the data and building high quality customer relationships.
Tobias Gould is the Director of Social Innovation at Community Enterprise Engine, and a Business Innovation Fellow with the University of Leicester. He is part of the authoring team for the Government’s Help to Grow Management Course and helps businesses to innovate their business models.