Whose Community Is It Anyway?

A while back I used to get really excited about the concept of ‘community’ on the Net. I saw a community as a marketplace. I saw money. The first thing that put a dent in this thinking was my experience with our small community of subscribers at forkinthehead.com.

It’s a neat little community, and we keep in touch through a weekly newsletter and surveys and an environment that actively encourages feedback of all kinds. At one point, I was trying quite hard to get the forkinthehead community to buy forkinthehead t-shirts and forkinthehead mugs. My thinking was that people would like a physical expression of their feelings of being part of the group.

I now call this thinking, “Wishful Marketing.”

My cunning plan didn’t work. In the spirit of brisk feedback, I was told in no uncertain terms to stop bugging everyone with my pathetic attempts to sell them things. They didn’t want the stuff. They came only for the articles and the newsletter. So I backed off and began to see more clearly what John Audette sometimes describes as a “bottom-up world.”

In a nutshell, communities are built by and for individuals on the Net, not by and for the companies that would like to profit from them.

When you look upon these communities as tightly targeted groups that have somehow coalesced into one spot just for you, that’s Wishful Marketing.

I’m not alone here. Just this week, the prolific Jaffer Ali submitted a post to John Audette’s excellent I-Sales discussion list and said:

“The most recent bit of group-think is sales through building community. Create a community and sell them ‘stuff’ through collecting reams of data, and making suggestions. The more you know about your community, the thinking goes, the more you can convert them into opening their wallets and buying ‘stuff.'”

Meanwhile, on the same day, I read the following synopsis for an article from Internet World.

“How does a web-geek site handle success? Slashdot.com has catered to hacker types so well that it’s built up a big audience — and its founder now sees it as a commercial endeavor, saying money will help him do it better.”

Well, good luck.

As Jaffer says later in his posting, “Once ur ‘community’ gets the idea that they are more ‘cuustumahhhs’ than community members, they are more likely to become ex-members of a community.”

So what’s a marketer to do? The Internet provides such a delicious medium in which to develop communities. Surely, there is some way to profit from them.

I’m sure there is. But I think you’ll need to follow a couple of new rules:

  1. Be completely upfront and honest about your intentions. If you’re there to sell stuff, be open about it.
  2. Recognize and respect the boundaries.

To recognize the boundaries, you first have to appreciate that most Internet communities are created not by commercial entities, but by interconnected individuals who share common interests and beliefs.

It’s their place, not yours.

But what if you created the site and the environment in which these people collect? Doesn’t that give you some right and stake in the community and its commercial potential?

No. You can host a great party — but you can’t tell your party guests what to do. It becomes their space. Even if you provided the venue.

So how can you get it right? I guess that brings us back to Seth Godin’s concept of Permission Marketing. If you wish to enter a community for the purpose of commerce, you’d better knock on the door and announce your presence and intentions first.

Respect the fact that it’s their space. And if you want to be invited in, the items or services you have to offer had better be appropriate to the context and interests of the community.

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