Organizations have a lot more to offer the communities they interact with than the products they sell. When these organizations unselfishly offer assistance to the communities around them, they can build powerful relationships based on trust and shared value rather than just on transactions.
Sure, building this foundation will often mean that people in these communities would be more likely to consider buying products or services from you down the road (in case the marketing types ask). But if that is central to your thinking, community members will smell a rat. It is not enough to simply seem selfless while remaining selfishly motivated by your own bottom line.
You must actually care what happens to these communities. You must want to help them be more successful at achieving their own goals. Although this approach seems so obvious, my experience of working in the business world for the last 20 years indicates that it’s not.
Usually when I begin to talk about helping the communities that surround a brand, people immediately assume I’m just referring to typical organizational philanthropy or corporate citizenship work. While in some cases, a community-based brand strategy will dovetail nicely with these efforts, they have very different end purposes.
By carefully considering how you can help the communities of customers, partners, prospects, friends, neighbors, and others that interact with your brand every day, you can not only create value for these communities, you can develop deeper non-transactional relationships that will also benefit your organization in the long run.
If you need help shifting your thinking to a community-based approach, consider the following types of things your organization might do to help the communities around your brand:
Consider investing money in projects that help the community achieve its goals. Bonus points if the investment will also help your organization achieve its goals or further your brand positioning. Red Hat and other open source software companies have done this extremely well, investing in projects that later become the heart of products they sell while also creating value for community members at the same time.
Many communities are in need of assets that individuals can’t buy on their own. Are there assets you already own or could buy and then give to the community as a gift? Red Hat bought many companies over the years with useful proprietary source code and then gave away the code for free. The community was able to innovate more quickly, and everyone—including Red Hat—reaped the benefits.
Your organization might have other assets that would be of value, such as a conference facility that could be used or land you haven’t developed. You could donate your products, services, web server space, or other supplies and materials that might otherwise go to waste.
Your organization probably has knowledgeable people who might have a lot to offer. Consider allowing employees to spend on-the clock time helping on projects that further community goals and support the brand positioning.
Who do you and others in your organization know, and how might these relationships be of value to others in the brand community? Perhaps you can make connections that not only help the brand community, but also help your organization at the same time.
Could you use the power of your brand to shine the light on important community efforts, drawing more attention and help to the cause?
The bottom line…
When organizations begin thinking like members of communities—when they are of the community, not above the community—and bring value in the same ways individuals do, they can fundamentally alter the relationships they have with members of the community.
This means that organizations have to stop thinking selfishly about what they want to get the communities to buy from or do for them (what I call Tom Sawyer thinking) and start thinking about what assets they bring to the table that could create real value for community members.
Faking it will get you nowhere, but when you really bring some tangible value to a community and the community becomes better for it, your brand will reap the benefits down the road.
This is the ninth in a series of posts drawn from The Ad-Free Brand.
My publisher recently filmed a series of short video interviews where I discuss my new book The Ad-Free Brand. This is the second in a series of tips from the book, entitled “Don’t Think Like Tom Sawyer.”
Since I’ve recently been on one of my Tom Sawyer rants again about the lack of humility I see in many community efforts, I thought I’d share a story that might help you visualize the role your organization could play in the communities it belongs to.
A few months ago, two of my business partners, David Burney and Matt Muñoz, were sitting in a meeting with a client of ours (The Redwoods Group, a very cool B Corporation), discussing the unique relationship that organization has with its customers, employees, and other communities. The conversation turned to the ideas of service and humility, which are so often ignored by big organizations attempting to engage with communities.
All of the sudden, Kevin Trapani, CEO of The Redwoods Group, encapsulated the entire conversation in a few short words:
“We should be of it, not above it,” he said.
So many organizations, intentionally or not, approach things as if they are above a community. Sometimes this means taking the Tom Sawyer approach of using community strategies to get others to paint your fence for free. Sometimes this means creating a new community with your organization at the center rather than joining an existing community effort. Sometimes it simply means a lack of humility or selflessness shines through in the organization’s community interactions.
I’m always looking for interesting new communities to highlight on opensource.com. Over the past year, I’ve covered everything from Wikipedia to OpenIDEO to The White House and am, frankly, overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of new community-building efforts going on out there.
Seems like every day I get an email or see something on Twitter or Facebook about a new community that sounds interesting and innovative. I’ve found some amazing people and visionary ideas. I hope to continue to highlight the best of these new communities here on the business channel.
But at the risk of sounding like a hater, I must admit I’m getting a touch of new-community fatigue.
I think I went over the edge a few weeks back when ex-advertising industry celebrity Alex Bogusky (yes, the same guy who did all of those weird chicken ads for Burger King and famously tried to make Microsoft cool) announced his new “Collaborative Community/Brand For Social Entrepreneurs.” He calls it Common. No offense to Alex, but when the advertising agency folks are hopping on the community brand bus, you have to wonder whether the seats are starting to get a tad bit full…
I also wonder if there is a bit too much Tom Sawyer-fence-painting going on in some of these new communities. In case it’s been a while since you read Tom Sawyer, here’s how Wikipedia summarizes the story of Tom Sawyer and the fence:
Over the past month or so, I’ve been having a conversation with Iain Gray, Red Hat Vice President of Customer Engagement, about the ways companies engage with communities. I’ve also written a lot lately about common mistakes folks make in developing corporate community strategies (see my two posts about Tom Sawyer community-building here and here and Chris Brogan’s writeup here).
One idea we bounced around for a while was a mashup of community thinking and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For those of you who slept in with a bad hangover the day you were supposed to learn about Maslow in your intro psych class (damn you, Jagermeister!), here is the Wikipedia summary:
“[Maslow’s hierarchy of needs] is often depicted as a pyramid consisting of five levels: the lowest level is associated with physiological needs, while the uppermost level is associated with self-actualization needs, particularly those related to identity and purpose. The higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus when the lower needs in the pyramid are met. Once an individual has moved upwards to the next level, needs in the lower level will no longer be prioritized. If a lower set of needs is no longer being met, the individual will temporarily re-prioritize those needs by focusing attention on the unfulfilled needs, but will not permanently regress to the lower level.”
Now granted, the needs of a company are very different than the needs of a human being. At its very basic level, a company has a “physiological” need to make money. If that need is not being met, little else will matter. But in an ironic twist, this basic need to make money can actually hinder the company’s ability to make money if it is not wrapped in a more self-actualized strategy.
To explain what I mean, think about the last annoying salesperson who called or emailed you. Why were you annoyed? Probably because it was very clear to you that the salesperson was badly hiding his basic motivation to make money. He wasn’t talking to you because he valued you– he was talking to your wallet.
Now think about the best recent sales experience you’ve had. Mostly likely, this salesperson was being motivated by a higher purpose, perhaps something as simple as a desire to make you happy. Sometimes the most effective salespeople aren’t even in sales at all– like a friend who tells you about a new album you should buy, for example. Or sites like Trip Advisor, where you can learn about where to go on vacation from other folks like you.
When it comes to community strategy, most companies have trouble finding motivation beyond the simple need to make money– and the communities they interact with can tell.
Yet if you look at the greatest companies out there, you’ll find that they usually have a strong sense of identity and purpose– just like Maslow’s self-actualized people. Read anything by Jim Collins and you’ll see what I mean.
For a recent presentation, Iain developed a chart that looks a lot like the one below. And to embarrass Iain, let’s call it the Gray hierarchy of community needs.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post called Tom Sawyer, whitewashing fences, and building communities online, where I outlined one of the biggest mistakes I see companies make when figuring out their community strategy– they expect a mythical “community” will paint their fence for them. But not everyone is Tom Sawyer.
If your community strategy starts with the question, “how can I make the community work for me?” you may still find success if there are a bunch of people out there willing to paint your fence for free, but you definitely are not taking advantage of all of the benefits you can get from participating in communities.
One of the most often used examples of customer/community-driven innovation (perhaps because it is simple to understand) is the My Starbucks Idea site. This is a place where customers can tell Starbucks what they want, people vote on each others’ ideas, and Starbucks takes the best ideas and uses them to make their products, services, and experience better.
A recent example of a service that was launched through the site is a mini Starbucks drink card that can fit on your key chain. Sweet. It looks like they’ve had at least 5-10 innovations like this that have come from customer ideas, maybe more. And Starbucks is not alone– many companies have built similar sites, as has The White House. You’ve seen them.
But this approach is still simple Tom Sawyer-style community-building. People just helping Starbucks paint their fence for free. So why is it working for Starbucks? Because there are people out there willing to spend their time and energy helping Starbucks make their products, services, and experience better. Not every brand can command this sort of attention and loyalty. Most can’t, in fact.
My view? I do think these sort of public idea generation efforts are smart 21st century thinking when they work. But why stop there?
I get excited when I see big companies focused not only on what they take from the table, but what they bring to the table. I love to see companies that aren’t afraid to be humble members of communities, rather than building the community around themselves.
After hearing Chris talk about building trust in online communities, it hit me that one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make when trying to build communities online, even in the open source world, is that they think like Tom Sawyer.
Here’s how Wikipedia retells the story of Tom Sawyer and the fence:
After playing hooky from school on Friday and dirtying his clothes in a fight, Tom is made to whitewash the fence as punishment on Saturday. At first, Tom is disappointed by having to forfeit his day off. However, he soon cleverly persuades his friends to trade him small treasures for the privilege of doing his work.
When thinking about building communities online, are you thinking like Tom Sawyer? Why are you building a community in the first place? When it comes right down to it, do you really just want people to whitewash your fence for you and give you small treasures in return for the privilege?
If you are looking to ideas like open source or social media as simple means to get what you want for your company, it’s time to rethink your community strategy.