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What is a ‘community’?

So few brands are taking advantage of the real potential of social networks. They are currently engaging with broad communities well but very few are engaging on a more personal level.

I think what this comes down to is the ambiguous definition of the word ‘community’. After all, what does community really mean?

When I think of a community, I automatically picture a neighbourhood such as the one in Desperate Housewives. At face value, this neighbourhood consists of perfect green lawns and white picket fences. You might also assume that the people within the neighbourhood all know each other.

In terms of capturing this information, you already know your neighbour’s geographical location because you live near them, but you may know little else. Brands capture this information all the time too, asking them to tell them where you live, your email address and maybe even who you know.

But if you dig a little deeper (or continue to watch Desperate Housewives) you may also find out that no. 4 was friends with no. 8 for years before they moved in, and that no. 5 and no.7 are sisters. No.7 also started a book club with no.8.

This added insight adds complexity to the ‘neighbour’ network. It means we can start understanding the deeper relationships between these people and understand more about the individuals. Psychologist, Bulmer, explains that this is the difference between a ‘neighbour’ and a ‘neighbourhood’:

An online community works in much the same way.

A social network can also provide insights into the complex relationships surrounding an individual. It can be seen as a collection of individual networks, where each person has their own community. Brands should understand this too, as this is what will help them to understand their customers fully. And rather than marketing to the generic needs of a broad community, they can engage with individuals in that community powerfully and personally.

Platforms are constantly getting smarter and helping marketers do this by releasing new features that give us access to these insights. For example, Facebook recently released ‘friendship pages’ that show all the connections and content shared by two people (such as conversations, photos and shared interests) who are friends on Facebook.

So what can you do with this information?

A community manager’s job is fundamentally about trying to find ways to build relationships with customers. To do this, they need to know where their audience is online, as well as their values, beliefs and motivations. By analysing and understanding these insights, you will be able to make smarter decisions based on what your customers really want and need.

Halifax is a great example of a brand that has done this. Its Holiday Matchmaker application uses customer’s profile information (with permission) to make personalised holiday recommendations, including a hotel that might suit the customer’s budget and a person they might like to go with!

Another great example is Dutch airline KLM’s campaign How Happiness Spreads, in which a ‘surprise team’ was employed to give passengers personalised gifts at the airport once they checked-in using Foursquare. The team would search social networks to find information about that individual and then find a suitable gift for them, before they flew. For instance, Trendwatch quotes:

One traveler tweeted he would miss a PSV Eindhoven football game while he was in New York. The Surprise Team, accordingly, gave him a Lonely Planet guide book of NYC with all the football bars highlighted in blue.

What’s great about these examples is that the brands used a whole lot of information from an individuals profile page and turned it into something valuable for the customer. It positions the brand as one that listens to its customers, takes an interest in what they want, and demonstrates how these insights can be useful in designing personalised marketing for customers. These brands recognise that their customers are distinct and this is what community managers’ should do too – recognise the individual.

There is a tension here. It is still important to build a relationship with the broad community and recognise their collective shared beliefs and needs. However, as a community manager, it is also necessary to build more powerful engagement by balancing this with the relationship between your brand and the individual, by engaging with them on a personal level.

Have you seen any other / better examples of brands doing this well?

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