Going TRIBAL: The Foundations of an Active Community Site

Year after year in my consulting practice I hear the proposals, requests, pitches for “building a community site.” While the clients range from Fortune 100 tech companies to hyper-niched start-ups the call is always to build a “community” or “include social media” as part of the plan. 80% of these projects fail and here’s why.

  • A community is not the platform. (Jive, Community Server, NING, Facebook, Posterous, Social Text)
  • A community is not the marketing plan or advertising budget. (Big bucks in Ad Words does not a successful community make.)
  • A community is not the leadership. (Visionaries and evangelicals can bring in the initial flock, but not maintain it.)
  • A community is not a brand or a company. (Dell, Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, Cartoon Network, Disney, iCarly)
  • A community is not driven or organized by a “community manager.” (Managers are moderators or facilitators not leaders.)

What then is a “community?” What is the magic sauce that causes some communities to expand and grow and others to grow dark the minute the marketing budget is spent?

In Seth Godin’s book Tribes he has a great quote about driving community.

Anatomy of a Movement

  1. A narrative that tells a story about who we are and the future we are trying to build.
  2. A connection between and among the leader and the tribe.
  3. Something to do – the fewer the limits the better.

Too often organizations fail to do anything but the third.

So what is missing from most of the “community” plans I have seen is the passion. The empowered leader who speaks with authority and a vision that people want to follow. And “follow” is a overused word, but it is accurate. We join communities because we believe in something, because we want to support a cause, and because we want to connect with others who have the same goals and intentions.

Why hasn’t Apple computer formed a large “community area” on their website? I mean is there a company that has more passionate users? Can you say iPhone or iPod without starting a conversation? But what Apple knows that some of the other manufacturers don’t is, they can create beautiful products and let the communities build themselves. Do a search for iPhone or iPod and you will be overwhelmed with the number of TRIBE sites that exist, without any support or input from the visionary, Steve Jobs. But there is only one Apple.

For everyone else we have to work a little harder at “building a community.”

Here’s where most “social media plans” start.

  1. Build a blog.
  2. Allow commenting.
  3. Open a discussion forum on various topics.
  4. Hire community managers to drum up interest and drive engagement within the topical sections.
  5. Drive traffic and interest via online marketing and paid-per-click advertising.

Basically, build it and they will come if we ask them to.

However the reality is more cut throat in this click-stream focus that we have today. If you are not doing a better job than Facebook of attracting and interacting with your Tribe then you will soon go dark for lack on enthusiasm and energy. So what is it about thriving communities that makes them go?

  • Economic value to the participants. (WIIFM – What’s In It For Me?)
  • Belonging/Tribal connections and facilitating and enabling those connections. (I want to belong.)
  • Strong focus and compelling vision for the community. (Show me the light.)
  • Members are given an easy opportunity to participate and connect with others of like mind. (Let me connect.)

So Facebook, now estimated to be the 4th most popular site on the web globally, is really a baseline for social media. While the apps, games, groups and causes on Facebook are interesting, in my opinion they are not enough to foster a “tribe.” If you consider Facebook your “community” then you are talking about a different type of engagement, for the most part. When I talk about Tribe, or “circle of passion,” what I am talking about is close to a Group or a Cause on Facebook, but with a few differences.

In my next community post, I want to look at both the Group and Cause models on Facebook and see what we can do to learn and adapt what IS working there into something that we might be able to use to build a “community” on our own site.

Stay tuned and stay connected.

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A few Tribal sites I’m involved with:

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