“Community” is more than just a buzzword. It may have been usurped – along with “tribe” – by the social media and blogging crowd but it’s been around since the dawn of civilization. Human beings have been social and have survived through the power of community long before it occurred to anyone to take it online.
Yet here we are, acting as if we’ve just invented something groundbreaking with our limited-character updates and back-linked web pages. But community has always mattered and until the sentient machines take over the planet it always will. Because the fact is, you can’t survive without one – and your business can’t succeed without one, either.
“But I sell pink widgets!” You might say. Or, “I’m just an accountant! I don’t have a community. Just a pretty good client list.”
To you who doubt, I ask only this: Do you want to succeed?
Because if you do then you need a community, whether you want one, think you have one, or not.
Here are 3 communities that matter to every business and how you can woo, cultivate and grow them starting right now.
#1: Your Internal Community
While you’re out there busily joining tribes, commenting on blogs and Liking Facebook pages, has it occurred to you that there is a community of people who work with you every day? They’re your coworkers, your assistants, your colleagues and even the guy who makes your coffee in the morning.
Rare is the business person who is truly a “solopreneur” and exists without the support of at least one other person. In my business, my husband and I work together and we form a community of two. But there are designers, programmers, consultants and yes, even a guy who makes the coffee, and each of those people also belongs to our internal community.
How about you? Can you think of at least one other person who you work with, either every day or from time to time, who is part of your support group, your work crew, your business community?
I bet you can think of plenty!
These are your go-to folks when you need something done. They probably have skills that you yourself don’t have, which is why you work with them in the first place. You simply couldn’t function without the brainpower of the people around you.
But don’t confuse necessity with community! Just because you hired someone does not mean you’ve created a community. There’s more to it than that.
Bigger brands call it a “culture”. If you think about powerhouses like Apple and Google you can understand the type of culture and community we’re talking about. People who work for Apple do more than just “work for Apple”. They belong to Apple. They’re part of Apple. They identify with and participate in a community that revolves around Apple. People are personally invested in the company’s success, beyond the simple matter of a job or a paycheck. In a good business community, a failure for one is a failure for all.
That probably sounds creepier than it should. Community and identifying with a group are good things. They’re what drive us and motivate us.
Don’t think that just because you only have a handful of people working with you, or perhaps only one, that you have any less of a community. For your business to be successful, every single person who forms your internal community must feel a sense of belonging and responsibility for the outcomes in your business.
Remember the last time you went shopping and you wandered around a store looking for something you couldn’t find? And there wasn’t a salesperson in sight, and when you finally did track one down he was busy chatting with a coworker and you could barely get a question out? Or remember when you were completely ignored by a cashier at checkout who was busily recounting her last date to the next cashier, and sort of dropped your change on the counter and went back to talking?
That doesn’t happen because people don’t know how to use a cash register or find a scarf. It happens because they have no investment in their jobs. There’s no community.
Unless you want to be that business, you know, the one everyone complains about on Twitter? Then start building your internal community right now.
Have a clear set of values. Make sure that everyone who works with and for you knows what you stand for and how you conduct business. Make sure they share those values. If they’re just “in it for the paycheck” they’re probably not a good fit for your community.
Be passionate and make it contagious. If you don’t care about your business nobody else will, either.
Practice teamwork. Competition is ok for Wall Street but not for small businesses unless you’re hosting a summer volleyball game. Cooperation and shared goals should be the priority.
Show appreciation. People like to be recognized. If you give them a reason to identify positively with your company and values, then they will. Make sure everyone knows they’re an important part of the whole.
Take it out of the office. Part of building a sense of identity with a company is building relationships between people. So yes, go out and have a drink or host that summer volleyball game.
Give people responsibility. If that disinterested sales clerk was paid on commission I bet he’d think twice about ignoring you. I’m not suggesting that you adopt that pay model, but do hold people responsible for their behaviors and outcomes.
Educate. Internalizing values, becoming responsible and acting as part of a team aren’t inborn behaviors. You have to be the leader of your community and teach both by example and by direct education.
Value sharing. When people have their voices and ideas heard they become invested in outcomes. And don’t just pay lip-service to sharing. If you’ve hired the right people then their ideas and opinions should matter.
Create an environment where people matter. Community is not invented – it is built, one action at a time. If you put process and profits over people you’ll never build a community. People will grow into your community when they feel that their presence and contributions are valuable.
#2: Your Fan Community
Sometimes we call them “customers”. These days we probably call them fans and followers, too. These are the people who have bought our products, used our services – or may do so one day – and have one thing in common: they love us.
Not everyone you do business with is going to love your business. Some people are just customers. But to truly succeed, you need to move past the client list and dive into the world of raving fans. Nowadays with social media, you may even have fans who never do business with you. And that doesn’t matter one bit, because their appreciation and loyalty alone can be enough to generate business you otherwise never would have gotten.
These types of communities don’t happen by accident. They coalesce around great products, fantastic services or amazing people. I bet you can think of at least one business person who has achieved a type of celebrity status in your mind, even though you may never have actually done business with them. Seth Godin, anyone? Ok, maybe you coughed up a few bucks for one of his books. More than likely you’d just die in a puff of happy-smoke if you could somehow get to be the only person he ever follows on Twitter.
So why isn’t it sufficient to have a nice, long customer list and forget all this stuff that sounds so hard to do like building a community?
Because customers price shop. Customers forget your phone number then call the next-nearest guy who does what you do. Customers get cranky and ditch you when you’ve had too many bad days in a row and they’re kind of sick of your attitude.
But a community rallies around you. Community knows when the baby has kept you up all night and forgives you for your fourth missed deadline. Community wouldn’t go with a competitor if it could be done at half the price in a quarter of the time because, pft, they’re way smarter than that anyway.
Do you know why companies like Comcast and Bank of America (to name two that arouse a fair amount of ire) are still in business? Hint: it’s not because there are any raving fans who totally have to be part of that whole thing. It’s because we kind of have to do business with them – or some other company an awful lot like them – if we want that type of service.
So we throw up our hands and sigh and have a “whatever” moment and maybe complain about it on Facebook. It’s not like we’re going to stop watching TV or writing checks.
But we will stop buying that pink widget and we will find ourselves another accountant. For small businesses, it’s community-or-die.
If you want not only to succeed but to survive, you need to start building that protective wall of community around your business, and it’s not so very different than building your internal community.
Know your values – and stand by them. It’s easy to espouse a lot of heartfelt blah blah blah about grand visions and values but the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Your customers must see your values reflected in everything you do from your emails to your conversations to your products and services.
Work together. This is especially important for service providers. The whole “go away and come back when you’re done” approach is so 2000. Customers want to be part of the decision-making process. Even retailers can take advantage of this togetherness by helping customers choose the exactly perfect shade of pink widget for themselves.
Be passionate and make it obvious. When was the last time you felt compelled to get behind someone “just doing their job”? Did you feel any particular affinity for that disinterested cashier? Maybe thought that next time you went to that store you just had to get checked out by her or die? Didn’t think so.
Show appreciation. And don’t wait for Thanksgiving. A “thank you” to loyal customers goes an unbelievably long way.
Get out from behind your desk. People identify with people, not logos. By now you should have the words “personal branding” tattooed on the insides of your eyelids.
Be responsible. The customer isn’t always right. But sometimes they are. Trust me, even when they’re not. When something goes wrong, take responsibility and make it right. If it doesn’t go wrong but your customer insists it did? Suck it up. Sometimes winning a fan is a matter of not being right all the time.
Educate. Make your customers feel like they’re in on the joke. Don’t push them away with jargon and rhetoric that only serves to make you feel smart and important.
Value sharing. It’s not always about you. Remember to ask about your client’s Great Aunt Bess with the bad toe. The best business people I know can tell you the names of all your kids, could recognize your dog in a lineup, and will recite the lines of every one of your favorite movies.
Make it about people. How great your company is, how awesome your products are – that takes a back seat to how important you make your customers feel. Remember this simple truth: people like you less for what you do than for how you make them feel about themselves. If you connect with people you can build the types of relationships that matter.
#3: Your Support Community
These are not people you do business with. These are not people you work with. Maybe some of these people don’t even know a whole lot about what you do.
But they are the people who will comment on your blog post. Or promote your webinar. Or tell you when you said something stupid on Twitter. If they’re local, they may even come to your rescue when you’re late for a meeting and have a flat tire.
This is more of a personal community but it’s crucial to the success of your business.
You don’t exist in a vacuum. There are people who support, encourage and help you every day. Maybe they didn’t buy your book but they told ten of their friends about it. Maybe they have no idea what you actually do for a living but they can still tell you when there’s a typo on your blog.
Sometimes they’re our blog tribes and sometimes they’re our mastermind groups. Sometimes they just know when not to ask if you’ve had a bad day.
These types of communities can take root on or offline. But wherever they exist, they contribute to our success.
If you want to know how to build a support community, read back through the ways you can begin to build your internal and fan communities and apply the same principles here – namely, find people who share your values, who you can connect with, who you appreciate and share with.
And then add two more things…
Be present. A support community doesn’t exist without you. With enough momentum a fan community might continue to roll along without your presence but a support community only exists when you’re physically part of it.
Be support. Quid pro quo – if you’re all receive and no give, people are probably going to get tired of that after a while. If you want support you have to give at least 150% support in return. The good news? The more you give to your community, the more you’ll get and the happier you’ll be.
Your Community: Don’t Leave Home Without It.
Communities provide help, support and encouragement. They help us generate business and grow our businesses. They’re an outlet when we want one and a resource when we need one. They don’t happen quickly or easily but when you’ve built one, it’s arguably your most valuable business asset.
Can businesses survive without a community? I’d argue that a small business cannot. Without community, you can subtract support, subtract loyalty, subtract recognition… and that leaves you with a whole lot of not much. If you want a “job” and you enjoy the idea of “cog in the machine” then go ahead and work for one of those big, faceless companies. Otherwise, start building, using and appreciating your community right now!
Tell me: do you have at least one business community that’s an integral part of your success? How are you building yours?
This post is part of the August 2012 Word Carnival — a monthly group blogging event specifically for small business owners. (It’s the most fun you’ll have all month!) Check out the rest of the fabulous carney work here.
Join the discussion 32 Comments
Carol Lynn, this is one of the most comprehensive summaries on the importance of communities for small business in all their iterations I have read and some lines just made my heart sing. Surely, any business owner reading this will want to get out there right now to start engaging, enrolling and rewarding all those who are aligned with their business, their industry or their expertise. Thank you for the time you have invested in sharing with us the reason why a business must “start building, using and appreciating their community now!””
Thanks, Sandy, I hope it does inspire some people! I have sadly known some great people who are really smart and have good ideas but just don’t get the whole “people power” thing and it reflects in the state of their business. On the other hand, when someone does get it, it’s truly inspiring!
You touched on so many important points here, Carol Lynn — but the one I think tops them all is “know your values.” It’s not what we sell, it’s what we stand for that matters (and what will ultimately be the locus of what attracts anyone to us in the first place). It’s funny how many small biz folks I’ve met who, when asked, “What do you stand for?” haven’t a clue. Me? I’m taking a stand these days for hype-free marketing, authenticity and yes, relationships!
I’m with you on that, Tea! I admit I struggled with that for a while. When I was a teacher I had more of a “calling”. Then when I went into business, it was… business. Other than “make money”, what was I supposed to be doing? Was I doing anything worthwhile? So I pretty much embraced the teaching side of business – making sure clients know what the deal is so they don’t waste their time, money or energy. It all ties back into authenticity and relationships because you can’t have those without honesty, and being an educator is all about truth and honesty.
Love “know your values!” For me it is the driving factor for everything I do in my life and business. My core value of connection has lead me to so many great people and communities that I trust it implicitly! Too many people and businesses run without a clue when it comes to their values, when really clarity with values is the thing that makes the most difference!
I think small biz has a lot less leeway when it comes to being vague. There are plenty of options out there so if we can’t connect with people, they’ll find someone else to do business with who can.
I have to chime in with the rest when I say the most important take-away here is “know your values.” There’s so much power and momentum found in that clarity.
I love the way you’ve broken community down into these three main groups. Very insightful!
The values thing definitely seems to have resonated! I’m starting to think it needs its own blog post 🙂
Excellent advice, Carol Lynn. Two things resonated with me: know your values (because if you don’t know them, how are you going to share them with others and how are they going to know what you’re all about?) and ‘show appreciation’ – I really believe in showing gratitude.
Gratitude is underrated. The companies that I remember (and remain loyal to) are the ones who extended even the smallest recognition that wasn’t expected. And I’m not talking Christmas cards but real gratitude that comes when you’re not looking.
That’s the best kind. 🙂
Any business owner who will go through this post will surely get out there right now to start
engaging, enrolling and rewarding all those who are aligned with their business, their industry or their expertise. Thank you for your valuable time in which you shared this business information to us.
So…many…good…points! You just provided tons of insight for folks, showing them the big picture of community and how it actually influences our personal and business lives. Showing up authentically and engaging in a way that feels good while feeding community relationships can be a way of life, if you want it to be, in a way that naturally supports your business.
You said it! It’s a way of life. You really have to have a community mindset, not just think of it as “oh, I have to do this marketing thing called building community.” A good community makes business and life much more enjoyable!
Carol that is such a good , comprehensive article. I now work from home and so does my husband so we are also a community of two. If there is anything I miss about some of the businesses I have been involved with it is the community and cultures we had a long the way. I love that aspect.
I am still building online and am very conscious of the need for community. I really appreciate my online connections and value anyone who makes a comment on my blog.
Thanks for a great read.
Thanks Sue, I’m glad you enjoyed it. being part of a community is definitely one of the more fun parts of business. When you work at home and do it mostly in a quiet room like we do, it’s even more important to make those online connections! I’ve met so many super people online that I wouldn’t know what to do without them all. Thanks for being part of my online fun 🙂
Girl, that was good… I agree with everyone else, what an excellent post on exactly what communities truly are. And “know your values” is so so so important. Gosh, I can’t strive that enough myself.
Now I work from home and am alone 100% of the time, accept my faithful four legged companion Kayla. But I have built a fabulous community online through meeting bloggers, friends on social media sites, prospects who have searched me out and people who have joined me in my business. Without even looking you are building a community whether you look at it like that or not.
I know for a fact you cannot do this alone. You need advice, you need accountability so reach out to others and you’ll have your own awesome community. Gosh, it’s really so much fun too. Okay, sorry… That wasn’t real professional was it. Oh well!!!
Thanks Carol, awesome post.
Hey, no reason community can’t include dogs! they are some of the most loyal people in the world 🙂
And you’re right, those relationships are fun! Why not? Business shouldn’t be boring and painful. I enjoy meeting people and going along for the ride.
Sorry for being so late on this post, Carol, but you and Harleena are in a special little folder of the blog posts that will take me more time to read, because I know before I open them that it’s going to be a long one 🙂
I totally agree. Without building at least some type of communities I don’t know how one can succeed.
As I was reading your post, I was thinking of a friend of mine who published a hard copy book just a few months ago and keeps driving me crazy because he won’t listen to my advice of build relationships with people that not only could be customers, but most of all could help him promote his book. He is the perfect example that if you don’t do that part, you are going to wonder why you don’t have more success while you’re stuck where you are.
I could totally relate when you took the example of the cashier who doesn’t care. That’s why they don’t. They’re not involved they have nothing to gain or lose, basically. But when it comes to our own business we have no excuse.
Thank you for this excellent reminder of what we should be doing as business owners.
Sylviane, I almost felt bad posting this, I know it was so long! It was for a specific theme or I think I would’ve broken it into 3 posts. So thanks for sticking with it! I have the same kinds of “friends” you do – the ones who think they can get by on the power of just being fabulous, without bothering to build up relationships. I think eventually they get it or else they don’t get very far!
Wow Carol, what an excellent post! Really, I read a lot of blog posts in a day and it was very refreshing to come across this post which is absolutely loaded with value. You can consider me a new member of your fan community 🙂
Thanks so much, Matt, I appreciate that vote of confidence! I’ve been told I write a bit too long…. can’t argue with the one, but hopefully it does have value. Glad to add you as a new connection 🙂
What a great comprehensive post on the topic of communities! I will pin it, I love the picture too. 🙂 I hadn’t thought about the different types of communities but all three of those are important and have different roles and requirements as you pointed out. I know that without the support that I’ve received from my various communities I would have long ago given up on internet marketing and blogging. Even though I’ve changed my focus several times and am not anywhere near the same path that I started on I’ve learned so much that the education has been priceless – of course the relationships built are equally priceless! We can’t take the relationships out of this of course!
You said something very true – we can’t forget about the relationships… yet sometimes we don’t think of them as communities. I think a lot of businesses have good relationships but they don’t really recognize the fact that they’re really building community! Once you recognize that I think you can appreciate it and expand even more.
the CD that accompanied my issue of Success Magazine talked about so many of the points you shared with us. educating is crucial. push marketing never wins over any fans.
It’s always great when you get to hear reinforcement on important points (and great for me to know that I’m not the only one saying them!) In my own business, there is a definite shift toward people wanting to know what’s going on and be in the loop. If you can do a good job educating customers they’re more likely to trust you and remain loyal!
After the difficulties of this last week, I really learned the saving grace of community and being able to vent a bit (especially to the carnies) and then having the ability to respond a bit late to these posts…
I think the real benefit of the Word Carnivals is that I’ve met so many amazing folks like you that really understand the difficulties of freelancing, being your own boss, and what happens when other-world-craziness pops up.
I think you’re absolutely right when it comes to enumerating your communities: there are -definitely- fan communities, friend communities, and professional communities that must be maintained, each in their own way – much like you have to segment content for Twitter vs Facebook.
Solopreneur teamwork, bwahaha, such a contradiction when you first start out, but when you are in the trenches, it’s the only thing that can save you from horrible ends (to projects OR your business!)
Well, you said it as well as I did but in far fewer words, Nick 🙂
You may be the only person who runs your business but you certainly don’t do it alone!
And craziness? I’m a craziness magnet so I totally relate!
I love that you talk about your internal community. That is often overlooked for small business and solopreneurs. Yet it’s just as important as the Fortune 100.
I’ can’t thumbs up / reiterate enough the two rules of “Be Present” and “Be Supportive”. So many people join a community and then SPAM it with their needs.
Sounds like a lot of LinkedIn groups. They’re supposed to be the be-all of business networking but most of them end up being spam. “Look at me!” Not quite the idea of community!