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How communities work and how business can work with them

Community-Business

This post is by Jeremy Taylor, Managing Partner of CONNECT2 Community Engagement Ltd, the UK’s leading community engagement experts.

I was going to head this piece ‘How to profile and target communities’. But the fact is you target, utilise or harness communities at your peril – no, you have to work with them. In the real world and online, communities are not amenable to being manipulated in any way – if they feel that is what is going on, members will be very vocal in denouncing the culprit, co-operation will be withdrawn and any benefit a business is trying to accumulate will be rapidly reversed.

So what causes this state of affairs to come about? The answer is in the nature of communities, why they exist and how they are structured. This post looks at those factors in some detail, and considers how brands, businesses and organisations can best work with communities to mutual benefit.

This isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’ – in today’s consumer-empowered world, it is rapidly becoming an imperative for future business success.

How Do Communities Become Established?

Communities don’t just arise, grow and flourish in a vacuum. They exist for a reason, and have their own purpose and causes. It’s important to recognise and understand what these are if you want a community to work with you.

As an illustration, let’s look at communities that exist at a geographical level, relating to where the members live. Even if not of prime importance at first, the location of your home becomes of ever-increasing importance to almost everybody. The welfare of the area and its inhabitants becomes a theme in the lives of the people who live there, and community spirit can thrive. People like to be proud of where they live, and they look for reasons why it is better than other places. They discover that their neighbours share some of these views.

The local community has its origins in these circumstances, but in order to really thrive any community needs to move to the next stage. This is invariably driven by the development of a cause to rally around. And that’s where the power of community really kicks in.

For instance, there’s nothing like a threat to the existing order to galvanise community action. It gives the members a cause to unite around, it quickly indentifies leaders and connectors within the community, and members look to see how they can work together. Money needs to be raised, publicity generated, membership expanded. Governance and structure are put into place. A formal organisation, often a charity, is established.

Whether the threat is defeated or is victorious, the community structure is now established and remains in place. More often than not it finds new causes to fight for, new reasons to raise funds and new knowledge and skills that it needs to acquire. And so affinity to the community grows, the structure develops and the community itself becomes an ever more powerful force in the lives of its members.

These universal laws seem to apply no matter where the origins of the community lie. Community Causes are always to be found at the heart of community. Better facilities; better conditions; building repairs; staving off a threat; helping a charity elsewhere in the world; empowering through specialist knowledge. These are all areas where communities look beyond their immediate membership for help. Where help is provided by a third party, there are always opportunities for engagement for the provider.

How Should Businesses Start To Engage?

For a connection to be made by a business with any community, the start point should always be the Community Cause.

The most common mistake I see businesses make as they attempt to engage is to assume they know best. Effort and money has often been invested in developing a community benefit scheme, and the company is blind to any reason why the community shouldn’t fall over themselves to take it up. The trouble with this ‘one size fits all’ approach, of course, is that one size does not fit all.

Often with the best of intentions, the brand scheme has nonetheless been developed to reflect the requirements of the company. It fits with their corporate responsibility policy, and maybe even has been developed with a particular community in mind. “The test worked, it researched well, so it’s obviously going to work with everybody!” is the company received wisdom. But as we have already established, every community has its own reason for existing, its own nuances of membership and its own tightly defined causes and missions.

The wise business defines the ground where it wishes to operate with communities, based on its own purpose and commercial ambitions. Then it needs to be adaptable on the specifics of how community partners actually work with them – and partnership is the key word here.

So make sure you understand the community ambitions. Dig a little, and you may find projects that haven’t yet seen the light of day where your business is ideally placed to help. It will be appreciated, and opportunities to develop your reputation and even a commercial relationship (if that is your objective) will appear.

Remember that you have more to offer than just money.  Communities are looking for specialist expertise, buying power, manpower and physical labour, fame, fund raising assistance, long-term relationships. All are available from business partners.

How Should Businesses Reach Out To Communities?

The golden rules are the same as any other business contact. Find the right person, and use the right message.

Communities function through more or less well-defined structures. Even if there is no formal governance (although there often is, which can make things easier) there are always key people to talk to. These are the Connectors, the people who are the driving force behind the community.

The continued success of the community is important to them, they know what needs to be done and they know how to make it happen with other community members. They are well connected with personal networks deep within the community. They have a voice in the community that carries, and they can broadcast messages and make things happen through those networks. They are worth investing time and effort into; they can be strategic partners for business over a long period of time.

So find those people and use their knowledge and contact to explore the needs and causes of the community. Work to understand how these can be matched with your own company purpose and objectives. Then you can launch a long-term partnership, one with many facets and benefits to both business and community.

What Are The Business Benefits?

Engage successfully with communities, and you will achieve engagement and positive relationships with large groups of people and potential customers. The rewards can be significant.

Trust in businesses, particularly large ones, has never been high and continues to suffer and decline. Being seen to be interested in nothing but customers’ money has never been a great start point for trust. So working with – and within – a community is a perfect way to demonstrate that there is more to your organisation than a commercial transaction.

It’s the place to demonstrate corporate ethos in action, not just talk about it. Many companies genuinely believe they contribute to society at many levels, but struggle to achieve any recognition for their efforts. Working with communities makes initiatives visible and gets them talked about.

Word of mouth is a powerful force anywhere, but particularly within communities. Successful engagement generates the stories that get you talked about in a positive way.

Where trust and positive word of mouth are established, the opportunity to build solid customer relationships for the long term will also exist. There will also be the potential for advocacy and endorsement to add to the benefits list.

Above all else, the establishment of a ‘well of trust’ that can be gone to in unforeseen future circumstances has to be the key motivator for working with communities.

Senior management teams are often advised by business thought-leaders to engage with the whole of society in order to build trust (read Lord John Browne’s recent best-seller Connect – how companies succeed by engaging radically with societyfor some great insights). Experience shows that engaging one at a time with multiple communities, the essential building blocks of society, is a manageable strategy in achieving this huge ambition.

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Jeremy Taylor is Managing Partner of CONNECT2 Community Engagement Ltd based in London, the UK’s leading community engagement experts.

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