Building communities, not relationships

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Richard Millington
Richard Millington

This is an article by Richard Millington.

GiffGaff has one of the world’s most successful branded communities ( At the time of writing, the community has 4.6m posts.

Three million of these posts are in the customer support section of the community.

In 2010, GiffGaff realised the support being given through the community was better (and quicker) than the support being provided through their customer service lines. Therefore, they moved all their customer service online (with significant cost savings).

The average time to receive a response to a question from a knowledgeable member is approximately 40 seconds. To support this, GiffGaff nurture hundreds of advocates with exclusives who each spend hours every week providing help to others.

The second most popular area in the community is off topic – the social area. This is where members chat about their lives. They make friends, organise game nights, share advice about a variety of topics (interview skills, life, medical advice, which bands to listen to).

As long as they keep participating in the community, none of these members will leave GiffGaff (a mobile network service). To leave GiffGaff would be to leave their friends behind. Being a GiffGaff customer is a ticket to their favorite club of friends. In ROI terms, we would call this increased customer retention.

Cultivating value for decades…maybe

Cultivating a successful community like GiffGaff’s is a game-changing asset for organisations. The communities of EMC, AutoDesk, Nike, Cancer Research, and many more have been transforming how these organisations do business. They provide a sustainable competitive advantage, give unparalleled insight and feedback, provide an alternate channel for customer service and promotion, and increase loyalty to the organisation.

From an organisation perspective, communities ticks a lot of boxes: increased customer retention, customer satisfaction, increased share of wallet, reduced customer service costs, innovation, and plenty more.

Better yet, a community is a gift that keeps on giving. The lifespan of communities is indefinite. The oldest community, The WELL, recently celebrated its 28th birthday. Some of the oldest branded communities have celebrated their first decade and continue to grow.

In short, an organisation can launch a community today for a fraction of the cost of a typical publicity campaign, and still be reaping the benefits years later.

PR Skills sometimes help, sometime hinder

The skills for working in PR and building communities are similar, but distinct. Many of the communities developed by PR and marketing agencies struggle to reach critical mass. In 2008, the Wall Street journal noted that 35% of branded communities fail to reach 100 members. Even those that surpass this lowly landmark are devoid of any activity.

The battle for our digital attention is as ferocious as the battle for our eyeballs elsewhere. Will a member choose to participate in your community or watch the top 10 car chases on YouTube? Or talk with their friends on Facebook? Or share updates on Twitter?

More problematically, the skills that are terrific for executing PR campaigns are sometimes detrimental to community development. Browse for the term “launches an online community”. You will find the big community launches become big community failures. Communities start small and grow steadily.

The ability to build a relationship with an individual (as PR professionals often do so well) can lead a PR professional to focus on getting members to like them, as opposed to liking each other.

You like me, but do you like each other?

Herein lies the fundamental difference between community management and public relations. Where PR seeks to build positive relationships with stakeholders, community management aims to build positive relationships between stakeholders.

Grunig’s Four Models of public relations stop at two-way symmetrical communication. This is the organisation interacting with stakeholders and not encouraging stakeholders to build positive relationships between each other.

These positive relationships (social capital) produce incredible value that organisations can harvest for profitable gain. For example, when employees are connected they can share expertise, reduce duplication of work, and even arrange social activities. When Macmillan connects those affected by cancer, they can share advice and provide emotional support on a scale beyond what the organisation can achieve through any PR campaign.

A different set of skills and knowledge is required here. For example, to foster a sense of community between members requires cultivating a shared history, shared purpose, providing a means and motive for members to interact, and creating an environment that encourages repeated interaction.

Some PR-created communities focus on eyeballs and aim for psychological change. This leads PR pros to create sites that are great for content, but terrible for communities. Understanding group dynamics, social psychology, and human motivation helps. Knowing, for example, that you want members to participate in a self-disclosure discussion within the first few minutes of joining a community is important to their long-term participation.

It helps to know that members want to maintain a positive distinctiveness within their group and provide the ability for them to do that. This includes giving members recognition through interviews, profiles, and much more.

The challenge facing PR professionals, especially younger PR professionals, is to acquire community-building skills. Community building might not spell the death (or even deal a serious blow) to the PR profession.

However, PR professionals with community building skills will surely have an advantage over those without.

What’s old is new again

These aren’t new skills. They’re better described as lost skills. They’re the skills buried at the back of community organising books. They’re the skills the local church pastor used to build powerful local communities. They’re the skills we need to dust off and apply to a digital landscape.

You can practice this now. Create a Facebook/LinkedIn group for a topic you’re interested in (or even just your friendship group). Set goals. Invite people to join, initiate discussions, welcome newcomers, prompt people to participate, facilitate events/activities, and document what’s happened. Take a step back and see if the group can flourish.

You might not succeed, at first, but you’ll certainly get better very quickly.

Careers in community management

An even better way to learn is to come and join us at Feverbee. We’re a community consultancy. We help organisations (big organisations!) apply proven science to build better communities. Our client list is impressive and growing. We do consultancy, training, speeches, and create a lot of written material.

We’re looking to hire and train a reliable person in community skills. You can find full details here: