Five Things Common to Communities & Families

November 24, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Branding

I’ll be hopping on a train in a few hours and making the trek to Long Island to visit with family and friends for Thanksgiving. People always know exactly what to expect when they go home. You walk through the door waiting to hear the same jokes, the same stories, the same yelling, and the occasional throwing of a glass or sharp object (that can’t just be my house). It’s family, but it’s also a community. One where you already know the lingo and feel comfortable (if not, safe) stepping into.

Communities on the Web are fairly similar. The jokes and faces may be different, but the core that keeps them together and bonds them is the same. Here are five things I think every community needs in order to survive, whether it’s on the Web or out there IRL.

A strong common thread or interest

My community (read: family) will be coming together for a lot of reasons this week. It’s Thanksgiving. My Dad’s been struggling a lot more with his health recently. I haven’t been home in awhile and I have professional accomplishments I’m excited to share. We have a lot to catch up on. The goal of our Thanksgiving will not be the food – it will be the catching up and the sharing of information and the laughs. Our common thread is celebrating our DNA.

Your community has its own reasons and DNA and they’re probably not that dissimilar. If you’ve been able to create a community around your local hardware store or your financial services Web site, it’s because you’ve hit on a common thread or interest that people have. Maybe they’re coming for the information you provide. Maybe they’re coming for the quirky side banter. Whatever it is, they’re on your site because you help them find “their people” on the Web. Make sure you understand what the goal or passion is behind your community and then look for natural ways to build it and put focus on it.

A hot button

Though I don’t leave for Long Island for a few more hours, I can tell you exactly what we’ll be talking about during Thanksgiving dinner. We’ll be talking about Sarah Palin and why she would or would not make a great president in 2012. We’ll be talking about how I don’t have a real job. We’ll be talking about that time when I was 7 and told my father to “just shut up” in front of my entire soccer team and their families and how mortified my parents were. We’ll be talking about how my old brother won’t come downstairs and sit at the table with the rest of us. These are the issues that people inevitably bring up because we know WE DON’T AGREE and it will spark fighting, screaming, the throwing of objects and likely tears (usually mine). They’re the hot button issues that, even though they drive us all crazy yelling about, also unite us at the end of the day.

What’s the hot button issue in your community? If you’re in social media, then Twitter’s definitely a hot button issue. If you’re in search engine optimization, then people like Derek Powazek are a hot button issue. There are the topics that, without fail, will incite a riot when brought up. Know the hot topics for your community…and know how to push them when you need to.  Sometimes they’re the only topics that will unite people when things start to go astray.  Hot button issues bring them back.

A barrier to entry

My parent’s Special Event’s Table holds about 12 people. That means, not everyone in town is going to be able to come. There’s a barrier to entry there. We have to like you enough to want to spend a few hours with you. Actually, we have to like you enough to share my mother’s cooking with you. The barrier makes it special. It makes it worth joining. It provides a certain sense of value and pride and luxury that wouldn’t be there if we decided to instead have a picnic on the front lawn and invite the whole town (though maybe we’ll do that next year).

What’s the barrier to entry for your community? It needs to have one. Don’t throw up impossible registration requirements, but don’t just let any stranger off the street in either. Maybe your barrier is a registration process. Maybe it’s that you need to live in a certain town. Maybe it’s a certain knowledge level about a particular topic. Whatever it is, it’s going to affect the type of community you’ll end up creating. Communities where people had to DO or BE something before joining are typically more loyal and healthier than communities where any spammer of the street can attach themselves to. There’s more pride and protectiveness there.

A unique language

Or maybe you call it an accent. Either way, it’s one of the most important factors involved in a community. My family community has a language and a clear accent. It’s covered in thick Italian slang and involves referring to people my made up names because that’s how my father has remembered them. [My name is Lucy and I’ll be your Pretend Lisa for the day.]

The acronyms that we drop as SEOs without giving it a second thought? That’s our language. The stupid geek jokes we make that cause others to look at us like we have nine heads and my “IRL” reference up top? That’s our language too. Language is what unites and divides us. Pay attention to the words and phrases that are natural in your community. I guarantee you that they’re there and knowing how to use them to rally the troops with become an invaluable part of growing and leveraging your community.

An identity

People join communities because they want to be a part of something and bigger than themselves. I go home for holidays because it reminds me that I’m part of something. Even if what I’m part of is just “the crazy”, it’s a feeling that I can trust and bank on being there. People join communities for that feeling. To belong to something greater than themselves and their own head drama.

Your community also gives people an identity. It’s your job, however, to know what that identity is and to actively shape it. If you want people to engage in your community, you have to give them something to hold on and take with them. What are you providing people for their time?

When you think about it, Web communities really are that much different than families. It’s a bunch of people coming together over a common interest, sharing their unique language and building an identity that provides value to everyone and makes them stronger. And sometimes, when you’re lucky, there’s pie!  What are the factors common to the communities on the Web (and off) that you’re a part of?

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