Conversation Is Not Community

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It might seem like an obvious statement, but many brands simply don’t understand this one basic fact: conversation is not community.

Let’s break that down: just because someone is talking about your brand (positively or negatively) it doesn’t mean that they are a part of your community (or that they want to be a part of your community). To push that even further, even if someone has bought from you, loves your product and raves about it everywhere (both online and offline), it still doesn’t mean that they are a part of your community (or that they want to be).

The only way that anybody joins any community is by voluntarily doing so.

It seems like we all need to take a step back, take a deep breathe, and re-read Seth Godin‘s seminal book, Permission Marketing. And, once you’ve inhaled that business book, understand that you can’t even ask for permission any more. You have to earn it and it has to be initiated by the consumer. The backlash to this thought will be something akin to, “what do we do if we have this great community and we want these individuals to join, and they probably would join if they simply knew that we existed?” The answer to this is pretty basic/obvious: do more to get noticed and recognized, so that word spreads and those who may be interested in your community will find you. Yes, make yourself more findable, approachable, likeable and spreadable.

Marketing is going to get harder and harder in 2010.

Marketing is going to get harder because even creating any semblance of a powerful conversation (the stuff that hopefully leads to people joining your community) is going to be ever-more challenging. With conversations happening in so many online channels in so many different forms, getting your signal through the noise is not going to be easy (it’s not easy now). On Twitter today, I tweeted: “Fill in the blank: creating conversations online is…” to which @cguy responded, “like trying to speak at a rock show.”

Anybody can have a conversation.

It’s important to remember that the idea of conversations really happening in the online channel is still a relatively new concept. That being said, many of the platforms we use to connect and share (online social networking) have come to the point where they are so simple to use that everyone (and anyone) is online and having conversations. Whether what they say has any relevance to you is not important. They can create these conversations, they should create these conversations and they are connecting with whomever is important to them. They could be having thousands of conversations all over the place, but still there is no semblance of an active or unified community.

Maybe the idea here is that if you engage in enough meaningful conversations the output of that will hopefully lead to a community?


  1. First, “Permission Marketing” is one of my all time favorite books (definitely on my top recommendations list).
    Second, regarding your statement here: “if you engage in enough meaningful conversations the output of that will hopefully lead to a community…” I think that’s just about right on point. The “engagement” is the tricky part. You have to take it outside of the “comment box” I think and get to know your readers where they hang out (on all of the other social networks). Getting to know them and engaging with them often enough warrants a deeper relationship and that’s where your community begins to grow.

  2. That’s if those companies are even going for communities and have figured out how the math works out on how they can benefit the company and their customers.
    How can you really tell the difference between a company that tries to increase the volume of conversations around their brand and products because they want to create a community, and the ones who just think they can sell more product that way?
    I like Ricardo’s point. The more tools and whatever we get that are supposed to make online conversations easier, the more people are going to be recognizing the companies who do the hard work and put the effort in. (Take twitter, people can have conversations on it, but 90% of all the interactions I’ve had with the accounts of brand have been the same shallow interactions, nod of thanks, etc.. over and over again.)

  3. This may just be a semantic argument, but I take the opposite point of view. When someone is talking about your brand – positively or negatively – then they ~have~ become part of the community. They have opted in by speaking up. Unless their message is ‘I hate Brand X and no one better talk to me about Brand X again henceforth’ it would seem to me that the act of conversing in a public forum is voluntarily wading into the community for that brand. The only question then, is how engaged a member of the community are they?
    Just thinking of geo-based communities and you can see similar in any village, town or city. There are those that just simply live in a place, it’s the spot where you store your belongings and sleep at night. Then there are those who become well acquainted with their neighbours and the issues affecting their street. Those who join local clubs and organizations. Sit on boards or councels. Attend the meetings. Rally folks around a cause. Both are members of the community, they just have different levels of engagement.
    With a low level of engagement you will only ever have those one-off cheers and jeers. Perhaps the way to catalyse that into something beneficial is to take those disparate conversations and tie those threads together. Several people are having a similar conversation … introduce them to one another. See if collectively there isn’t enough momentum to build upon.

  4. Great observation – conversations don’t make community.
    Communities are often about self-identity – see Seth Godin’s Tribes since you brought up Permission Marketing. Communities grow around concepts and are about mutuality, so with Twitter’s follower model they are floating, overlapping amorphous things. With tools like Lists, I’ve already started to see communities (in my niche) start to self-organize and label themselves a bit better.

  5. Great post – it’s not as simple as creating an online space and hoping that people will stop in, stay, and tell 50 friends. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen “markets are conversations” used as the opening line in someone’s “digital marketing playbook”. People form and join communities for a myriad of very self-serving reasons (good and bad) online and offline. If the value isn’t served up, brands simply aren’t welcome in the neighbourhood. I think that’s why we have zoning laws in the real world. 🙂

  6. The question that this left me asking is does community need a true home or is it more of how you feel about a brand. We have our website, we have our blog, our mailing list, our Facebook and Twitter and so on, but I wouldn’t limit our community to users of a specific point of entry. There are people who only interact with us on Twitter who I would say are part of our community.
    Are you saying that they really need to reach a specific part of your community to be a part of it or is it more about how the feel about your brand as a whole?

  7. Really interesting. I’m wondering how many consumers who buy shaving cream and then say how much they love it online (let’s on Twitter or Facebook) feel like they are a part of that community? I also wonder how it would play out if we used your model to create legislation (yes, like anti-spam laws, etc…) that if you acknowledge a brand (positive or negative) in the public forum that you are now considered a part of that community (regardless of your level of engagement).

  8. When it comes to a commodity product, if any shaving cream were remarkable enough for me to have remarked upon … then yes, I’d say I’m part of it’s community.
    Of course, it still behooves the brand to be respectful and pay heed to how engaged a person is before they jump in. You don’t want to be a creep about it.
    If the mayor of my community were to suddenly show up at my door and tell me to put a pot of coffee on and bake some cookies because the members of the historic society are holding their monthly meeting in my living room … all based on my signing the guest book at the local museum… well, I’d consider him and them to be jerks and look to move out of that crazy town real fast.

  9. An online community requires a group that shares common interests. If you engage and interact in a specific group you are developing in a community of association. Since the internet we don’t require geographical association however communities like to meet in person and on-line and share in the conversations.
    Why do you like to associate with different groups or blogs? In most cases we feel a connection with the author. You have similar thoughts or beliefs and feel compelled to share your thoughts. If someone buys your book they are demonstrating a thirst for more from Mitch Joel. They may want to be apart of the community. This blog allows for more interaction.
    Since the advent of the Internet, the concept of community no longer has geographical limitations, as people can now virtually gather in an online community and share common interests regardless of physical location. (Wikipedia)
    By Kyle McGuffin

  10. You know that I love this line and when you said it at Web 2 Open recently it really hit home.
    It IS hard to build a community and continues to get harder as there is constantly more voices being added to the mix and more brands trying to get in there as well.
    What I find most interesting is that the few brands that I’d personally be very interested in joining and participating in a community for don’t have one for me to join. Yes, I could create one and get it going, but I honestly don’t have the time for that.
    Every brand from the littlest sub shop on the corner to the biggest consumer brand in the world has customers out there who would be into the idea of a community around them. Sometimes though you have to set it up and provide it for them.
    Of course this is something that takes time. Communities very rarely spring up over night and most agencies and companies thus don’t give them the attention and resources they need to grow. Time of course being the biggest of those resources they want.
    I hope we see a trend in the next year and moving forward where marketers wake up to the fact that the quick, big, splash campaign is not going to work as well. Sure, there is a time and a reason for them, but the smart people will begin to think strategically long term and with many programs always fostering the bigger picture.

  11. The question is this: how about doing what Timothy Ferriss did?
    He set up a great business and left for a long time.
    The business flourished in spite of his total disconnection.
    And even when he came back, he remained connected as little as possible.
    That was the whole point of his venture – the internet based autopilot.
    I worked!

  12. What’s the purpose of the converstation? Chatting? Or something more constructive?
    Building a community comes with focused acts. It’s a product of starting a meaningful and interesting dialog along with being persistent in spreading your message.

  13. level of engagment aside…there are those out there who do not want to be defined by their community. The outside edges of the “prosumer” marketplace is full of “bash and dash”, or “plug and chug” types who are cardcarrying members of the “I am empowered, and will say want I want” community. They will have you believe that their brand maybe more important than the ones they comment on regardless of the position they are taking.
    Communities have these people drop by every so often to say what’s on their mind and then they tend to recess into the periphery. Look around you, everyone has at least one of these people in their lives…that unproductive guy at work who has all the answers, the mechanic who “fix” everything wrong with the governement, maybe your mother-in-law.
    The fact is they are a part of the community and most of them believe they even have a defined role to play.
    Now, to get back on track…what do you do with your mother-in-law??

  14. So then I guess the question would be how do you define community…? Is it when people who are having conversations about you start conversing with each other? Or is it something else?

  15. Meaningful comments and voluntary engagement are the two things that first spring to mind when talking about strong, online communities.
    Almost anyone can create a buzz and create lots of quick comments. Not many companies create content and value that results in regular meaningful conversations by a strong, voluntary community.
    Those that have created a community probably wouldn’t be questioning whether they have one or not, whilst those that just have many comments about their brand are still trying to figure it out.

  16. Thank you for your post.
    There will always be “not many” out there who deliver high quality of anything. This leaves a lot of room for those who can.
    Keeping this in mind creates a powerful, optimistic mindset. And what else do we need to move on?

  17. For some reason I’ve always felt that conversation was meant to make community possible. You can stand in a circle with ten people, talk (about something particular or just chat), and most people quickly know who in that ten people ‘feels right’ – people they’ve connected with on some level beyond We’re All Human.
    Online, our interactions are quick, easy, traceable, and ‘recorded’. We leave a trail, and in that way we walk among our community. My younger sister made a great point when I asked her if she was on Foursquare; “It seems like one of those things you need to have friends on for it to be cool”.
    Brands want to attract you and your “friends”, and when they take a second to try and understand the things that make you and your network “friends”, they can approach you in a personal way. Add to the conversation. Add to the community.
    I don’t think brands should be focused on creating communities. We have them, and we move among them freely. Brands should provide their friends and fans and critics with a direct line of communication, and should be responsive, helpful, honest, and open. Earn respect the old fashioned way; be a part of society.

  18. The thing I’m starting to notice, by having conversations with smart people like you and others and looking around, is that a lot of the things that we think are strategy and tactics are actually results.
    “Building a community” can be part of a pitch, but I’m not sure if there’s actually anything you can execute specifically in order to get that result. Conversation is one part of it, having a remarkable offering is another part, but is Community something that is on the controllable side of the equals sign? I’m not sure.
    Time and time again, communities form in places completely separate from any connection to any related company. Music-related messageboards crop up all the time, but messageboards on label sites languish. I don’t think we as marketers get to decide where a community lives, or even whether one happens or not. We can create as much conversational surface area as we like, but that doesn’t have anything to do with whether anyone says anything about it.
    I think something we CAN do, however, is make sure as many nooks and crannies are exposed as possible, whether we’re talking about consumer goods, non-profit, political figures, celebrities. Give people something to sink their teeth into, and don’t focus so much on the ‘where’.
    After all, that’s what search engines are for.
    So yes, marketing IS going to get harder and harder. But is that such a bad thing? Seth says All Marketers are Liars. Seems like we’ve made more surface area for the truth, so that less Marketing needs to happen. And I think we can all agree that’s a good thing.

  19. Mitch. Great Post.
    I think you’re right in that brands now have to earn the right to engage. But I think they’re engaging in the people’s community. The community belongs to the consumer. Brands can start conversations or engage in conversations but they don’t own either the conversation or the community. While I hate to speak in versions, Web 1.0 was about consumers opting-in. Web 2.0: The brand needs to opt-in to the conversation. That’s the paradigm shift. Communities are not about the brand they’re about the customer.
    Conversation is the new Marketing.
    Marketing won’t be harder in 2010. It will be different.

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