Building Community

Much has been said about the importance of building a community around your brand. But what exactly is a community and how do you go about building one? And even more importantly, how do you serve the people you’ve worked so hard to cultivate?

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Los Angeles City Hall provides a breathtaking focal point and public gathering place.

I recently had a stunning experience that profoundly illustrated how a community can quickly form. I was called for jury duty the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. Fully committed to fulfill my service, I went ahead and blocked out the prescribed seven days on my calendar. The day I was to summoned to appear, I put on a nice outfit, drove to the courthouse in Downtown LA, went through the security protocol, and found a seat in the juror’s room.

As the minutes and hours ticked by, I became fascinated by the incredibly random swath of humanity in the room–a rippling ocean of ages, occupations, ethnicities, accents, and attire–all sharing this moment in time for a common purpose.

Periodically, batches of people were called to form jury panels, and the ones not chosen breathed a collective sigh of relief. As the day wore on, the ever-dwindling ones not chosen began chitchatting, sharing stories, talking about their families and plans for the holiday weekend. There was an easy camaraderie to it all–we were forming a community, albeit a temporary one, based on our common circumstance of jury duty.

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Grand Park, a 12-acre park in the Los Angeles Civic Center, is sometimes nicknamed “Jury Duty Park.”

During the lunch break, many of us strolled over to Grand Park. Basking In the balmy midday, we exchanged knowing glances and smiles of recognition, or recommended places to grab a sandwich and coffee. Then abruptly at 1 pm, like a swarm of bees or herd of wildebeest, wordlessly, we all knew it was time to return to the courthouse.

The next few hours were quagmired in the question “will we or won’t we” be selected for a panel. If we survived until 4:30 pm, game over! Then, at precisely 3:20 pm, an officer of the court announced that we were released and our service was complete. She wished us all a wonderful Memorial Day weekend.

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Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall and Grand Palais in Paris create communities of interest with people from around the world.

Over the last several years, companies have begun employing Community Managers to oversee and administer communities created through online platforms, such as social networks, blogs, forums, and contests. This form of engagement takes customer service to a new level, by allowing consumers to interact with brands.

A great recent case study is General Mills’ “Hello, Cereal Lovers” a cross platform social media community that invites collaboration, storytelling and creativity. It was all fine and dandy until General Mills laid a big fat egg. In April 2014, General Mills informed consumers that they give up the right to sue the company if they engage in several types of online behavior, such as “joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest” and more.

The story first broke in the New York Times with the headline When ‘Liking’ a Brand Online Voids the Right to Sue. Well this went over like a lead balloon! Consumers  began flooding General Mills’ social media sites with complaints and threats to shift their loyalties to competing brands.

Clearly, you can’t have it both ways. In the end, General Mills capitulated to the voice of their community and rescinded the policy. The lesson: Serve your customers or they will leave you!

How can a community wield such power? On the most basic level, a community is a social unit that shares common values. Like little shreds of metal clustering around a magnet, human communities form organically under a variety of conditions, such as geographic place, beliefs, needs, circumstances, occupation, and interests. Call it human nature or blame it on physics, but this irresistible gravitational pull is strong enough to move the tides, cause mountains to crumble, or change the world.

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Glow Santa Monica is an all-night cultural experience featuring original commissions by artists that re-imagine Santa Monica Beach as a creative playground–and a great example of a successful community event!

The point of my jury duty story was to demonstate how quickly a community can form around a shared situation and common needs. People–even complete strangers–are hard-wired to pull together for survival, and this is good news for marketers.

At the end of the day, as I was leaving the courthouse, I noticed many people stealing one last look at their fellow jurors in a silent goodbye before scurrying back to their homes. Our little community was disbanding, as the common circumstance that brought us together slowly dissolved.

In the bigger picture, communities can be as enduring as the stars in the sky or as ephemeral as a snowflake in May. The key is to discover the essence of your brand and then create the environment and platform that will attract the right followers, whether it’s for a reason, a season, or beyond.

All photos by Kyrian Corona

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