When I introduced Boston University's Dean Kenn Elmore to the folks who joined us in Boston for the live recording of this week's episode of Marketing Smarts, I said that I wanted to discuss the myriad ways that he had used social media to build community at the university. But when I addressed this with the dean, he schooled me.
"I'm not about just community," he told me. "Community is OK, but community can be this stodgy kind of thing. It's just there."
This caught me up. We talk so much about building and managing community that I had never questioned it as an end in itself. Every business and organization wants a community, right? We want a community of supporters, a community of fans and, oh yeah, a community to serve!
For his part, though, Dean Elmore wants something different and, in fact, something more interesting and vital. He wants "a scene."
"So much of what we do is about setting scenes and making a scene and creating an environment," he said. "A scene has movement to it. Scene changes a little bit. Scene is where you want to be. Something's going on in the scene."
Why Do People Seek Out Community?
On the one hand, I suppose, people seek out community to meet some very practical needs. In a community, you can get assistance, guidance, and information.
Looking at community from this perspective, it is a resource, and I think a lot of companies get into community building because they want to provide a resource to their customers, which is noble in its way. But they also believe a community can be a valuable resource for the company itself. It can help with customer service, provide ongoing customer insight ("It's like a focus group you don't have to pay for!") and, ideally, even attract new customers.
On the other hand, though, I don't believe people join communities for practical reasons. I believe they join them for personal reasons. They don't join communities primarily for information and advice; they join communities for the people there, for the connections, for the interactions. In other words, they join for the experience.
And that's why "scene" needs to take precedence over community.
Making the Scene
"I'm that guy who wants to hang around with the Sith," Dean Elmore admitted. "I'm that guy who wants to be part of Slytherin because they're a little more stylish."
When Dean Elmore shared his soft spot for the dark side, he got a laugh, of course, but he was also trying to illustrate the difference between a community and a scene. If community seems, as he said, "stodgy," it's because we associate community with something that is kind of wholesome and comforting (think of the phrase "an upstanding member of the community").
Scenes, by contrast, are a little edgy, even a little dangerous. The scene's allure depends on this edge, on an air of mystery, and also on the sense that something special is happening there. And here's the key: The only way you can really know, discover, and experience that something special is to be on the scene!
Spice It Up!
Companies get frustrated with their community-building efforts because, in the worst case scenario, no one shows up. Or if they do show up, they don't contribute or participate.
The solution is to make your community a scene. Make it a place where something is happening but where you don't know what's going to happen next. (Create the expectation that what might happen next is something really cool!)
There is nothing wrong with creating a community that people view as a resource. When people need help and they realize they can find it in the community, they will go there.
But when people are looking for action, they're going to hit the scene.
If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Dean Elmore you may listen here or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!