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Webster defines "community" as a group of people living together as a smaller social unit within a larger one. Communities provide a convenient way to look at slices of your market.

However, they are not the same as market segments; rather, they are groups of people linked by a common thread, a common experience or a common vision that may have nothing to do with your product or service at all, but can have everything to do with building your business.

Attributes such as shared interests, common traditions, ownership and mutual advantage are often assigned to community. When you think of it, aren't these the attributes you would like your most valuable customers to think about when they describe their relationship with your product, service or company?

How wonderful it would be to hear them compliment your organization for caring about what they care about and for providing a tradition of service. And because you have listened to your customer's needs and worked together to improve your products, services and their communities, they share a pride in ownership with you.

Sound good? If you are nodding your head, then read on to see how a solid community-building strategy can create this type of customer relationship and why women are the best community builders.

Women Communities Vs. Men Communities

It will come as no surprise that women's sense of community is quite different from men's. We recently conducted a survey asking women and men panelists to describe in their own words what "community" means to them. Men defined community as their place of living or work. Short, sweet and to their point. Women described a rich tapestry of interwoven relationships, providing examples that spanned their lifetime.

Clearly, the women had emotionally bonded to their communities at a level that our male responders had not. Their communities included traits such as these:

  • Longevity
  • Constancy
  • Often a secondary focus of caring and cause
  • Giving emotional fulfillment and balance to their time strapped life
  • Fun, friendly, supporting and showing mutual respect

Community—Her Definition

"To me, community is very important, it needs to be nurtured and pruned and taken care of," states Bridget, a 37-year-old professional from Chicago. Jane, a young mother from Iowa, tells us, "If we are not together we miss each other, so community has to be ongoing."

And Diana, a divorced Boomer from Savannah, told us, "Community gives me a sense of belonging, a place to get emotional support—the key is being there for each other—that makes community work! Most companies think community is sending me a bunch of email tips, or putting a picture of what they think my 'group' is on a mailer. They don't ask my opinion and don't find out anything about me and what they might do to engage me outside of buying their stuff."

More Important Than Ever Before

Each year, for the past six years, Edelman, the world's largest independent public relations firm, conducts a survey—the Edelman Annual Trust Barometer. This year's survey yielded some very interesting facts:

  • The respondents are placing more stock in what they read on the Internet, especially blogs.

  • They also are placing more trust on local versus regional or national news.

  • More and more, they are rejecting traditional "authorities."

The result of this decline in trust is a shift from previous trusted sources to a dependence on one-on-one dialog with friends, family or others that share a common interest or vision. The end result is the creation and nurturing of communities that "see the world as I do."

So how great is the trust deficit trend? Between the 2003 and 2005 survey results, the influencer's credibility grew from a trust level of 22% to 56%! (2005, Edelman Annual Trust Barometer, A Global Study of Opinion Leaders. Democratization of Information. Pam Talbot, p. 10.)

And to make it more difficult for marketers, the 2005 Consumer-Generated Media Engagement Study by Intelliseek reports that consumers are 50% more likely to be influenced by word-of-mouth recommendations from their peers than by radio/TV ads.

An Outside—Not Inside—Perspective

Community building is NOT rooted in the marketing of your company, product or service. It is based on relationship and conversations between people—where they are, not necessarily where you are. Community building therefore requires a very different perspective. It requires looking through a social lens and connecting the relationship dots.

Community-building strategies should be a component of your marketing strategy—one that should be integrated and supported in all you do. Community-building efforts are much more tactical, much more hands on and not an immediate "fix" but well worth the long-term, sustaining benefit that they produce.

Community Builders—Who Are They?

Rosen talks about community and its power in The Anatomy of the Buzz; Keller and Barry talk about the coveted "Influentials" in their book by the same title. Marketing is awash with books that explain how the dynamic of word-of-mouth and community, and group voice works. But how to do you find specific "influencers"? And once you do, how do you nurture the communities that make up her life?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point, states that 11.1% of the population fits into four distinct groups of people who will accelerate recommendations of your product and service. Two of these groups (the Connectors and Mavens) have a higher percentage of females than males, and in the third group (Salesmen), the members are gender balanced.

Gladwell's Connector group represents people who know a LOT of people; they collect and thrive on relationships. His Mavens gather information voraciously and share their information with others freely. Anyone who knows the collaborative, sharing, helping and learning preferences in women understand why females dominate the desired Influential target. These 11.1%, though smaller in number, cast a wide net, which makes the effort to build community worth your marketing dollars and effort.

Finding and Nurturing Your Community

Imagine that you are reading a newspaper and you read an article about a local fundraising effort in your target market. The woman heading up the cause is a volunteer named Connie. Several days later, you are reading your church bulletin and you see Connie's name mentioned as a key contact for the ladies hospice group, and when you show up at your child's local school for a PTA meeting Connie is at the registration table. You've just identified a Connector.

Uncovering community fire starters like Connie takes a keen eye, an attention to detail AND a willingness to reach outside the walls of your company, your tradeshows, your annual conferences, your current customer base and even your tried-and-true marketing ways.

Your next challenge is to identify how your business can help Connie and the communities she belongs to. The answer to that question demands that Outside Perspective mentioned earlier.

Ray Davis, the President of Umpqua Bank, has just that perspective. He decided that the Connies in his community needed a place to hold their monthly sewing meeting. His community bank sat empty each evening. If community was what Umpqua was truly about, then he knew that Umpqua needed to open its doors as a resource to the community.

Were the women at these meetings going to conduct banking business at the same time? No. Were all the women coming to these meetings customers of Umpqua? No.

So why do it? Because by serving these communities, Umpqua began to build a community brand and image and build relationships with new potential customers—the increase in checking and saving account sign-up that followed were not a coincidence, nor was the increase in request for space for other local social meetings.

No Pain, No Gain

You may find yourself saying, "This is great, but I can't do this, it doesn't fit my type of product or service, or my client will never buy this concept." My response is very simple. Women will continue to build community, with or without you.

Think about the thousands of women's business and social associations and organizations that have been created over the last decade—even though there were gender neutral organizations serving the industry need already in place. Something was obviously missing; otherwise, women would not have created these mirror organizations. Look at the buying power that these female organizations represented and the loss opportunity for the parent organization that failed to build community from women's point of view.

The choice and opportunity are yours to make. Your work will be part research, part investigative, part socializing and a lot of finessing. You and your employees or clients will need to be trained to see connections and recognize patterns, but the end result will yield loyal female communities, and the power of each members extended network.

Don't Forget...

  • That community building is NOT rooted in the marketing of your company, product or service. It is based on relationship and conversations between people—where they are, not necessarily where you are.

  • Longevity, constancy, caring, cause and emotional fulfillment.

  • The trust deficit—acknowledge it and address it where possible, AND leverage it.

  • To use an outside, not inside perspective when looking at your customer's needs.

  • To train your staff to connect the dots between Connectors and her communities.

  • To nurture, prune and take care of her communities through honest sustained effort.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terri Whitesel is the founder and chief translator of Interpret-Her, LLC. Reach her at terri@interpret-her.com.