Community Definition

When was the last time you saw or heard the word community in a business context?

The last time I saw it was yesterday, at Fort Lauderdale airport. I was staring at an advertisement for a hotel chain. The copy below the image of the hotel room said: “We don’t just think of our hotels as rooms. We think of them as a community.”

I would have fully supported someone drawing obscene images on this advertisement. Here’s why.

I bought a box of KIND bars last week in Florida, and the side of the box read:
I bought a box of KIND bars last week in Florida, and the side of the box read: “Welcome to the KIND Community.” This is a problem.

Community Has One Solid Definition

It is about time we recognize that community (in a business context) needs to have one solid definition. Not eight. Not a spectrum. Just one. Everyone who uses the term wrong in the workplace will then be the equivalent of George Bush mispronouncing “nuclear” for eight years on television.

Community is a group of people aligned across common values, goals, or interests. Communities have “members” who self-identify as such. Members can influence one another. They share experiences. The community meets some need that they all have. Above all else, communities require that every member can contribute, not just consume. 

Most businesses do not understand that final point.

Here, in more depth, are the four defining factors of a community, as stated in Dr. David McMillan’s Sense of Community Theory. His work laid the groundwork for all professional community building. All communities have these four factors in common, and all professional community builders work to bolster these four factors to strengthen their communities.

The 4 Factors of a Sense of Community

  1. Clear membership (just because you comment on a Facebook post once does not mean that you’re a “member” of a community).
  2. Influence on other members and other members have an influence on you. As a member, you have the ability to change people’s minds, stir them to action, or contribute in some way, small or large.
  3. Shared emotional connection. Members share experiences together, whether that is going to football games or church. This usually necessitates that they convene in a central location, not distributed across “social media” (whatever the eff that means).
  4. Fulfillment of needs. This is crucial for businesses to understand. Your business needs are usually not aligned with member needs. You must align them or you will fail.

What is the Cost of Getting It Wrong?

Here is what happens in businesses when they throw around the term “community” to mean everything from Twitter responses to Reddit participation to forums to Facebook Page posts.

  1. Business is confused about what “community managers” (I hate this title, but I’ll go into that another time) really do, but they know that they are not doing a good job of building scalable customer relationships.
  2. Business hires “community manager” to do All The Things™ and make people love them.
  3. “Community manager”, once full of life and passion, has no clear direction or leadership.
  4. “Community manager” roams from project to project, lost about where they are most effective, unsure about who they even report to, and beholden to both company and budding community. They are unable to report measurable results and end up in tears at least once per week… been there, done that.
  5. Business sees that “community manager” is confused, but blames them because they do not take responsibility for not understanding what community really is.
  6. Business sees “community manager” as ineffective or an outright failure. Business grasps at straws to understand, but still they cannot (I was asked once, four months into a job, to put together a PowerPoint about what I really do… This should never happen to anyone ever again).
  7. Business does away with community role entirely or pushes this person to the side, chalking it up to ineffectiveness of person or role in general.
  8. Business never creates upward mobility for community person, so the role hits a ceiling and that community manager leaves the profession.

Now imagine this on a huge scale. For community professionals, it spells a massive loss of jobs, a loss of individual and professional respect, and a loss of faith in community as a whole.

So before you think about throwing around the term community again without clarifying your understanding, think again. It could cost someone their job — or it could even cost thousands of jobs. If you’re unsure, it’s okay to ask. Just don’t pretend like you know. You’re doing more harm than good.

When was the last time you heard the word community? Want some clarity? Want to help me refine the definition? Leave me a comment!

8 thoughts on “You’re Using the Word Community Wrong, and You’re Costing People Their Jobs

  1. Completely agree with this assessment (and have experienced the consequences described), but I get hung up on the implication that by having the correct understand of those 4 pillars of community, a business can avoid those consequences. Maybe it’s a matter of correlation, not causation. Someone can understand community correctly and STILL run into those same issues (difficulty measuring results and lack of role clarity/growth).

    1. Hi Elise! Fantastic point, that’s very true. This post is by no means a final answer. I think there’s one step beyond using the term community right (that’s why we need a common language, not just one key definition). Once you understand it, you have to understand how it applies in your business and how to find value for both the business and the members. This is the most challenging task once people make the leap into understanding what a true community really is.

      Do you think there are other ways we can make it easier for businesses to measure results and create more clarity around what we really do best?

  2. “Shared values, goals, and interests” is not the primary use if the word community. It’s more often “a group of people who live in the same area.”

    The word is overused and misused to represent self identified participation. The problem is not that businesses don’t know the word means. It’s that we are trying to use a common word to represent a specific professional or academic meaning.

    In other words, your article is about using the word community as jargon. Of course that will create confusion with people outside the specific profession.

    The solution is to better define the professional role by using a more specific and less confusing word than community.

    If the job is managing customer relationships, why not describe it that way? If it’s membership you are describing, why not use the word membership?

    1. Hi Jason, some great points you’ve brought up here. I really appreciate your input.

      I agree that traditionally speaking – and not in a professional context – community is used as a location-bound idea (but, of course, I’d even say that picking your neighborhood community involves a lot of considering your goals, interests, and values). People can use it that way, I have zero problem with that.

      That’s not the problem that I’m describing here though. I’m talking here about community as a profession, and I’m talking to businesses who are confused and misusing the term. So, yes, I am talking about professional jargon, but I wouldn’t frame it in those negative terms. It’s language — professional language. Just as engineers have language to describe what they do, professional community builders need language to describe their work too. That’s how I would frame this conversation.

      To that end, you’ve offered a solution. I like what you’ve said: if the job is managing customer relationships, describe it as that. I agree. That’s not a community professional’s job though. Community professionals build spaces to connect members. That’s a really important job. Businesses are just now learning the power of building real community – both offline and online. We’re just as the cusp of this revolution, and it’s not going away or being shifted into other departments in the business world. You say we should use other terms, but membership implies “member of X community”. What other terms are there that we could use that wouldn’t simply shift community into a lesser role in a marketing/support/product department?

      I really value your contribution. I’d love to learn more about what you do. 🙂

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