Groups, clubs, networks, teams, high-functioning teams, communities, families, and affinity groups: any time an individual meets another individual, they form a group, and the group has a dynamic. It might be one of mutual affection, antipathy, respect, but very rarely apathy.
On the Internet, we have an illusion of grouping people, just through the sheer power of communication. Of course, we are each still at our own terminal (the end, terminus, or boundary of a network tie to others), typing away on a keyboard, or tapping on a smartphone.
Online marketers like the word “community”. In fact, there is a common designation of “community manager”. In his article “The Four Tenets of the Community Manager” http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2007/11/25/the-four-tenets-of-the-community-manager/ , Jeremiah Owyang from Altimeter Group says that the first tenet is that of “Community Advocate”:
As a community advocate, the community manager’s primary role is to represent the customer. This includes listening, which results in monitoring, and being active in understanding what customers are saying in both the corporate community as well as external websites. Secondly, they engage customers by responding to their requests and needs or just conversations, both in private and in public.
Owyang is speaking of a community comprised of customers. While much more dynamic definitions of community abound, there is so much disagreement on what community means among sociologists, that quibbling over the word might not be the fruitful path.
M. Scott Peck, the well-known author and psychologist, described community as a group of people who have gone through several stages emerging as a consensus-governed non-exclusive group. Based on his workshops, Peck decided that real communities went through:
I wouldn’t totally rule it out but it seems unlikely that such a community would emerge from interactions that were totally online. It’s simply too easy for an unbounded group to slip in and out of the steps needed to form Peck’s idea of community.
Another American psychologist, Bruce Tuckman, had theorized that all groups go through several stages in their development:
And finally, because ostensibly a group forms in order to achieve something: adjourning.
Do all groups form in order to achieve a goal? Or is that a team we’re speaking of?
In the 19th Century, ethnologists used the term “affinity groups”, as did Spanish anarchists (grupos de afinidad) leading to the term being used to describe political groups. For the ethnologists, the phrase related to their use of the word “affinity” why inferred relationship by marriage or other tie, as opposed to genetics. The other use of the word “affinity” infers “liking”. We both might have an affinity for chocolate ice cream. But like the word “community”, the phrase has been used in these many different ways that marketers might best let it be.
Teams, of course, definitely have a common goal. They are organized for the purpose of fulfilling the goal. The communities that I can think of might have common goals, but the goal is not necessarily the raison d’être. Often, their purpose is in living a certain lifestyle. If we accept that notion, then Peck’s idea of community won’t serve. And yet, what he describes is something more than a team – it’s a team that is pursuing its common goals in a certain way.
Social clubs, too, differ from communities. We might visit our social club on Tuesday night, play some poker and recite some poetry, but then we return home. The social club might be IN the community, or outside – but in some form or another, it stands apart. In other words, with social clubs, we come together to socialize – just to be together and share some activities that we all like.
Social grooming – and by extension, chatting – has been shown to be an important activity in bonding and creating cohesive social groups. While often taken for purposeless activity, chit-chat can serve a strong purpose in helping people develop notions of trust and social capital. There seems to be more allowance for this in community, as opposed to team. In a team, we might allow for some social time, but the group purpose is bigger. In a community, we might have a bigger purpose, but the socializing can have a larger role.
What does all this mean to online marketing?
Groups are dynamic, and despite all of our attempts, don’t always behave the way we expect. A group might form simply because they share a love of something, and then splinter and fragment into teams or subgroups, or even form a community. Communities can disintegrate or implode into horrible rivalries or result in high performing teams.
If marketers understand the groups being entered or called-upon, or if they are creating a group, the overall characteristics of the group, they can become a part of the group in a more meaningful way. To enter a social community, for instance, and expect team work – or vice versa – could result in unfortunate outcomes.