Calling your Customers “Members” Does Not Make it a Community

Photo by Firdouss Ross on Unsplash

After almost ten years of building co-working spaces and communities, I joined my very first co-working space today! This new experience as a co-working customer got me thinking — now that I’m a paying customer, am I automatically part of a community? If the WeWork story taught us anything it’s that community is a powerful and seductive word, and just because you call something a community does not make it so. In fact, as a professional community builder, the ambiguity around the definition of community that I spend much of my time clarifying.

Community is one of those words that means different things to different people. Words and their definitions really matter, so here’s my definition.

Community is a group of people helping each other out and repeating that action over time.

Is Your Community Really a Community?

“Community is really top of mind right now” is a common refrain from potential clients. My next question is always, “When you think of community, what does that mean to you?”

What’s reflected back to me is usually something like, “Isn’t community just social media? Is it marketing? Is it operations? Is it DEI? Isn’t it content creation? Isn’t community just people talking about stuff they like online or in person? Isn’t it friendship with a lot of people? Isn’t it just events?”

My answer is: yes and no, to all of the above.

If you have a community or want to start a community, let me run you through a little diagnostic exercise based on social science research that can help you check your work. I’ve cherry-picked some key questions from the Sense of Community Index survey to help you begin.

Now, put yourself in the proverbial shoes of your community member or customer. How do you think they’d respond to these prompts?

“I put a lot of time and effort into being a part of this community”

“Being a part of the community makes me feel good”

“If there is a problem in this community, members can get it solved.”

“People in this community have similar needs, priorities and goals”

“I can trust people in this community”

If you answered “No” or “I dont know” to these questions. You might just have a customer base or an audience, not a community. And let me be clear — that’s okay! I want to broadcast the idea that it is very acceptable to call your customers….customers.

Get Clear on Customer vs. Community

The notion of community is so powerful that big brands like WeWork are renaming their customers to members. The concept denotes connectivity, connectedness and shared goals — -those are all compelling ideas!! (This is why companies want to do the ole switcheroo!) The act of trading “customers” for “members” proves the power of the word and provides further evidence that naming something a community or calling people members does not make it so.

For example, I shop at H + M because I’m looking for clothes for my child, I’m not looking to connect with others and I would venture to say that most customers at H and M aren’t concerned about trusting or connecting with other customers of H + M. Nor are they investing large amounts of time or their identity into participating with their product.

Another common misconception is that social media alone equals community. A brand creating content that resonates with an audience is exciting! But, that’s growing an engaged audience and that’s a one way street.

Creating a community requires building and maintaining a two-way street — a roundabout if you will. The enticing visuals and stories on social media are an example of one of your “feeder roads” into the roundabout of community. Powerful marketing, seamless operations and a solid product all are key components to keep the two-way road running smoothly. Community leaders must create guides and guardrails for the two-way street — this might look like creating values, rituals and norms for behavior.

Some other key questions and considerations for establishing your community foundations are:

  1. How will your brand / organization communicate to your members? Will it be via social, email, and events?
  2. How will members communicate with you? Will you create a member hotline for feedback? Will you create a self-guided FAQ page on your website? Will you just share your phone number? Will you participate in Slack groups?
  3. How will you create opportunities and frameworks for members to connect with each other? Will it be slack, will it be a white labelled forum product, will it be IRL?

So, YES, social media can be part of community. Fabulous branding, compelling marketing, supportive operations, an intuitive digital product and networking events can all be integral parts of community. But, without the golden thread of community weaving its way in and through each of these functions to create a cohesive ecosystem, it is just a brand with customers, not a community.

Community Builder and Strategist. Thinking a lot about community, belonging, parenting and where they intersect. Texan. Brooklynite. Parent and Partner.

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