Is Social Networking Community Building?

Technically, social media are the tools being used to build a communities. However, the term “social media” is often used to refer to the dominant online social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn thus confusing the entire discussion. The real conundrum facing business today is not which tools to use but whether to work within an existing social network or build one central to the brand. With few exceptions, success usually lies in doing both or in creating a hybrid of the two.

In practice, there are marked differences between the two approaches of social networking and community building. Knowing the nuances of each can substantially aid your IT leadership and add to the company’s bottom line.

“Interaction on social networking services is often of the ‘drive-by’ mentality,” explains Jerod Morris, social media and community expert at OrangeCast Social Media Marketing. In venues such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn, engagement tends to be immediate, light and fleeting.

Online social networking services are often seen as the first point of contact. It is here that companies can find and interact immediately with both loyal and disgruntled customers as well as prospects. These venues are also harbingers for emerging trends.

“Social media is about using social channels to meet some objective, a specific sales promotion, for instance,” explains Rick Mathieson, author of The On-Demand Brand: 10 Rules for Digital Marketing Success in an Anytime, Everywhere World. “Community building is much longer term and involves fostering and nurturing a group of people who share a common interest. There’s overlap, but while one is short term and immediate, the other is longer term and meant to engender long-term engagement.”

But even this attempt to explain the rules of engagement is fettered by exemptions. Indeed, companies explore the boundaries on a regular basis. Some brands, like Coca-Cola, have developed long term Facebook communities. “But Mt. Dew’s ‘Dewmocracy’ is a standalone site. While it is bringing together a community, it is based on short-term promotions, in this case naming and voting on new soda flavors for 2010,” says Mathieson.

Even so, most companies follow the short term/long term strategies of venue use.

Mathieson said Dell has made millions off of short term, Twitter-specific offers for example, whereas Sony PlayStation Home is an online community built around playing games that may or may not result in an actual sale. “Social media and community building aren’t mutually exclusive, but the strategies behind them often are,” he explains.

Speed Dating vs. Marriage: Approaches to Social Media

“I would argue that in general, social media has become about me, speed, and loose relationships, while community building has always been about fellows, sustainable interactions and relationships that work in the longer term,” says Joel Lundgren, manager of the global openIFS online community for users of the IFS Applications enterprise software suite.

There are, of course, substantial differences in speed dating versus a long-term relationship with your customers. The level of commitment should be a major consideration in your strategy development. “It’s one thing to setup a community and say, ‘Hey everyone, come and join our brand X community, full of great resources and other people like yourself.’ It’s another thing to nurture and improve the community experience month after month,” said BJ Cook, CEO and co-founder of Digital Operative.

The costs and manpower required to drive and maintain a community around your brand can prove substantial over time. This leads many companies to think the free social networking services are the better bargain.

“You can setup a Twitter account and connect with X segment of your audience, but if you invite them all to a community, they’re going to expect your undivided attention and actual implementation their feedback,” said Cook.

Once you have decided your strategy and mode of implementation, then hire the manpower to see it through. Don’t assume that a marketer or customer service representative skilled in working the various social networking services is equipped to serve as community manager on your own branded platform.

“Not everyone who uses social media for a company is a community manager,” explained Julie Tyios, CEO of Red Juice Media, and Marketing & Community Manager for “Community managers must have a core group of users that they represent, and their job is above and beyond just promoting a company through social media.” However, it is rare that one approach to social media will be enough to move your company forward. Most successful companies deploy both or a hybrid.

Listening and responding to customers on the social networking services is essential since customers are talking about your company – good or bad – with or without your participation. “But to deepen those conversations, inviting folks to engage further either via another channel or into your own community is the next step in social,” said John Kembel, vice president of Social at RightNow.

“And it allows companies to move beyond just conversing with customers to truly collaborating with them: be it for socializing the support experience, crowd-sourcing new products, testing and refining product/service or marketing concepts, or connecting like-minded customers to fuel enthusiasm and engagement,” he said.

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker’s published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine,, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making.