“Customer is King” is a tired mantra. We need to start thinking about all of the people who have a stake in our business equally—that means employees and customers, plus all of our different stakeholders: vendors, professional and local groups, etc. Regarding all of our stakeholders as one “community” will prepare us for the future of business.
Consider fast-growth companies like Airbnb, Lyft, Github, and WordPress, for example. They all have one thing in common: They’re creating community models that are based on value exchange. These digital natives have tapped into something intrinsically human and powerful, something that calls us to challenge existing paradigms. By moving away from a transactional mindset, we can build inclusive, value-driven communities that drive growth in a much more organic and sustainable way.
From “audience” to “community”
Google “audience engagement” and the results will be rife with stock photos of anonymous concert-goers connected to listicles on the merits of metrics-gathering tools.
This is a blatant illustration of the fact that “audience engagement” is all about turning people into numbers—it has little to do with human-to-human interaction. But the focus has changed, and it’s showing in the way we speak. When it comes to engagement, “community” has pulled way ahead of “audience,” for example. These search results trends tell the story:
via Google Trends. January 2020.
But why does this semantic shift matter? Because when we refer to people as our audience, we’re putting ourselves on a pedestal from which we speak our agenda to the masses. Audiences exist only to listen. However, when we create communities, we’re jumping off that pedestal and creating space for individuals to interact and exchange.
A community exists to create value for all of its members; it’s rooted in relationships and sustained by trust. Businesses like AirBnb and Lyft have achieved the incredible feat of cultivating this trust between total strangers, which is how their communities continue to flourish. These consist of not just users, but renters, drivers, and experience-makers, who all bring something meaningful to the table. Trust is tablestakes in communities, and it’s also the thing that builds connections between people and brands. So instead of spending tons of marketing money convincing people to trust us, we should start thinking about how to foster that trust through community-building.
Creating community currency
In a community-centric model, growth is linked to value-exchange. Burning Man is a grassroots example that’s leaked into popular (and corporate) culture. “Non-commodification” is a guiding principle: It’s gift-economy supported by whatever participants bring. But the promise of radical inclusion, self-reliance, and self-expression are the real value-drivers for attendees—the currency that keeps people invested. The Burning Man community has flourished since the early 90s, with membership capped at a record 80,000 in 2019 (and ticket sales also at an all-time high!). As the community grows, so do resources, affording more impressive installations and imaginative experiences and expanding Burning Man’s vision and impact.
We can catch echoes of this model in the open source world. GitHub is one of the top repositories in the world, thanks to the contributions of their huge developer community. The value radiates outward and back in: Github creates a platform for open exhange, members benefit from contributor knowledge, companies can profit by putting that knowledge to work, and so GitHub’s value as a repository and business keeps growing.
WordPress is another success story with open source origins. Supported by a global group of developers, designers, scientists, and bloggers, it’s become the most popular publishing platform on the web. A constantly growing library of plugins and feature-adds attracts new members, and the software will continue to evolve along with the needs and ideas of its community.
Opening up to community
So what does this mean for the rest of us? Should we all flock to Burning Man for inspiration and flip our business models on their heads? Maybe not just yet…It’s definitely scary to give up control and building trust takes time. But we can start by identifying opportunities to incorporate community-building into our existing business strategies.
Consider Tesla, which in 2014 pledged to open source all of their patents. Elon Musk insists that the move supports a globally-shared mission of advancing electric vehicle technology. But his strategy isn’t wildly unselfish—it’s actually a business-savvy one: By sharing the patents, he’s inviting passionate and talented people to evolve the existing technology, essentially outsourcing R&D. It’s a win-win, in theory. Especially with the brand loyalty he’s already built within the community that surrounds his products.
Of course, we don’t all have Tesla’s enormous reach and recognition to rely on—but remember that community doesn’t have to be huge: 100 highly engaged people can become a small but powerful innovation engine for your businesses. We’ve been thinking about this a lot at Workify, a small startup with the big challenge of competing in the crowded employee-engagement space. We’re looking at different components of our software that we could detach and open source while preserving our core IP. Engagement surveys, for example, are becoming increasingly common across industries. By open sourcing our templates, we could invite both creators and companies to access, evolve, customize, and share these tools. Workify’s implementation and advanced analytics services then become value-adds for a community that we can continue to nurture.
Preparing for the future of business
People are our businesses: from employees to customers to the individual vendors and partners we impact. And people thrive in communities—it’s a basic part of our evolutionary biology. When we build communities, we’re not only creating a growth-engine for our businesses, we’re making ourselves more attractive as brands. For those not yet on the bandwagon, it’s not as simple as changing the way we speak in the market. The real challenge is to figure out how to put community building at the heart of our business strategies to succeed in a more people-centric future.