Why community management isn’t really new

Everybody is talking about community management these days and newcomers sometimes struggle to grasp the concepts behind this practice that’s burst onto the online marketing scene. What separates community management from social media marketing? Are Twitter followers a community to be managed? How does community management translate into profit?

These are all relevant questions and answering them will help you get to the core of what community management actually is. But the first important thing to realize is that community management isn’t really new; it’s been around for a long, long time. The only difference in recent years is that communities are finally flourishing online and marketers are cracking the code to purposefully build up and mobilize them on behalf of businesses and products.

Let’s consider what a community actually is. What are some communities we all know from before the digital age? There religious congregations, neighborhood organizations, fans of a particular team or even a particular sport and many, many more. What do these examples all have in common? Several things, in fact, but one element, in particular, makes all of the communities: complete strangers being brought together in cooperation around a shared interest.

In religious communities, that shared interest is faith and, basically, the morals and rules that govern life and the universe. As we all know, this is a particularly powerful common interest, but one that can be broken down into countless smaller denominations, each of which forms a community inside of a community. Neighborhood organizations share the interest of maintaining a clean and safe neighborhood while sports fans care about their team winning and sharing the good and bad times with other fans.

These same principles can be applied to brand communities. Let’s examine the Nike brand as an example. Of course, no one is going to believe in Nike gear the way they have faith in a deity or root for Nike’s success the way they would for a sports club, but they can believe in the values that Nike actively promotes and the persona it creates for itself: fitness, health, high performance, invigorating physical challenges and even a sense of adventure and accomplishment. When you buy Nike, you aren’t just getting a pair of cool shoes, you are pushing yourself to achieve more and tackle life head-on.

Communities of the past tended to grow somewhat organically (even religious missionaries can be thought of in many cases as individual activists from within the community) but today, communities like Nike’s are grown and fed with purpose and direction. Nike’s community managers help promote the values that bring strangers together to cooperate under the Nike umbrella (and buy its products). Nike hosts and promotes fitness events for its community and gives them tools to connect and communicate with one another in workout groups and apps that share your running stats.

As we can see, communities are nothing new, they are simply being pursued with nuanced understanding and purpose in a way they never have. But what about community management specifically? If communities in the old days developed naturally, who were the community managers?

Well, pre-internet community managers probably didn’t see or understand themselves as such. But they were community managers nonetheless. A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a bar. “What can I get you?” asks the bartender. “A pint of whatever we can give our followers to make our faith more valuable to them,” they reply. Religious leaders have been some of history’s most organized community managers, bringing believers together and communicating messages that connect them more intimately with their faith. True, these messages sometimes included intimidation and fear, but it worked.

Clergy members throughout history engaged in philanthropy, resolved disputes, forgave sins and threatened followers with eternal damnation all in the name of the building and maintaining a community surrounding their religion. To varying degrees, all communities have had community managers, they just wouldn’t have labeled themselves as such.

Now brands can see that community management is essentially tapping into an ancient, biological need among human beings to coalesce and cooperate around common goals and interests. This new perspective on communities is allowing businesses to not just attract customers, but entire groups of engaged individuals who believe in what a brand does and produces, becoming advocates and a trusted base for business along the way.