The amazing and dynamic New York City Commtour participants, almost exactly a year ago, at the School of Visual Arts. Can you see I was sweating from jumping around the room?
What do people need to feel part of your community?
This past weekend, I spoke at Jonathan Field’s Good Life Camp on the topic of building a dynamic community ecosystem. In preparing for the speech, I reflected on what I have learned so far from digging into this topic at great depth, in research for my next book.
As small business owners, we know that we need to build community, in order to have a solid reputation, engagement and responsiveness with our work, and a strong and stable stream of customers. Not to mention emotional well-being, knowing that we are surrounded by people who truly care about us, and will back us up in times of challenge.
But how do you go about it? There are a lot of tools and tactics that will put you in front of people (speaking, Facebook ads, blogging, Instagramming), but how do you go from being casually linked to someone as a Facebook friend, to actually connected on an emotional level?
In my experience building community for two decades, I have found that people need to feel the following four things in order to truly feel part of your community:
They need to feel:
Does your business provide physical and emotional safety for your customers? Will people who engage with you know that you are concerned with their safety?
This can show up as:
- Thinking about the experience someone will have getting to your live event
- Thinking about how people in your community may treat someone who they perceive as different
- Stepping in clearly and decisively if someone is being personally attacked in comments on a post, Facebook group, or in live conversation
- Maintaining confidentiality in private conversations
I want to stress that “safe” doesn’t have to imply “always comfortable.” Some of the very best community building involves real discomfort as people explore beliefs and perceptions, challenge assumptions and explore differences.
Do your community members see themselves reflected in the images, stories and examples you share about your business? Do they see members of their community featured and honored as experts in yours?
This can show up as:
- Thoughtful selection of speakers and experts for your live and virtual events
- Sharing case studies and stories of the wide range of your customer and community base in your speeches and writing
- Sharing and promoting the work of peers, partners, customers and collaborators on social media, not just your own work
- You actively promoting and/or sponsoring events and projects in communities that you want to connect with, without being asked or prompted. This is because you have taken the time to follow the work being done, because you believe in it and want to see it spread
Do you stop and deeply listen to what your community is saying to you? Do you honor the lived experience of people in your community, and not try to talk over them, or tell them why their perceptions are not correct?
This can show up as:
- Being fully present and looking directly in someone’s eyes when you meet them at a conference, and not looking over their shoulder to see if there is someone else more important or more interesting to talk to (Has this ever happened to you? It is so frustrating and humiliating. I have made this mistake in the past, and really practice being present when I meet people now).
- Taking feedback to heart and changing policies, approaches, programs or pricing so that it meets the needs you hear from your community
- Not being defensive when someone takes issue with your approach or your work. You can listen deeply, reflect back what you hear, decide what feedback you will take to heart, let the rest go, and sincerely thank the person for taking the time to communicate with you
- Not mock or ridicule people who disagree with you. I see far too often on Facebook business owners who write “rants” about demanding clients or prospects. Whenever I see that, I always think “I wonder if they realize that now every current customer and prospect they work with will think they are talking about them. And then they may fear that if they raise an issue or ask the wrong question, they may be mocked or ridiculed too (even if you don’t call someone out by name, people will read through the lines.) This is not a good strategy for building trust and safety in your community.
A true community is one where each person feels honored and valued as an equal member. Regardless of age, experience, income level, position of authority or background, each person is valued for what they bring to the group. The goal of building community is not to create a homogenous group of people who all think and act the same, it is to create a diverse, stimulating, engaged group of people who are committed to solving problems together, in an environment of mutual respect.
This can show up as:
- Designing events to be interactive
- Not setting up false “barriers” between different levels of a group (I personally can’t stand when there are roped off parts of a conference or event for “VIPs only,” which usually means those who have the means to afford a higher price ticket.)
- Featuring the range of ideas and opinions from your community
- Treating all members of your community with dignity and respect, including the natural environment surrounding your events (I get pretty ragey when I see a park or facility trashed after an event — does the natural environment deserve less respect than the humans who are supposed to be stewards of the earth? I don’t think so, but you knew that about me)
Plant a seed every day
Delivering these four things to your community takes a long time. That is why community building is an ongoing process of planting seeds every day. You will make some big mistakes, get embarrassed, stick your foot in your mouth, say yes too often, say no too often, and everything in between.
All this messiness is so worth it when you look around one day and realize that you are connected with a diverse and interesting community who feel like family to you.
Because they are. 🙂