We want to build excitement and mindshare around our communities. We want to motivate, inspire, and encourage people to join us and achieve our goals together. If we get this right, we have the opportunity to build a great team and make some incredible things happen.
While some of you reading this may come from a marketing background, it is important to stress that traditional marketing strategies probably won’t wash with your community. You can’t rely on press releases and advertising; you can’t depend on buzzwords and slogans; and often you can’t easily measure the impact of your message. Whereas marketing traditionally requires a budget, no budget is required here. Buzz in this world is subtler and more organic.
While we are making comparisons to traditional marketing, it is also important to note that building buzz in community does not need to be centralized. You don’t need to appoint a marketing manager for the community and have everything go through him. You should instead encourage everyone in your community to learn the skills behind building great buzz.
This harks back to business expert Peter Drucker’s often-cited lesson that great customers help create great customers. You should likewise help your contributors encourage and enthuse other contributors to join the community. I would highly recommend that you send this chapter to your contributors in your project to help them learn the building blocks of buzz.
Every community has a mission. Your mission is critical to building buzz. First of all, you can’t expect to generate excitement around an idea you can’t articulate, so by developing a mission statement you sow the seeds of buzz. Second, developing a mission statement trains you to describe your goals and excitement succinctly. The mission is what will pique the interest of your next generation of community members.
The ideal mission statement is concise, specific, and functional; we worship vigorously at the altar of conciseness. Unfortunately, being concise, specific, and functional is not going to excite your potential community members. They are not going to get excited about strategic plans, either. They are not going to get excited about governance, and they are most certainly not going to get excited about processes. Our mission needs to dim the lights, throw on some Barry White, and get...sexy....
Buzz is all about excitement, and excitement is about dreams. We need to present a dream so compelling that it will inspire people to join you to make it happen. Let’s begin by taking some inspiration from politics.
I know what you are thinking. Politics? Sexy?
Although too many politicians focus on themselves, politics is an activity engaged in by communities. Political parties in democratic countries cannot achieve their goals without widespread support from those they govern. They gather this support by presenting a dream of the future that appeals to the electorate. Each of these activities has parallels with community building.
The similarities go further. Politics is, in essence, not all that interesting. Political parties spend their days arguing over policies, manifestos, taxes, inflation, and the other details of government. Around election time they have to transform these eye-glazingly mundane concepts into exciting statements that inspire a nation.
An interesting example of this happened in 1996. Putting political persuasions to one side, let’s explore how New Labour built momentum around their political initiatives. It all started when a rather young and grinning Tony Blair became the leader of the opposition party in the UK.
Back then the country was deeply dissatisfied with the ruling Conservative Party. Prime Minister John Major had failed to enthuse the country, and the party was riddled with allegations of sleaze and political unrest. But despite multiple attempts to gain power, the Labour party had failed to unseat the ruling Tories for 18 years. Labour was branded by many with a “second-prize” political reputation.
Then, Tony Blair gave birth to his concept of New Labour. He was personable and different, an instant antithesis to the plain and stuffy political norms of the day. Blair formed his team and came bounding into visibility with his mantra of “New Labour: Because Britain Deserves Better.”
Blair wanted to enthuse the electorate. Reams of inspiring, motivational language were unleashed on an unsuspecting British public. Consider these examples from the 1997 election manifesto:
I believe in Britain. It is a great country with a great history. The British people are a great people. But I believe Britain can and must be better: better schools, better hospitals, better ways of tackling crime, of building a modern welfare state, of equipping ourselves for a new world economy.
I want a Britain that is one nation, with shared values and purpose, where merit comes before privilege, run for the many not the few, strong and sure of itself at home and abroad.
I want a Britain that does not shuffle into the new millennium afraid of the future, but strides into it with confidence.
Pretty stunning stuff.
Although younger than his opposition, Blair was a savvy political player. He knew that the British public had lost faith not only in the Tories, but also in politics itself. He knew that the first time someone read, watched, or heard about New Labour, he had only seconds to grab them and build their support. He needed to build buzz, quickly and efficiently.
As part of this, he developed what Labour called a “Pledge Card.” This small card was carried by politicians and listed five concrete promises. Back then, the combination of “concrete promises” and “politicians” was not typical in British politics. Blair’s approach was honest and frank, and the nation responded. On May 1, 1997, Tony Blair’s New Labour party was elected into government in a landslide victory. Labour achieved the highest number of seats in the party’s history. I remember when it happened. I had a bowl haircut. The country felt invigorated and full of hope for a bright new future.
A critical component in Labour’s victory was their ability to inspire. Words were carefully chosen to be visionary but not tacky. However, these words would have meant nothing if it were not for the underlying message and confidence in Tony Blair that promised a brighter new future.
Labour’s words offered huge hope for many who were disillusioned with politics. They spoke of “renew[ing] our country’s faith,” they talked of “our contract with the people,” and Blair dreamed of “a Britain which we all feel part of, in whose future we all have a stake, in which what I want for my own children I want for yours.” Blair’s ability to level himself with the rest of the country and inspire a joint feeling of change was a work of genius.
When delivered well, this kind of motivational writing can make those little hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. The use of words such as “vision,” “faith,” and “future” all help to paint the dream of freedom, opportunity, and in some cases, healing old wounds. This is the language that will inspire your future community members, and you should endeavor to use it where appropriate.
The greatest inspirational writers are those who have been exposed to great inspirational writing. There have been many great orators throughout history: Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, to name just two. Many websites have recordings and transcripts of their speeches. I highly recommend listening to or reading them and identifying the parts that you find most inspiring. Watch out for that tingly feeling up your spine. It is that feeling that we want to create.
Inspiration is not limited to real politics. Many movies, TV shows, and books include powerful, inspired speeches written by hugely talented writers. I would personally recommend watching Martin Sheen as the President of the United States in The West Wing. He delivers some exceptional neck-hair-raising monologues.
There is no secret recipe for creating community enthusiasm. There is no blueprint. It is as organic and unique as the very community you wish to grow. The most important tip to remember about inspirational messaging is that it must be genuine. Whatever path we follow to build our communities, our leaders must instill a sense of trust and representation. The enemy here is in appearing contrived and disingenuous. Our inspiration must be natural and genuine. If you are real, your community will see that.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to risk being seen as a fake. The word “community” has been twisted and contorted to mean many things over the years, some of which don’t exactly fall in line with what many of us would consider a community.
The reason for this is that the word “community” almost always conjures up a positive mental image. It alludes to togetherness, compassion, and equality. As such, it has been a target of hype and hot air. If an organization, company, or individual wants to be seen in a positive and engaging light, liberal use of the word “community” makes sense.
There will always be a natural tension between the inspiring speaker and the audience. The speaker will always have a goal or agenda of her own, but needs to strike a balance between honesty around her personal ambitions and an assurance that she takes the wider values of the community to heart.
If your definition of community does not extend to the common expectation of volunteer environments, you will receive short shrift quickly. Readers seeking to build communities around commercial products should be particularly cognizant of this risk. Always remember that whatever their focus, communities are organic units of interest and collaboration. They live and breathe on an understanding that community efforts benefit the community as a whole. Anyone who tampers with that ethos will face problems. This is a critically important point, and I recommend you read this paragraph again twice. Go on, I will wait.
When we build buzz, we enter into a relationship with the audience. Advocates and salespeople each enter the same approximation of the relationship, but the rules of engagement vary. Both of these different roles encourage adoption of a product, technology, or lifestyle via positive messaging and reinforcement. How they differ is in how the person who is performing the messaging is perceived.
I have always considered myself an advocate. I define advocacy as the putting forward of a positive message and investing one’s personal reputation in that message. Advocates recommend only products, technologies, and lifestyles that they personally subscribe to. Those people on street corners who want to talk your ear off about human rights are advocates. They may be annoying, but they genuinely live their message. For them it is not a job; it is a lifestyle.
Sales are different. Some (not all) salespeople exemplify the philosophy of “I could sell ice to Eskimos.” In other words, they take pride in their ability to make the sale. The pride is in being convincing and charismatic. As such, salespeople are often able to detach themselves from the product they are selling. They can effectively work for any company that sells something.
I used to work at OpenAdvantage, a government-funded organization tasked with spreading open source software in the West Midlands region of England. Every year my colleagues and I worked with hundreds of businesses, charities, educational and governmental institutions, and individuals. OpenAdvantage was a vendor-neutral playground. We could recommend whatever solutions we liked to our clients. This became a trial by fire. In my two years there, I tested hundreds of different tools, systems, and applications. In that time we developed preferences that were personal and not mandated by any other agreement or contention. Like any government-funded project, it had a time limit. We had two years. Around six months before the sand was due to empty out of the hourglass, I started looking at other opportunities.
At this point I discovered I was really an advocate: I found it near impossible to consider working for a company that made something that I did not 100% choose, believe in, and make part of my life. I did some stringent analyses on the products I used every day, and this is how I came to work at Canonical: Ubuntu was my choice of operating system.
This makes life tough for an advocate. It means that in your heart of hearts, you can get out there and shout from the rooftops only about what you truly believe in. It also requires that implicit honesty in both directions: if your product sucks, you don’t cover it up but instead try to fix it.
The upside is that when people know you are an advocate, and know this is how you tick, your opinion really counts to them. Advocacy requires trust: you are putting your belief behind your words. If people like you and trust you, they are likely to trust and like what you are advocating.
Trust is complex to achieve and easy to lose. Months of positive moves are required to gain it, and one misstep can shatter it. With trust comes responsibility, and you have a responsibility to approach your buzz in the way that you would want others to approach you.
Making a lot of noise is easy. Spammers do it. They send out millions of emails advertising a product without any concern for whether the recipient might be interested. The last time I checked, I really didn’t need Viagra. Out of the millions of emails that they send, some tiny proportion of people will buy spammers’ products. With email’s low cost to send, the cost of annoying the world is relatively cheap and the financial rewards are real. Unfortunately, becoming the scourge of the Internet is a price some people are willing to pay.
Of course, the major problem with spam is that it is unsolicited. I don’t choose to receive emails about Viagra and Cialis. I never signed up for an announcements mailing list. I never informed anyone that I wanted to receive that email. I received the email purely because I have an email address. Spammers don’t care who receives the spam, and anyone who can, will.
To avoid the disgust that this provokes, we need to always ensure that our buzz is relevant. When we seek to excite and inspire people to join our community, we must target the right demographic. Our buzz always needs to be honest.
We are all human, and we will all be tempted at some point to target those outside our demographic. Don’t. Sending unsolicited messages to people, no matter how you do it, will not only frustrate many people, but it could harm your community. Who would want to join a community with a reputation for spamming? I certainly wouldn’t.
Unfortunately, honesty is more complicated than you may think. It is not just about the black-and-white approach of not lying. Even the kindest hearts can sometimes get a little carried away with the buzz-building and promote an image and a culture that is not entirely representative of the reality. It is tempting to lavish a more exciting spin on your community.
Don’t be tempted into building a false prophecy: it never works. There is nothing wrong with getting excited and enthusiastic. Tell the world your community has grand ambitions, and inspire people to join. Just don’t sell your prospective contributors a story that doesn’t exist. Don’t tell them you have achieved things you haven’t. Don’t tell them that you have more people involved than you do.
Community is all about transparency and openness. In such a frank and unclouded environment, such exaggerations and fibs will be outed sooner than you think. When such nonsense is revealed, it causes a lack of faith in you and your community. Remember, trust is a nonnegotiable requirement of community leaders. Don’t risk it.
Learn more about this topic from The Art of Community.
Online communities offer a wide range of opportunities today, whether you're supporting a cause, marketing a product or service, or developing open source software. In The Art of Community, you'll learn about the broad range of talents required to recruit, motivate, and manage community members. The book takes you through the stages of community, and covers topics ranging from software tools to conflict resolution skills.