Blogging, social media, and email marketing have made it easier than ever to build communities. There’s just one thing: we don’t understand virtual communities and spaces very well.
What we do understand is real communities that meet in real spaces.
For instance, many entrepreneurs set out to build a digital empire of info products, but many of these empires have no rhyme or reason. Why? They’re caught in the trap of letting technology define the virtual space, rather than letting human behavior define the virtual space.
An almost-too-simple-to-see solution to this incoherence would be to decide that their digital empire of info products is going to be an academy or school. Schools have different grades, a setup that translates to different levels of skills that need to be demarcated and served in some info products and services but not in others. Schools tend to have some way for students to talk to each other, so it makes sense to have some type of forum to go along with that empire. And so on.
By calling it an academy, entrepreneurs would be able to draw on all of the feelings, behaviors, and expectations that go with an academy. Of course, they’d better then deliver against that metaphor, because if they’re actually wanting to build a speakeasy insider’s club or the party everyone wants to go to but can’t, then the academy metaphor won’t fit.
Online academies are so common not just because of monkey-see, monkey-do, but because an academy is the most commonly understood analogous physical space that fits the bill. Ignorance is a common problem; a common solution to ignorance is education; and schools are the most obvious choice for “places where you learn.”
But if your business doesn’t primarily set out to teach people something, using an academy metaphor makes no sense whatsoever. If you entertain people, a library, comedy club, or party is a better metaphor.
Then there are domain-specific places. We learn physical fitness in gyms, so if you’re a fitness trainer, bake that into your brand and metaphors. If you provide tools for building, maybe you need to have a lab or workshop metaphor.
We humans have been building the same types of spaces and communities since before recorded history. We have an unconscious grasp of what happens in those spaces and who belongs there. Take a second to think about the work that the word “home” is doing in the title of this post, not just at the level of defining the type of space you’re setting up but also in identifying the way the space feels and what people do there.
One of the first things that people do when they find your virtual space and community is to ask what happens there and if they belong. Make answering those questions easy for yourself and them by using the closest analogous physical space and communities. There’s no need to re-create the wheel.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t make your space and community unique by defying some of their expectations. Your school doesn’t have to be boring, your gym doesn’t have to be meathead-centric, and your party could be dope rather than chic. Delivering a delightful surprise means you have won two games: you’ve picked a metaphor that people understand, and you’ve made it remarkable.
What type of space and community are you building?