Why Executives Should Care About Internet Communities

Ask a company what they value and there is a good chance they say “our people.” Without employees, customers, and other stakeholders, a company wouldn’t exist or succeed. The interests, problems, and passions of these groups shape a company. Increasingly, the place to talk about these topics is internet communities, and that is why executives should care about them.

Internet communities are groups of people with shared interests and identities who interact with each other on the internet. Platforms like Facebook Groups, Reddit, Slack, Discord, as well as purpose-build sites and forums make interaction simple. Many are pseudonymous meaning information shared is rawer (for good and bad).

Members trust these places to talk about best practices, industry knowledge, and their problems. They want to talk about their work with other people who know. Communities also provide an opportunity to network and develop their career. This is especially important when cut off from the in-person communities (or workplaces) people socialized in.

Communities are opportunities for executives to better understand their people and industry, as well as to educate and share messages. Key people pay attention to and are influenced by them. Executives who do the same create a better knowledge of what their employees, customers, and other stakeholders actually care about. In the long run, it helps protect their company’s reputation and build better offerings.

Communities are Spaces for the Passionate and Opinionated

The people who join and engage internet communities care a lot about them. It takes effort and knowledge to join and say something. It shows they are passionate about their work and industry. They are likely more passionate and opinionated than your average industry or workforce member. These passions and opinions can help or harm a company’s reputation as well as be an opportunity to create better offerings.

The shared identity members have in community creates trust. Members with similar knowledge and experience are trusted over “outside” sources like media, industry reports, and company communications. This allows them to have candid discussions, but also isolates them from other sources of information.

In every community, there are many more “lurkers” (non-posters) than posters. The members who do post, post a lot. They can have a massive impact on the opinions and knowledge of the community. A niche opinion held by an active poster can quickly become a popular one. This can impact a company’s reputation within the community and beyond.

For example, see Blind “a trusted community where verified professionals connect to discuss what matters most.” Members share company reviews, work experience, salary details, interviewing processes, and more. Because Blind is verified and anonymous, members often trust it to make crucial career decisions. A better reputation here could lead to attracting top talent. It also provides tons of high-value information to these companies (and their competitors).

Opinions radiate outwards from communities like this. A small number of core opinion leaders can influence a company’s reputation. A negative view of a company can snowball, especially if there is no one mentioning the other side of the story. An active promoter for a competitor can also create more than their fair share of influence. Both can happen to companies that don’t care about internet communities.

Community is not only about mitigating reputational risk. Members voice their opinion about all sorts of things, often in a less filtered way than you find in public social media or within a workplace. Searching a community for problems and complaints about a company or industry leads to insights. These insights lead to building things people want. Not things people pretend they want, but things they go out of their way to complain in search of a solution for. It provides executives a source of knowledge and feedback that few other companies are taking advantage of.

One way anyone can tap into the power of communities now is:

  1. Go to Facebook or Reddit
  2. Search for your industry or customer’s profession (the more niche the better)
  3. Join multiple groups or subreddits.
  4. See what gets talked about a lot (look at the comments). Search for your company (or competitors).

You might pick up an insight or two you didn’t think about. Not someone complaining for attention on social media, a biased survey, or an opinion from a “thought leader,” but a real interaction between people. There are millions of interactions like this across platforms. Executives should be paying attention to at least some of them.

Always-On Events

The question remains: how does a company interact with communities? An answer for many executives is seeing them as “always-on events.

A company without a presence at an event is forgotten. Same is true in communities. Conversations are always happening, but there is no way to gain from them if you aren’t there. Companies that embrace communities are talked about more, have better control over their reputation, and gain insights from the members.

It is also important to understand how a company is perceived within a community. Executives should realize it is about the people first. Communities aren’t social media, you cannot broadcast your message and expect to succeed. Imagine if you went to an event, got up on stage, and yelled “buy our product” over and over. It wouldn’t work, and your reputation would take a greater hit than if you said nothing at all.

Like events, communities provide many opportunities to engage with members directly, provide insights from key people, and share relevant content. This requires executives to empower their employees to engage and provide resources where necessary. Executives can’t hover over every conversation an employee is having at an event, the same is true here. Answering questions and being helpful can go a long way to improve a company’s reputation within a community.

A good example of a company interacting directly with a community is Stripe having an unfavorable story is shared on Hacker News. Instead of releasing a press release or responding through the media, Stripe’s co-founder goes straight to the comment section to reply:

Stripe also empowers employees to engage with real users in these communities. See another Hacker News comment section after the announcement of a new product line:

Opportunities like these happen more often than you think. Companies that don’t have a presence and don’t empower their employees are unable to have these interactions. The “always-on events” mindset allows companies to engage where relevant without over-stepping into overt promotion.

Community on the internet is early. No one has figured it all out yet. Executives that pay attention and engage now have a chance to build relationships and ways of working that others don’t.

Community Creates A Competitive Advantage

The size and importance of internet communities continue to grow. Reddit grew 44% year over year to 52M daily users in 2020. Discord has 140M monthly active users. 1.8B people use Facebook Groups monthly. Startups like Geneva, Circle, Upstream, Clubhouse, and many others continue to innovate and create better spaces for all types of people. It is increasingly likely your customers, employees and stakeholders spend time and are influenced by these communities. They aren’t going away.

The executives who understand and engage with communities create better control over their reputation and deeper insights into their customers, employees, and stakeholders. Both are new areas to create competitive advantage others are missing out on.

The answers to how a company should interact with a community are unique for each situation. The “always-on events” mindset may not work for every business. What isn’t unique is that executives should care more about internet communities. The ones who do will find an advantage in the long run.

Thanks to Ergest Xheblati, Philip Hendricks, Abu Amin, and Camila Mirabal from Compound Writing for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

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