The Hidden Value of Communities
As someone who travels around the world speaking to community organizations of all types and sizes, I’ve often been asked, and even wondered myself, about the true value of community. Why do we do it? What benefits does it provide? Who gets the most out of it? And is all the effort really worth it?
Naturally, these are subjective questions; value, like beauty, is often found only in the eye of the beholder. While it may not be possible to explicitly quantify the value of social concepts like community, it is feasible to provide some concrete examples of how communities can benefit their members and why they are so important. So here are a few thoughts, gathered over the years from discussions with community leaders, organizers, speakers, participants and other like-minded individuals, on the obvious, and sometimes not so obvious, value of communities.
One of the greatest things about our industry is that no one individual truly knows it all. As soon as you think you do, someone will come along who is smarter, more experienced, or more creative and shatter your delusions of grandeur. In most lines of work, you’d have to pay a lot of money to pick up tips and tricks from the best in the business but in our field the brightest minds will come to us and give us the benefit of their knowledge and experience for free. And if that’s not enough, community events also offer the opportunity to mingle with our peers, many of whom are happy to share stories of how they solved a particularly difficult problem, discovered a new technique, implemented a new solution, or came up with a creative idea to make a customer happy. The level of knowledge that can be gained in such social exchanges can often exceed what’s offered by structured training courses or expensive seminars – and the more people you talk to, the more you learn.
This may come as a bit of a shock, but those who serve as community leaders do it for the same reasons as everyone else – they want to learn, to expand their knowledge, to pick up tidbits that may help them be more productive, more efficient, or more effective. Many of the best speakers get ideas on what to talk about from other members of the community and often, whether they realize it or not, infuse their presentations with knowledge that they glean from an off-handed remark or casual conversation. The only way to be truly great at anything is to never stop learning and there is no better way to do it than to participate in community events with professionals who share a common interest.
It never ceases to amaze me what a small world we really do live in. The more people you talk to the more you realize how many intersections there are between your friends and acquaintances and their friends and acquaintances. Most people take their extended network for granted but smart professionals know how to derive value from connections to people two, three, even five steps removed from themselves. Take, for example, the strategy used by every successful doctor, real estate agent and solicitor on the planet. These savvy business people know that to you one dentist or lawyer is just like another, but if they can get a friend of yours to mention their name, the likelihood that you will view them favorably over their competition increases tenfold. That’s why they join every professional organization, every neighborhood group, every committee where their children go to school, and get involved in community events – they know the value of their network increases with every new contact they make.
The same is true in our business. You may have a high level of skill in a particular discipline but nobody will know about it until you start making connections. The more community events you attend, the more you share your knowledge, the more people you talk to, the more your currency goes up in the community. And the higher your profile, the better the chance that you’ll be invited to speak at an event, co-author a book, host a function, and add more and more value to your personal brand. The best part is, it’s a two-way street; if somebody asks you about a particular subject, you’ll be quick to recommend someone who has skills in that area, who will in turn recommend you to someone else at some point. Communities are nothing more than the sum total of the combined strength of their member’s personal networks, all intertwined in a rich tapestry of human interaction. Make your network stronger and you make the whole community stronger. Remove your contribution and the whole community is weaker as a result. The power is the network and the network is the power.
It’s no secret that community events offer tremendous opportunities to market your products or services to a group of qualified prospects. In fact, the opportunity to spread the good word about who you are or what you do is one of the key drivers behind community growth. Letting other members of the community know that you have a valuable new product that they may be interested in, or that you have a specific set of skills that might be of interest to potential employers, or that you have an open position to fill and need an expert in this or that technical area, is a perfectly acceptable motive for participating in user groups, forums, conferences and other social events. Done properly, this type of "soft" marketing by participants is a normal and healthy part of any thriving community.
Unfortunately, there are always those who take things just a little too far. While it is acceptable to let people know you’re in the market for a new opportunity, it’s not a good idea to show up with a stack of resumes and hand them out to everyone you come across. Likewise, if you’ve got a product to sell, wear a company shirt and give out some business cards but don’t pester attendees into sampling your wares or treat everyone like they are going to be your next big commission. This is especially true of group sponsors; the community already knows who you are (your name is on the web site and all over the promotional materials) and those who don’t will inquire if they are interested. One of the quickest ways to wear out your welcome and drive people away is to start sharking the room for new prospects, gathering business cards and qualifying leads while participants are mingling or swapping stories. Worse, if attendees look to you as a community leader but always feel like they’re being sold to, they’ll stop coming to events and the community will die. Back off, Slick, and you’ll be surprised how many leads come your way without any effort at all.
It may seem at first that those people in the community who are always speaking, always teaching others, always giving away their knowledge and sharing their experiences with the world have unlocked some secret formula that others don’t seem to ever learn. Actually, that’s true – they do know a secret that most people don’t. Want to know what it is? I’ll tell you – these people know that the best way to gain more knowledge is to give away the knowledge that you already have. Don’t believe me? Ask any community leader how much they learn from the audiences they speak to and they’ll tell you that the volume of reciprocal information is too large to even measure.
Why is that? Well, for one thing, when you speak to a group of like-minded individuals, you are speaking to people who have a similar but not identical set of experiences. This means that they’ve encountered situations that you never have and will ask questions or propose theories that make you reconsider this or that piece of information. This forces you to think hard and to do more homework, more research, and more studying. This often leads to a moment of revelation in which you thought you knew how something worked only to find out you were almost right, just off the mark, or sometimes just plain wrong. Without someone posing that question, your knowledge would have stagnated and you would never have discovered the truth. The next time you speak on that topic, you’ll not only be able to explain it better, but you’ll be able to tell people why you know it to be correct and how you arrived at that conclusion.
In a similar vein, the simple act of being selected to speak in front of your peers forces you to invest extra effort into your preparations. The last thing you want is to embarrass yourself in front of people who will know if you are trying to pull the wool over their eyes; so you work a little bit harder, verify all of your information a little more thoroughly, and burn some midnight oil to make your demonstrations that much sharper and more interesting. Many of the best presentations are those for which you are selected but have no deep expertise in the chosen subject. These are scary – the odds that you’ll make a fatal blunder are much higher – but they also force you to learn the material at a much deeper level than you otherwise might. While the audience may gain a great deal of knowledge from your talk, nobody will have learned as much as you did in making the necessary preparations. You give, but you get back so much more in return.
Isn’t that what communities are truly all about?