Defining 'Community': A Handy Framework

Kirsti Buick
Content Creator and Copywriter at Commsor

You'll often hear 'community' touted as something nebulous — something chaotic, or hard to pin down. But is it really?

Sure, it's a word that you might find applied to everything from YouTube subscribers to marketing email lists. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines community simply (and broadly) as "a unified body of individuals" — so while the use of the term in these contexts might make a seasoned Community Manager (CM) see red, the use of the word community in these ways isn't wrong.

But when we talk about communities in a business context, we’re not simply applying aspirational terminology to a brand’s audience or customer base. We’re not only referring to the people who have an awareness of a brand, or even those who have made a purchase.

The 'community' that most professional Community Managers work on in their day-to-day, and the kind of community we're talking about when we drill down on metrics, tactics, career ladders, and more, is a pretty tangible thing.

At The Community Club and C School, we have a useful framework that we use to explain what a community often looks like in a business context: the 'Capital C' Community. It's a useful diagnostic tool (and rather helpful when it comes to explaining what it is you actually do at the family Christmas party).

What is 'community'?

Capital C community is a term used by Reina Pomeroy, who heads up community and social media at Modern Fertility, to differentiate between community and audience tactics. Although she notes that both are important, she draws a hard line between the two, describing the latter as 'lowercase c community' and the former as 'Capital C Community.' Inspired by this, C School Community Education Manager, Noele Flowers, fleshed it out into a really useful framework which she uses to unpack communities with veterans and newbies alike.

Capital C Communities should tick the following boxes:

  • Concrete
  • Allow a response
  • Place/platform
  • Interactive
  • Trackable
  • Allows opt-in/out
  • Level

It's worth highlighting that 'defining' community is often seen as gatekeeping, but that's not what this framework should be used for. "This is not about saying, 'Your community doesn't tick all the boxes', but rather, 'What community types are generally going to be effective places to use a specific array of tactics?'," Noele says.

Let's unpack all that a bit further.

Concrete

Capital C communities are not just conceptual. They are distinct and describable programs with features that fall under them. If an organization has a Capital C community, most people at the organization will be able to identify it and describe what it is in logistical terms (for example, where the community lives, who is a part of it, who is eligible, what programs fall under the community). When companies don’t have Capital C Communities, they’ll describe their “community” the same way they would describe their target audience or user persona.

Allow response

Capital C Communities use channels that allow members to respond to the brand and peers. This distinguishes them from broadcast channels that brands use to distribute information and sell products — think an ad, or a newsletter.

Place/Platform

Capital C Communities usually have a home base where their members go to take part in or access features of the community. This usually means that they are powered by a community platform like Slack, Facebook Groups, Mighty Networks, Circle, or several others; but, this could manifest as a landing page that centralizes community features, too (much like The Community Club).

Interactive

Capital C Communities provide opportunities for members to interact with content and with each other. Most features and content created for these communities are designed with interactivity in mind. Community builders tend to favor workshops over webinars and discussions over directives.

Trackable

Brands who have Capital C Communities can clearly identify who out of their larger audience or customer base is a community member, and who is not. They use this information to determine if their community is reaching its goals — both for the brand and for the members. For brands, community objectives tend to relate to retention, research, support, and content. For members, objectives tend to relate to learning, making connections, and accessing exclusive content.

Allows opt-in/out

Members of Capital C Communities actively signed up to join. Similarly, community members can leave the community, even if their relationship with the brand isn’t severed. This is distinct from the broad use of the community to describe an audience, where a brand refers to a vague group of people as a community, regardless of whether those people may or may not personally consider themselves community members.

Level

Capital C Communities provide opportunities for members to contribute to content and discussion on the same level as official brand reps. For example, members can initiate conversations just as the CM can. While audience members can usually comment on a brand’s social media posts and sometimes even reply to emails, they cannot themselves create posts or emails to the same community. On the other hand, Capital C Communities derive success from increasing member leadership, ownership, and participation.

In cases where the lines between community and audience are often blurred, the above framework can be really helpful in drawing a hard boundary between the two. And, as any seasoned CM or social media pro will tell you, the two require very different strategies (and skills) to allow them to grow — and thrive. (Stay tuned to this blog series for more on the former... 👀)

Interested in learning more?

The above is one of the concepts we unpack in C School, our 12-week Community Manager program. In this hands-on course, we offer education, mentorship, and independent practice — everything you need to land a full-time job in community.

If you’re interested in applying for a C School cohort, apply here if you’re looking for your first job in community. If you're already a CM, apply here. These are rolling applications, so you can apply now even if you want to participate in the future. You can also email questions to cschool@community.club. This program was built not only to help community folks break into this field, but make their start in a way that enables long-term growth. If it's up your alley, we can't wait to hear from you.

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