People...People helping people
I visit one message board pretty regularly. The topic on this particular board: Anything. (Or maybe in true Seinfeld fashion: It's about nothing). Although it's affiliated with my college alma mater, it's basically an open forum for anything from politics to sports to movies. It's a virtual "water cooler" where you never know where the conversation might go next.
In just the last few weeks, posts have been made regarding Canadian tax law, Cape May bed and breakfast recommendations, and the best way to rid your yard of ground-dwelling bees. You'll see everything: new music recommendations, things to see and do in Cancun, finding a good plumber in DC, the best kinds of mulch. For the most part, it's friendly, funny, and often supportive communication.
As I observe (and sometimes participate in) this community, the takeaway for me is the amazing willingness of strangers to help each other. People who don't know each other are willing to take time out of their day and write a thoughtful, helpful, sometimes encouraging post to someone else in need.
The sense of community is a powerful force. Psychologists McMillan & Chavis define a sense of community as "a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members' needs will be met through their commitment to be together."
The reasons for belonging to and participating in an online community can be seen in psychologist Abraham Maslow's famous Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow hierarchy is often depicted as a pyramid with five levels of needs. With the exception of the basic physical needs on the lowest level (food, water, sleep), each of Maslow's levels is addressed when people are active participants in an online community. For example:
Safety - not physical safety, but for a community to be effective, people need to feel secure that their participation is welcomed and that the environment is supportive.
Love/Belonging - People want to feel like they are part of something larger. People often make friends online. They share their ideas and want to exposed to others.
Esteem - People want to be correct, smart, funny and they want to feel good about themselves. Just like the cliques that develop in high school, finding an online community where you "fit in" is important.
Self-actualization - People need to engage with others to gain recognition and have an activity that gives them a sense of contribution, to feel accepted and self-valued.
As "the social web" continues to become a more important business opportunity, fostering a sense of community with and amongst your customers is a vitally important challenge most organizations are facing.