The biggest, most common mistake made at the beginning of many community-building journeys is to waste time asking “which community platform should I choose?”. In my recent white paper, I discussed in detail the crucial difference between community ‘essence’ and ‘form’ and how often businesses get so preoccupied with what ‘form’ their community takes (eg which platform it’s on or what automated processes need to be in place to respond to customers) that they completely forget about the ‘essence’ of their community. 

It’s as simple as this: The success of your community depends on things that have nothing to do with technology. 

What motivates a community to act, and to stay together when things get tough, is a common purpose, not personalised interfaces or advanced analytics. What attracts people to a community and keeps them there is a stream of active engagement from the brand – not the rest API or the integration with Salesforce. What encourages people to post in a community and join discussions is a welcoming atmosphere, not the range of emojis or media sharing options available.

So, if you find yourself getting bogged down with technology choices, try to remember that a community is, by definition, simply a group of people. And we are the same people now as we were at the dawn of our species. As popular science writer Adam Rutherford says:

“Our bodies have not significantly changed in 100,000 years. A woman or man from a thousand centuries ago would fit in perfectly well in any city in the world today if we tidied them up and gave them a haircut.”

What is true of our bodies is true of our minds. Our hopes and desires, our drives, our deep need for a sense of meaning and belonging. These core aspects of being human are the same today as they were even before we had language. This is why we all still crave community. And why so many attempts to create communities, online and offline, fail. Meeting such deep psychological needs is not a straightforward task.

Technology has facilitated the forming, growth and maintenance of communities – enabled them to exist in new ways. But no amount of technology can hide a vacuum where the human heart of a community should be.

Before you even start defining ‘form’ requirements, you must define your ‘essence’ requirements:

  • Who are the members of this community? 
  • What needs do the members have and what values/beliefs do they have in common?  
  • What do they want to do together? 
  • What do they want to talk about? 
  • Why have they joined this community? 
  • Why do they feel this community will fulfill their needs?

The success of your community will depend 100% on how you answer these questions.

It’s not easy to do this well – because people are complex and companies are not used to meeting these types of requirements. It takes effort, insight, courage, co-operation and belief. But it will pay dividends for years to come. And that’s why I know you should devote much more time and energy to this than to your platform choice.

A community that has a million dollar platform, but does not have a clearly defined ‘essence’, does not share authentic information and is not welcoming and inclusive, will fail. However, if you’re able to get incredibly clear on the ‘essence’ of your community, you’ll be on the route to success.

If you’d like to find out more on this subject, you can read my white paper: ‘What is a community and does your business really have one?’


Robbie Hearn

Robbie Hearn


After 20 years in various consumer-facing roles, I’ve learned that what motivates me is unlocking human potential for the benefit of individuals, organisations and society. That’s what thriving communities offer and that’s why I love coming to work. At giffgaff, our guiding values included humility, respect, and collaboration. These same values flavour everything we do at Standing on Giants.

Community 101: 10 tips for being a great online community member during the COVID-19 crisis

For the next few months, our lives will almost entirely be shifted into the online space, and no matter if it’s a Whatsapp group chat, a Facebook group, a hobby community, or your energy provider’s online forum: you will interact with people through...

Businesses are Turning to Community to Gain a Competitive Advantage. They’re Turning to Women to Make it Happen.

Five female community experts, interviewed. For this year's International Women's Day, themed  “An Equal World is an Enabled World”, we decided to take a closer look at ourselves and our industry. According to Equality Can't Wait, it will take...

The biggest mistake businesses make when building a community and how you can avoid it.

The biggest, most common mistake made at the beginning of many community-building journeys is to waste time asking “which community platform should I choose?”. In my recent white paper, I discussed in detail the crucial difference between community...

CM Appreciation Day – Who are your commercial magicians?

When customers and companies truly collaborate, we create the possibility for ‘commercial magic’. Something that not only makes a company more profitable, but also makes everyone involved feel the good human stuff like self-esteem, purpose, and altruism....

Community Collaboration is the key to small business success

Launching a business is an exciting challenge, but it always comes with adversities to overcome. Elements such as low brand awareness, smaller budgets for marketing and the realisation that headcount is a huge expense can make it difficult to change the...