Build Customer Engagement Through Purpose-Driven Social Communities

Book Excerpt: Social media and online communities can bring consumers together, forming collaborative virtual environments around a cause via the Internet.

We can communicate our thoughts to others in an instant. Thanks to the Internet, those who were once an ocean away are now merely a click from contact. Social networks build on this connection, allowing individuals from around the globe to collaborate and create.

"Social media enables mass collaboration, in which a large and diverse group of people who may have no preexisting connections pursues a mutual purpose that creates value," write Anthony J. Bradley and Mark P. McDonald in The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees.

In the following excerpt, Bradley and McDonald explain how to lay the groundwork for mass collaboration, a key building block in the foundation of social customer and employee engagement:

Three Key Components of Mass Collaboration

What exactly is mass collaboration?

Most people know how to make themselves productive. Managers say they understand how to make teams productive. But how do you make whole communities productive? How do you unearth, define, grow, mobilize, solve problems with, and derive business value from a community as a whole? Simply providing social media isn't enough. A main ingredient-purpose-is crucial. Social media, community, and purpose are the indispensable components that together produce mass collaboration.

Social Media

Social media is an online environment created for the purpose of mass collaboration. It is where mass collaboration occurs, not the technology per se. For example, Facebook is a social media environment built on social networking technology, and Wikipedia is a social media environment built on wiki technology.

The technology must have a purpose, an end-use, for it to become social media. Without a specific aim (like the Wikipedia Encyclopedia), it's just technology. Though you can do many things with social media, such as one-to-one interactions and mass communications, its real and unique value comes from mass collaboration-not just any collaboration, but mass collaboration.

Social media is powered by a new set of mass collaboration-enabling technologies. These technologies comprise an array of group communication, authoring, and organizational tools that make it possible for large groups of people to collaborate-including such technologies as wikis, blogs, microblogs, social networking, social bookmarking, tagging and tag clouds, social feedback, discussion forums, idea engines, answer marketplaces, prediction markets, and virtual worlds.

Tools to support collaboration have existed for decades. But social media technologies, such as the ones just listed, enable collaboration on a much grander scale. They allow hundreds, thousands, even millions of people simultaneously create content, share experiences, build relationships, and do other forms of productive work.


Communities are collections of individuals who come together to pursue a common purpose. Bound by their shared purpose, a community can bring a diverse group of people together from inside and outside an organization as well from all levels within the organization.

The ability of large numbers of individuals to form a community around a purpose and to contribute seamlessly, efficiently, and effectively to the collective effort is what makes social media-enabled mass collaboration unique. Without a community, there is no mass collaboration.


Purpose is what draws people together into a community. It is the cause around which people rally, the link that turns individuals into members of a community. It defines a community. It is what leads members to contribute their knowledge, experience, and ideas. Purpose is the measuring stick for assessing the effectiveness of the community, the suitability of the social technologies selected, the value of business objectives, and the effectiveness of management guidance.

In fact, purpose serves a dual function. A strong purpose attracts people to create and contribute to a community. It provides personal value. It also provides value to the business, and that value is what motivates firms to adopt social media and join or sponsor collaborative communities.

"But," we often hear, "communities on the public Internet seem to appear and grow spontaneously to millions of participants without an obvious, explicit purpose." That may be the appearance, but almost all successful social Web sites started with a defined purpose and limited scope. Facebook started at Harvard as a way for students and graduates to keep in touch. Craigslist was launched in San Francisco as a place where software engineers could share information on local events of interest. MySpace participation took off only after the site targeted music bands and clubs in Los Angeles and grew from there. In fact, other popular websites have never much expanded beyond their original purpose. YouTube still focuses mostly on letting users upload and share personal videos. And Wikipedia continues to focus on building an online encyclopedia.

Think of the three components this way: Community is the people who collaborate. Social media is where they collaborate. And purpose is why they collaborate. Social media plus community plus purpose create mass collaboration. And extensive, repeated success with mass collaboration in collaborative communities characterizes a social organization. Simple. But, like much else in organizations, this simple idea can be hard to execute well.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees. Copyright 2011 Gartner, Inc.