Community formation and social media: People show up for content and stay for relationships

Posted May 13, 2014 | New Media Project


By Brandon Cox, guest blogger

This is the second in a twelve-part series on Community formation and social media.

Brandon CoxI'm not particularly a fan of the phrase "social media." It's a new term that describes something very old. Media has always existed, we just somehow moved away from treating it socially for about 100 years. In other words, the trends we see in social media merely reflect the realities of how humans relate to each other. Granted, online social networks afford us new opportunities to connect with people we couldn't before and to reconnect with people from our past. But social media doesn't necessarily change the way in which we maintain our relationships.

The great advantage to understanding this is the freedom to translate real world concepts into online community-building tactics. And one of the long-standing principles that most churches, nonprofits, and businesses need to understand is that people show up for content and stay for relationships. In other words, merely offering people a place to connect with other people does not draw or build a community. Offering content does. But merely offering content does not sustain community long-term. Establishing connections does.

So if organizations hope to succeed online there must be an embracing and understanding of the two basic principles of community building. First, we draw people with content. And second, we connect people relationally. Or at least we set the stage for those connections to occur.

Obviously, the content produced in every online community will be unique to the organization's nature, mission, and voice. But there are some basic principles that tend to work across the board. Online community builders and managers need to understand a little bit of human psychology in order to produce the content that works best. For example:

• People love solutions. When our content answers a question, solves a problem, or creates and then eases tension, people are more apt to want to read what we have to say.
• People also love stories. Whether we are selling a product or sharing a viewpoint, the most powerful way to introduce content on the Internet is with a story.
• People are busy. So it is essential that we maximize the two seconds it takes someone to read a headline in order to engage them with the full story. And it is essential for the first line or phrase of any story to convey the value found the rest of the story.
• People matter. So any time our content conveys that we value the reader, we win.

People come for content, but stay for relationships. What gets people to return to an online community, or to subscribe either by e-mail or on a social platform, is the personal connection they feel with a community. This starts with feeling intimately familiar with the leaders of the community itself. So as we construct and grow online communities, there are a few basic and almost universal principles to apply on this side of things as well.

• Faces say more than logos. Logos are great for branding purposes, but faces establish a human connection.
• Names say more than titles. "John" or "Sue" will always be a better community manager than "Moderator" or "Editor."
• Visual content says more than text. Photos and videos are like a window into the intimate spaces and personalities of an organization.
• Personal, human language always says more than corporate speak and sales copy. Our culture just doesn't buy the well-crafted mission statement anymore.

Building online communities often boils down to doing what human beings have been doing all along—before radio, television, and mass publishing changed our wiring to being more corporate and less personal. We simply need to return to being human, friendly, personal, and helpful. Whatever kind of community you hope to attract, remember that people show up for content and stay for relationships.

Brandon Cox is a pastor and church planter in addition to leading as Editor and Online Community Facilitator for Rick Warren's and Ministry Toolbox, one of the world's largest online communities of pastors and church leaders.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact



Blog Archive