Over the past few decades, companies, marketing departments, and c-suites have used the term “community” to refer to a smorgasbord of ideas, from wide-ranging organizational investments — such as neighborhood events or charity partnerships — to online forums and even simple email lists.

These ideas aim to create some sense of the collective belonging people used to feel, long before our now-record isolation and loneliness. But most (and sometimes all) of these community-building measures are superficial, or even irrelevant, to what constitutes real community.

We call the resulting so-called communities mirage communities: groups that organizations may label as communities, but that a trained eye can recognize are not.

There are, however, a growing number of organizations that take the need for community far more seriously. These organizations invest in effective community principles, and they’re rewarded with breakthrough innovation, critical feedback, brand loyalty, and employee retention.

But these rewards don’t appear magically. They require a special investment.

So, how do some of today’s most successful companies do it? Let’s explore how Google, Twitch, and Sephora implement authentic community-building strategies, and how your own company can, too.

1. Google invests in Labs.

At Google, community success comes in the form of collaborative groups, or what Google calls “Labs.”

Each Google Lab brings together approximately 100 thought leaders, in specific industries, to tackle some of today’s most pressing issues. Google Labs foster mutual respect and concern among members, which spawn conversations, collaborations, and opportunities that were never possible before. It’s part of what keeps Google at the top of every “most innovative” company list today.

For example, Google’s Food Lab focuses on the production, purchase, and presentation of food. Its members take on top food challenges, from “How do we move our culture to a plant-forward diet?” to “How do we eliminate waste in our food system?”

In turn, Google is lauded as a brand that inspires the food industry, while it refines (and reduces) its own monstrous spending on healthy employee food perks — which, at one point, cost nearly $72 million a year at the main office “Googleplex” alone.

2. Twitch succeeds with local groups.

Twitch attracts over 2 million people per month to watch and livestream digital video broadcasts. Their approach is built on a two-sided marketplace: they need to attract broadcasters, as well as audience members. Local community groups help them succeed.

Twitch has built a worldwide team to support over 40 local, city-based groups, each of which hosts real-life and virtual events that foster genuine friendships and deep relationships between local Twitch members. However, local groups (and their leaders) must demonstrate how well they can bring members together, first.

These local groups allow Twitch to transform online interactions — which can often feel transactional — into connections that have real meaning. Members return again and again to the brand, and recruit others to participate, because Twitch is a space where authentic emotional investments happen.

3. Sephora says “yes” to beauty enthusiasts.

Sephora — one of the largest beauty retailers in the world — has invested in building a makeup enthusiast community that is both accessible on mobile devices and integrated into the shopping experience.

Inside the community, members can discuss a variety of beauty products and methods, regardless of whether they’re related to Sephora products or not. Within the community, Sephora enables members to follow interesting topics and connect with fellow members, keep up with trends and chat with brands, and score access to exclusive events.

Community members can also gain access to beauty techniques and product information, engage with beauty company founders, and experience an affirming space with others who love the fun, play, and transformation of makeup.

What do these examples have in common?

Real communities are made up of relationships. Always. Relationships exist in the realm of personal experience, and although they may include transactions, they are never purely transactional. They also include some generosity — at least the kind where we help others without calculating the return on investment (ROI) for sending a card, answering a timely question, or holding a door open for a stranger coming in from the cold.

To build an effective brand community, you must reject the premise that everything an organization does or offers must generate profit or exist within a transaction. Instead, community-building efforts will help consumers see more long-term value in your brand.

People don’t commit to, feel safe in, or extend themselves for relationships that only serve a person (or brand) “getting” something as cheaply and easily as possible. We commit to relationships in which we believe that others care about our success, too.

In a real community, members help one another become who they want to be. This can include sharing information, skills, hard-won lessons, and — very often — attentive friendship. When a brand can offer this to members (e.g., customers, users, staff, colleagues, or volunteers), something much richer and more rewarding can develop.

Three Tips for Building True Community

  1. Go beyond the transaction. Make sure you go far beyond building transactional relationships. It’s not enough to offer coupons or simply invite someone to a virtual or in-person event.
  2. Define how you’re helping members. Articulate exactly how you’re enriching the lives of community members — help them, not just your corporate goals.
  3. Think small. Community happens in small experiences. Intentionally create what we call “campfire experiences,” which are intimate experiences where participants have proximity, permission, and time to connect with a small group.

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