How do social networks and online communities work together?

I was recently asked this question for inclusion in a white paper.  I thought I would write a blog post on the subject because my answer ended up being more lengthy than I first planned.

To first understand how social networks and communities work together we need to frame the meaning and usage of both entities. 

From Wikipedia:

“A social network (SN) is a social structure made up of a set of actors (such as individuals or organizations) and the dyadic ties between these actors.”

“An online community (OC) is a virtual community that exists online and whose members enable its existence through taking part in membership ritual.”

From these two definitions we could say that the difference between SN and OC is that the OC is based around membership ritual rather that social or work related ties between individuals, in effect the OC is a tribe.  However it is never as clear cut as that and indeed an OC may contain dyadic ties but this does not make it a SN.

Now we understand the use of the 2 types of network it is possible to start to answer the original question. 

The SN is a tool that is a broadcast mechanism but with the added benefit of having relationship validation.  So the first mechanism is to allow your tribe members on the OC to push stuff out to the SN organically (this is one of the reasons we built the product Nexus).  By doing this you are not trying to control the engagement, you are only providing a solution to allow the OC tribe members to extend their reach. 

An alternative SN and OC interaction is through managed engagement.  Managed engagement is what most marketing departments understand clearly, they produce content that is pushed out onto SN’s and try and create engagement to entice users to join the tribe.  This is also something that is being packaged and sold as a product by digital agencies as the solution to your online SN presence.

Personally I believe that organic engagement is more valuable than managed engagement.  By allowing tribe members to market to non-tribe members you stand a much better chance of converting them to being part of the tribe.  That’s not to say that I do not think managed engagement is not also valuable.  Managed engagement is particularly useful at the outset of a new project to generate the initial big bang.  It is also useful for communicating the values and tone of your tribe and also broadcasting general communication and competitions.

One of our recent projects Bragstr have got the balance of organic and managed engagement just right. The project has been marketed through SN and offline marketing activities. But their core concept is encouraging the tribe to share content on SN to bring users back onto the OC and I’m pretty sure there are features coming soon that will only increase the organic engagement.