This morning, my Dad/boss and I attended the annual “Shelter from the Storm” fundraising breakfast for ACCESS Women’s Shelter. ACCESS is kind of like the little engine that could. Founded in 1984 exclusively to help single homeless women and their children (2 groups often neglected by other shelters), ACCESS has had to deal with continuing cuts in federal support and increasing demands on their time and facilities. At the breakfast this morning a video was shown that was simple yet powerful. The concept was based on a sight many of us are all too familiar with — a homeless person holding up a tattered cardboard sign. In this video, current and former residents of the ACCESS shelter held up a cardboard sign showing the challenges they were or are coping with, and then, the cardboard sign was flipped, and they proudly showed the progress they have made. Needless to say, there was hardly a dry eye in the room.
A couple of years ago, Josh Gippin (who happens to be a cousin of mine) developed a short documentary on ACCESS for the same event. In the documentary, and in general when you talk to current and former residents of ACCESS, you hear 2 things a lot. “I never thought it would happen to me” and the word community. Many of these women lost their jobs and their homes because they became extremely ill, didn’t have adequate health coverage, and just couldn’t cope. When they call ACCESS, they are feeling a range of emotions from shame to guilt to ineptitude to who knows what else. When they arrive at ACCESS, though, they feel welcome. They feel like they have been invited into a community. They are residents, not numbers.
Sometimes, “I never thought it would happen to me” can be good news
This talk of community wound its way through my brain and crashed into something that happened yesterday. Chris Brogan wrote a beautiful piece about my friend Suzanne Vara. He talked about Suzanne’s capacity for community-building. He talked about how smart she is, and even mentioned her love of the Mets and Jets. For once, Chris wasn’t telling me something new. However, the really amazing and mind-blowing thing is that Chris noted that he and Suzanne had mentioned me, of all people, as a friend and as a professional with potential. Suzanne wrote today that she considers me a part of her community. I never thought it would happen to me. Indeed, when I think about the people who populate my various communities — my Social Media community, my family community, my community of long-time friends, I ponder how it is I got so lucky.
Flip over that cardboard
I think that a lot of people associate building friendships and communities with sharing sad news, supporting each other during hard times, and always being ready to serve as the shoulder to cry on. These are all important functions, but it is only the sad part of the tale. The women of ACCESS have been able to build a community based on a shared will to survive and thrive. I have been invited into communities where respect, admiration, adoration, fun, and dedication march by perpetually in a ticker tape parade. Why don’t we try to build communities on the new side of the cardboard? Why look for the company that misery loves when we could look instead for the lifeline that leaves misery behind?
Since this is a marketing blog…
So what does this have to do with you? What does this have to do with marketing or business? Well, quite a lot, actually. You see, people are talking a lot about how business in the 21st century is about being human and developing one-on-one connections. But now, after thinking about this for a couple of days, I’m not sure that’s quite right. I think that businesses that will thrive in this new era will do so because they have built communities. Those communities won’t be built upon shared cynicism or shared angst. Those communities will be built on some central positive core that the business builds. I can’t tell you what the little nugget will be. It’ll be different for everyone. But people will latch on to that positivity. They’ll start talking to each other about how welcoming the house is that you have built. They’ll start talking about how nice it is that you provide whatever special thing you provide. You’ll listen when they talk, they’ll listen and talk to each other, much like people gather around a campfire.
Creating this community could begin with a simple change of wording. Many of us marketers write ad copy (and some experts in Social Media advise blog posts to be like this too) that is focused on a problem. What if we alter our focus to the solution? Everyone knows what problems there are. Our houses are always getting dusty. Roofs are always leaking. Kitties and puppies are always having accidents on new, freshly installed carpeting. We all know that stuff. It’s all part of the shared human experience. Can the message be changed? Can the creation of good feeling build a community as much as complaining about a problem?
“You know I love you” is not enough
The real glue in a community like this is showing appreciation. Verbalizing appreciation. Do your favorite customers know that they are your favorite customers? Do your top sales reps know that they are your top sales reps? Does that person you talk about at the dinner table know that you are really amazed at how they are kicking butt?
The amazing thing about so many people I have met in the Social Media world, people like Suzanne and Chris and Maya Paveza and Stanford Smith and Lisa Alexander and Danny Garcia and so many others too numerous to name is that they aren’t shy about saying a kind word. It doesn’t have to be your birthday or a holiday. It doesn’t have to be a reaction to a tragic tweet or a funny Facebook update. They just lift you up because that’s what they do. That’s why they are great community builders, in the end. You know where they stand with you, and if you stand well, it’s an honor.
Translate that to all facets of your life. Lift your family up. Lift your friends up. Lift up your customers and your co-workers. Build community. Create in people around you that wonderful version of an oft-heard phrase. “I never thought it would happen to me.” What do you think? Can we do it?
2nd Image Credit: Image Credit: http://www.sxc.hu/profile/leovdworp
3rd Image Credit: http://www.sxc.hu/profile/spekulator