Article: The Value Exchange

Published:  July 5, 2013
Stuart Buchanan
Article: The Value Exchange

Getting to the heart of a community takes more than just listening and lurking. Learning from community building with FBi Radio and New Weird Australia, and as Director of digital agency The Nest, Stuart Buchanan asks us to take a little and give a lot.

I arrived in Australia in 2003 with no touchstones whatsoever. After ten years of squashing the arts and the web together, often as uncomfortable bed-fellows, I left all of my professional, social, geographical and familial communities behind in the UK. My Australian address book was empty. Where to look, what to find?

Sydney is an odd place to run this query, even more so ten years ago, pre-social media. Sydney is a big, pretty city, basking in sun, flaunting its harbours and beaches and shiny happy people. I had come to Sydney following my wife-to-be, and none of the city’s signature attractions were particularly interesting to me. Rather, I was (and remain) inclined towards seeking out creative communities, particularly those that are new and emerging. Back then, such communities were often hard to find and hard to penetrate – fractured and scattered across niche spaces, rarely visible outside “those in the know”.

Within months of arriving, I found myself taking on the role of Communications Manager for a new radio station that was launching in the city. Unlike commercial radio stations, this one had a “community licence” – its reach and signal matched that of the big boys, but it had a mandate to appeal to specific communities of interest. Note the plural – the job was to cajole and coalesce disparate music, arts and cultural communities and bring them together as a whole. You can understand why this felt like a gift.

Back then, no one knew who we were, no one knew what we trying to do, but we had a mission, and mostly importantly a genuine passion for the task at hand. That radio station was FBi, and today it’s one of the most vital components in the Sydney cultural landscape.

Outside of the key staff, community radio is volunteer-based, and thus it relies on individuals who share the passion, and the needs, beliefs and values of the community it aims to represent. There is no financial reward for sitting in front of the mic. They put in far more than they will ever take out. They do it to share their passion, to engender support, to exchange ideas and to promote the work of the community.

Indeed, as I moved from the comms role into managing FBi for three years, the act of understanding and working within the dynamics of community became my day job. FBi rose or fell according to how its community felt about it, and FBi, either consciously or otherwise, spent all day every day cultivating its community. It was a rare beast in 21st century terms – an independent, not-for-profit media outlet with over 250,000 listeners, made by the very community that it represents.

Financial support for community radio comes, in part, from listener donations, usually via the regular ‘radiothon’ supporter drive. This is where community cultivation literally pays off – once a year (sometimes more often), goodwill is parlayed into dollars through a variety of personal appeals. Amanda Palmer, with her infamous $1m+ crowd-funding campaign, may well be the poster-child for this activity, but community radio in Australia has been doing it since the 1970s. Social media has of course enabled this process tospread much further and wider, with sites such as Kickstarter, Pozible and many more enabling community-focused ‘social giving‘ as a way of realising creative projects.

As we look at the impact of digital technology on cultural industries such as music and publishing, we often hear the comment that it has enabled more individuals to ‘get involved‘ – anyone can do what was hitherto restricted to the few. While this is true in part, it’s also true that technology has simply shone a light into corners that hitherto already existed. People were already making music in their bedrooms, or bashing novels out on the keyboards before the internet arrived – today, they’re simply much more visible. That was the opportunity that FBI tapped into, and the opportunity that social media continues to thrive on.

This is also true more broadly of community – whilst they exist ‘offline’ in one form or another, social media thrusts them further into the spotlight, enabling their activity, and allowing new members to cluster around them. Take New Weird Australia for example, the project I founded in 2009 as a promotional vehicle for eclectic and experimental Australian music. Communities already existed around various genres, local venues, artists, promoters and such like – New Weird Australia was simply a way of bringing it all together online, offering an opportunity for those communities to pool their resources, communicate and promote.

Much like FBi, each community had a certain reach that was intrinsically limited; combined, they were a stronger proposition, and could help each other to reach further and wider. To date, New Weird Australia’s label arm has clocked up over 150,000 downloads of its free releases, much of which comes from overseas.

However, this success remains entirely contingent on the willingness of the community to find value in the proposition, and, as a result, support and exchange. Without community, New Weird Australia is nothing – it relies on the community for input and output, and to further its message. With no budget for advertising or marketing, the act of liking, commenting and sharing on our online activity is vital to our survival. To achieve such things, everything we do and say has to have some intrinsic value to the community – otherwise, our message will remain inert and obscured by the endless waterfall of cat gifs, Game Of Thrones memes and Abbott-bashing call-to-arms (or is that just my feed?). This value exchange is the currency that we deal in.

Illustration by James Gulliver & Kate Banazi

Spooling forward from FBi and NWA, I founded The Nest in 2010. Initially a digital agency for the arts and creative industries, The Nest has more latterly also encompassed areas such as destination marketing and digital publishing. Irrespective of the services we provide or the platforms on which they are delivered, the value exchange within representative communities remains sacrosanct.

The word ‘community’ pop ups regularly in client conversations. Many of The Nest’s clients are not-for-profit and by their nature share a common facet – they all have an existing community around them that is, in the main, supportive and interested in their activities. Like all communities, they may still wax and wane according to needs and desires, but in general there is a core, loyal group (the heart of the community) who will receive communications with an expectant smile, and lean in to what is being said. Even though some clients struggle to communicate with their community, they should at least feel blessed that they have one.

The issue lies often in how the relationship is perceived. Too often, the default position is to assume that the community is somehow remote from us, that we are the outsider. This is inherent in phrases such as “we need to connect with the community”, “we need to reach out to the community”, “we need to engage with the community” – all of which imply that ‘the community’ is an objective presence, that they somehow exist remote from us.

And whilst terms such as “audience” or “market” are being rejected in favour of “community”, the approach fundamentally has stayed the same. Too often new communication tools are being used to peddle the same old thing: talking at a group of people, rather than talking with them.

It’s reassuring to find that many businesses are diverting budgets from traditional broadcast campaigns to those that seek to work with an existing community. Often however this fueled by a compulsion to remain in step, to “follow the eyeballs” as it’s bizarrely referred, but underpinning this is a need to also change the way in we approach such communications, and the target community, irrespective of the driver or intended outcome. Cultivation, as evidenced in the FBi and New Weird Australia examples, is vital.

The majority of our online activity is based on making connections in one way or another – as individuals, we connect to people or to groups; and we readily share media and commentary that they create as part our daily routine. By doing so, we are amplifying their signal, helping it cut through the noise by effectively appending a personal recommendation.

Social media is our wardrobe – we make conscious choices about the content that we share in our updates, likes and comments, in our tweets, WordPress posts, Tumblelogs, YouTube and Vimeo uploads, our Instagram moments; we (consciously or otherwise) choose them all with care. Each moment, each share, each post, becomes the next paragraph in our evolving story. It is an outward reflection of our inward self – in much the same way as we choose our sartorial look. Some of us are loud and want to be noticed, others are reserved and reflective; most of us are somewhere in the middle, depending on mood.

The net result is that this mediated and curated sharing has increased value to those around us. We appreciate their assistance in focusing our attention on something of mutual interest. (This value is often indicated by the contrary – we switch off, unfollow and de-friend when people share too much, when they appear to post too arbitrarily with seemingly no concern for value. They add to the clutter, rather than help us cut through it.)

Research continues to show, unsurprisingly, that those on the receiving end will trust our recommendations and respond more positively than any other form of communications or advertising. Indeed, Neilsen’s recent “Trust In Advertising” report showed that twice as many people trust personal recommendations than print ads in newspapers and magazines.1

Valuable recommendations from people we know – posted in the form of a well-liked status update – can often curry more favour, be more influential and more readily convert into an action than many so-called ‘offline’ techniques. And so, if we “engage that community” through Facebook, our campaign will be a success, no?

This brings us back to the recurring issue – what is this “community” that we’re referring to? When compelled to “reach out to the community”, who is it that we’re talking to? My act of sharing might indicate an interest in the subject, and my continued sharing might indicate that I am fast becoming a fan, but am I thus now a member of the “community”?

Communities are generally defined as clusters of individuals coming together based on needs, beliefs and values. Their activity and their loyalty will be based on the strength of each, and amplified when in peril. Communities are often abstract and undefined until events occur that demand a response, or some form of call to action otherwise brings it together. But does ‘liking’ or commenting on social media automatically grant us the same type of community membership?

Whilst the first ‘Like’ may mean little in isolation, it could well be the start of the story – one that has the potential to blossom into a great deal more. It doesn’t signify community membership, but it signifies potential. When considering whether to join a club or society, we rarely if ever pay membership fees on our first encounter. We scope it out and attend a few meetings before we commit. That first ‘LIke’ is our first encounter – we may never go back again, but there’s also a fair chance that we might continue the journey if we continue to see the value.

By watching the lifecycles of FBi, New Weird Australia and The Nest, and more recently as chair of Sydney’s emerging artists initiative, Underbelly Arts, it’s abundantly clear that cultivating community (in a way that recognises its needs and values) can and does ‘pay off‘, however you choose to define that.

In the case of FBi, this cultivation of its community led to increased listener numbers and improved financial stability; for New Weird Australia, it galvanised fragmented and fractured strands into a brand with an international reach; for The Nest clients, this cultivation will mean the difference between the success or failure of any campaign or initiative. It’s not simple, easy or quick – it often takes years, and can’t be quantified on a spreadsheet.

As organisations, businesses or individuals seeking to “engage with the community”, we can’t ever hope to win hearts and minds by being remote, or sticking our fingers in our ears. Similarly, we can’t win by mouthing off loudly about our inherent brilliance, whilst contributing nothing. Rather, we need to inherent understand the needs and values of the community and feed those on a constant basis. We do so by sharing our creativity, our ideas and our inspiration – things that we ourselves consider valuable, the very things we all look for when we login.

In the value exchange, we succeed by putting in more than we take out. And soon thereafter, we’ll no longer need think of community as an objective term. There’ll be no need to find one, create one or “reach out” to one – we’ll be already there.

1. Neilsen’s annual ‘Trust In Advertising’ Survey (most recently published in September 2012), asks the question “which form of advertising you trust?”. 92% of respondents unsurprisingly trusted ‘recommendations from people I know’, 70% any ‘consumer opinions posted online’ (that is, from strangers); 58% ‘editorial content, such as newspaper articles’, with media advertising in magazines, newspapers and radio coming in 47%, 46% and 42% respecitvely.

This article was first published in Desktop #294 — In The Neighbourhood

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