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Connection and Commitment: Building an Online Community is Just the Beginning

It's no accident that many companies and organizations are putting community engagement into their business plans. A University City start-up is a case in point.

The Internet provides many ways for us to remain distant from each other—for work, education, shopping, entertainment, even relationships. But, increasingly, communities are forming because of the Web.

As an example, Facebook allows us to reconnect with people we may have lost touch with, online at first, and then perhaps for a real-life reunion. We can start up new friendships with friends of friends, or based on shared interests. Again, these links may take root in the virtual world, but can reach full flower in actual connections.

Beyond marketing themselves or their products with a Twitter feed or Facebook page, more enterprises put bringing people together at the center of their very existence.

Evolving Communities

University City Patch offers a place for talking about issues and events in our community, both on the site and through Facebook and Twitter. We want our visitors to engage with each other: share ideas, views, resources, and opportunities. As Patch sites continue to deliver the news, our editors are evolving into community members who serve as facilitators for conversations.

Case In Point

So who else is doing the community thing? Movingoffcampus.com (MOC), for one: It's a product of University City and the ever-relevant issue of where to live. (Not for nothing: I met the person who told me about MOC through someone I first “met” on Twitter).

Mark Sawyier founded MOC after he graduated from Washington University in 2007. At first blush, MOC may appear to be simply an apartment search site, one targeted at college students, a potentially profitable group of consumers. But there’s more.

Sawyier and his team blog about issues related to housing and quality of life among the college crowd. And, he has a vision for keeping the conversation going, as I learned in this electronic interview.

Patch: When you started MovingOffCampus.com, to what degree were you thinking about fostering a community? Or were you simply envisioning a site that would provide a service; i.e. leads for apartment seekers and landlords?

Mark Sawyier: At the outset, my top priority was to create the best apartment resource for college students. This is inexorably linked to “community” because without local community insights, MOC becomes less helpful.

Patch: Can you describe the philosophy that guides MOC as a community resource?

Sawyier: There are three core elements that guide our philosophy in this respect:

  • Help our users solve problems—for students looking for an apartment or property owners looking to rent, our core objective is to create real value for our users.
  • Remove barriers to participate—if you’re a property owner or student, you can use our website for free.
  • Solicit feedback from everyone—we have lots of ideas about how to make MOC better but, ultimately, our users are the best sounding board.

Patch: Why do you think more companies and organizations are looking to engage audiences and consumers beyond traditional means (like advertising, marketing)?

Sawyier: In my opinion, it’s because traditional advertising and marketing falls far short of building arelationship with any audience. It’s not about getting consumers to support your brand, it’s about understanding how your brand can support your potential customers. You can’t answer that with radio spots, TV ads etc. (But you can support and broadcast your answer).

Patch: Now that you've been up and running for a few years, how do you see MOC as going beyond just another property rental referral site? 

Sawyier: Two ways:

  • Over the next several months we are planning to expand the number of problems MOC solves for college students—from moving and storage to signing up for cable and Internet.
  • Our national ambassador network allows us to maintain a greater degree of relevancy at the local campus level (and therefore create greater value) across the country.

Patch: Can you provide some examples of how MOC has fostered community or built up a following of people who engage with each through MOC or your social media presence?  

Sawyier: We know that moving off campus is something that college students do infrequently. That’s why for social media we place far less emphasis on building up a Facebook fan base or Twitter following than on ambassadors engaging with their peers in value-centric ways. We’re creating content from apartment move-in checklists to tips on apartment hunting created by students for other students.

Patch: How did you come up with the idea of the ambassadors? What do they do exactly and how does that feed into fostering a community?

Sawyier: When we started MOC, we realized very early on that every campus was different. The people best equipped to help us understand which property listings we needed on MOC and how to drive traffic from students at a particular campus were students that studied there. Over time, this idea evolved into the ambassador programs we run today. Ambassadors are responsible for not only implementing, but also developing campaigns specific to their school. From the value propositions to the specific tactics they implement, it’s all built from the bottom up.

Connection and Commitment

A fascinating document called Connected Citizens puts the very notion of the Internet’s ability to connect people up for debate.

It quotes Clay Shirky, a leading expert on the Internet and social life. He notes that it’s not enough to be connected online, to be truly engaged in a community, human beings still must commit in a real world way.

“The Web is the best medium in history for bringing people together around shared interests,” Shirky said. “The problem is that it brings people around a shared interest at a very low cost so that the commitment can also be minimal. In almost every other sphere of our lives the low cost of communications is fabulous, but for generating community, the low cost of communication can turn out to be damaging rather than elevating.”

So, true human interaction remains is at the heart of being connected. And as in any relationship, commitment is key. We're all apparently still working on that.

What Else?

Connected Citizens also put me on to websites that are doing interesting and innovative things to bring people together. Here are my three favorites:

  • CouchSurfing.org: "a volunteer-based worldwide network connecting travelers with members of local communities, who offer free accommodation and/or advice." 
  • GiveAMinute.info: "a new kind of public dialogue. It only takes a minute to think about improving your city, but your ideas can make a world of difference."
  • Localocracy.com: "an online town common where registered voters using real names can weigh in on local issues."

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