Conversations in the Marketplace
In the purest sense the social Web is a very large marketplace populated by people who come and go for the purpose of engaging in conversations about things they do, make, think about, and care about, and of course to buy or sell things. The majority of your conversations in any marketplace will occur in smaller gatherings of people who share interests, ideas, or work together to solve problems and help one another. And that’s also how business gets done in this very large online marketplace, within these smaller communities.
On the social Web our conversations happen through posts. They can be blog posts, social-networking posts, or a comment post on a news article. They can be status-update posts, video or podcast posts, photos, or just about anything that makes connection and community. If your posts have an authentic voice, relevancy and value, they will enable relationships and trust; i.e. community. So, how do we find community?
Connection and Community
I learned about the role of community in business while growing up in a small Pennsylvania town where my extended family owned a modest but successful grocery store and a produce-distribution company. I vividly remember the day when my mother and father had finally scraped together enough money to buy the grocery store outright from my great-uncle. From then on, my father was the head butcher and my mother was found wherever she was needed most in the store. My grandmother worked wrapping meats and cheeses and dished up pickles from the barrel. My brothers and I counted cans on inventory days or stocked shelves, swept floors, carried out people’s groceries to their cars, and my favorite, arranged the candy shelves. Pretty much everyone my parents knew, and more, came to my family’s store at least once a week to shop for their groceries and buy meats from my dad. What I now realize is that while groceries were vital, people came to our family store in large part because it met their need for connection. Going grocery shopping was a social event where they found a community.
There was always a fresh pot of coffee behind the butcher counter, along with a baked good or two (shoe-fly pie or sticky buns) that a customer brought in for our family or that my dad took off the shelf to share with others. The women would shop and the men would talk. The bread man, the milkman, the potato chip man and the produce-truck guy (this was before women were liberated!) were all regular fixtures, hanging around the butcher counter long after their deliveries were made. The store was small, nothing close to the mega supermarkets we know today. Still, it could take hours for a family to move through the aisles, and not just because the aisles were narrow. It was because everyone would stop and chat with their friends, neighbors, our family and our employees. Shopping at Cassel’s Food Store was community; it was an event, an experience and a place of connection, and yes, things were bought and sold.
I remember watching Dad interact with his customers, carefully explaining the special cuts of meat and how they might be prepared, or proudly pulling out a fresh piece of fish from the ice-packed display that came in that morning from the New Jersey coast. My mother would often give customers a sample of cheese or ring bologna while they watched my dad make fresh sausage with a hand meat-grinder. Customers conversed with each other about recipes they had tried or suggestions for side dishes, and before you could say Quakertown, another order of meat or fish was sold to test it out. When new products showed up on the shelves, customers would seek out the opinions of employees who had earned their trust over the years. Arriving at the check-out register they were entertained by the very chatty and personable Mr. White—who worked that register his entire life—offering them bits of news, gossip and town history while ringing up their purchases. He’d often comment on how fresh the green beans looked that day and wouldn’t they go good with this or that, prompting the customer to take one more run to the produce department before their bill was tallied.
People came to my family’s grocery store to buy groceries, sure, but also to connect with others and learn about new things while drinking a cup of coffee and eating homemade cakes. (Think Facebook!) Occasionally, they’d drop a nickel in my hand after I’d carted their groceries to their car two blocks away on a Saturday afternoon when I would have rather been at the movies with friends. Still, I’ll never regret my frozen fingers or forget the lesson my family and friends taught me while growing up in the family business: Humans seek connection. They seek community.
As modern and hip as the Netizens of the social Web may perceive themselves to be, it is the feeling of the old-time marketplace—a valued place where people find connection and earn trust in order to buy and sell their goods and services—that brings them back again and again. In that old-time marketplace, people with intersecting interests, both buyers and sellers, had conversations with each other without the filter of the media, incessant advertisements, or the shading of public relations. Likewise, uncorrupted community and connection are what most people on the social Web want today—even in the midst of our go-go modern world—as evidenced in its astounding growth. Whether bricks and mortar or digits, people want to be a part of a community. I believe, as do many others, that the social Web is growing because it meets our basic human desire for community and connection.
How important are your online communities? Are they valuable to you or are you just going through the motions? Sure, some people get business simply because they do something uniquely sought after and don’t need to build connections and community, but they are the exception not the rule. There is a connection between commonalities, relationship, and trust, and it’s vital to doing business in 2011.
 BazaarVoice is a tracking service that monitors user behaviors and actions on their clients’ commercial Websites. They post industry statistics on word of mouth, ratings and reviews, customer access of support and Q&A, and conversion results on their website at http://www.bazaarvoice.com/resources/stats (Last accessed April 20, 2010).