so, how does community for companies really work?

Community-building with a company isn't just how entertaining their Twitter stream is, or how many people said they'd attend an event on Facebook. Those tactics may work, to a certain point, and they're a useful way to gain insight with customers and a fun way for customers to talk to brands they love.

What's often overlooks is how savvy, spendy consumers choose to not communicate with a company, and why that ennui might be happening to your business.

For example: I'm happy to interact with Virgin America, Mad Mimi, Zappos, or my credit union for one simple reason: I've got the expectation that my experience will be a good one. I won't mind interacting with them and in fact (gasp! horror!) I may very well enjoy it.

I'm a loyal, brand-aware customer. I tip well, don't complain without reason, and dutifully check in, bookmark, recommend. I have been known to drop off hand-written notes to great restaurants and recommend the hell out of brands I'm passionate enough about to spend my money with. Hence, I don't often complain to a company, even when there really is a good reason.

Why? Empathy, maybe. I'm busy, certainly. I'm gonna mix a metaphor or four to try to illustrate my point.

I've been taught by companies I buy stuff from what to expect when trying to get in touch. I've learned even what to expect when companies I'd rather just buy something from and go on about my day want to get in touch with me. How the heck WAS my flight, anyway? I could fill out a 20-minute survey on one airline for a scant possibility of a kabillion frequent flier miles, only to have said survey be both a waste of time and effort.

Even when I know these surveys must be some marketing person's way to prove to the higher-ups that community is valuable through metrics and survey responses, even knowing the game is rigged, with all the backstory, I'll ignore queries and survey requests as a passive consumer. I simply choose to fly another airline that I identify with more. Why? I can be delighted by the "free" goodies I get with my upgrade. Even when I know they're not free. I'm easily appeased by the lagniappe, but more so, I want to know what to expect. I don't like surprises more than anyone else. 

For some companies, I don't doubt a closed-off approach is wise at times, ceding the field to the more "popular" companies. There's a certain "we'll show them when it's our turn, in our way" mentality exists in politics, products, and people. Mostly because people thought it up, but also because of one basic tenet: people don't like change, not because they're ornery, stubborn, or don't like your whizzy new idea. They just want to know what to expect before it happens, and told why it's awesome.

That rumbling of the whole world coming online is staring business units such as marketing teams, engineers, and product people square in the face.

Advice? First: if your company isn't prepared to deal with customer feedback now, set the expectation that it's not part of what you do. Paying lip service to "customer community" will just end up with a bunch of pissed-off people tapping their toes, wondering why you don't reply to their @messages on Twitter.

Second: be ready for customers to demand a channel to talk with your company and interact. This might not be the channel you think it'll be, the one you've spent money on, or the one you like best. Find where your customers are talking, and talk to them there.

Third: be prepared with your playbook. Instead of being afraid that the inmates are taking over the asylum, think before you make a major shift. Gap's new logo attempt failed in two ways: they changed something abruptly on customers that didn't add anything to their overall experience, and they expected for designers to swoon for a chance to create their own logo. Graphic designers don't have their own version of Project Runway, the culture simply works differently in Computerville.

Tather than slapping a "we're crowdsourcing the logo!" idea on top of a PR mistake, a community-based way to address the issue could've gone thusly: asking 10 lead design firms how they'd refactor it, paying them to do so, and asking customers which they liked, giving them the option of keeping the old logo.

The default for my Virgin America experience is delight. The default for my other airline experiences is cramped psuedo-service. If I have my druthers, I'll just pick delight.