Fostering a Sense of Community May Be More Vital Than You Think

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A quote from Marc Katz, who started Custom­Ink 16 years ago in the basement of someone's house—very SIPA-like for a beginning—struck me recently. Last year, the online T-shirt company piled up $300 million in sales. The question that most caught my eye in The Washington Post interview was this: "What's the basic business premise?"

His reply: "It's evolved. When we started off, we saw ourselves as creating a better way to make custom T-shirts, and we did that for years. We've made something like 100 million T-shirts. In the process we learned that the business was about much more than shirts, that people were ordering for things that were meaningful for them—their teams, their company, their charity—and that our business was about fostering a sense of community in those groups as opposed to just providing a physical product or printing service.

So here's a T-shirt manufacturer whose company took off only when he started thinking about building a sense of community for his customers. As events continue to grow for publishers, communities should grow as well. Events bring folks together, but it's that sense of community that keeps them together—hopefully within the publisher's umbrella.

SIPA members who are wondering how to make events a cornerstone of their businesses, optimize event marketing, maximize revenue opportunities, invigorating their training program strategies, and build a sense of community will be attending our conference New Secrets of Successful Events and Webinars, April 7 in Boston. You can also participate via webcast for just $99! 

My article last week about a popular new app for Montreal commuters said that it succeeded when it started to unite a community with targeted offers and incentives. Riders get their award points in "trees," because the Montreal Transit Company wants customers to know that they are reducing their carbon footprint—and are part of a larger, "green" community.

Last week, Barb Kaplowitz, president of Big Huge Ideas, posed an interesting question to the group on the SIPA Forum. It stemmed from an Editor & Publisher article about more newspapers going to the membership model. "...changing the industry thinking from 'paywall' to 'membership' will require a cultural shift to something a bit more altruistic," the article said.

Kaplowitz wondered if altruism is the right word, at least for SIPA members, and asked, "What role, if any, does 'the good of the community' play in your membership models?" 

Both CustomInk and the Montreal Transit Company—while not perhaps altruistic, which is selfless by definition—did figure out how best to present themselves to their audience. "I had read Built to Last by Jim Collins, which is all about enduring organizations, whether it's a company or a team, any kind of organization," Katz said. "He talked about knowing your core values and then making sure that those endure but having mechanisms to constantly rethink and challenge sort of everything else, and that just really connected with me."

When Stephanie Eidelman, CEO of insideARM—a publisher in the debt collection field—started her new community called the Compliance Professionals Forum, her core values pointed to the customer. "Nowhere is there a true destination for compliance professionals to turn to in order to connect with peers, and to find the information they need when they need it, and that is 100% tailored for them..." she said.

One reason that group succeeds is because, "These folks are on their own, they feel like islands," said Eidelman. The Forum is uniting them. One way is by assigning them to peer groups of 10-15 that convene monthly by phone for problem-solving sessions—facilitated by staff which provides guidance. Not surprisingly, strong sponsor and vendor interest has followed.

Don't underestimate that staff involvement. Said Katz: "Every now and then something goes wrong and it requires heroics to deliver the shirts just in time... someone leaving the office [without even being asked] with a box under their arm and driving for two, three hours to deliver the shirts... It goes back to the sense of ownership and treating people as you want to be treated."

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…