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Economy & Business

Beacon blog: About community, not technology

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2013 - As I wrote back in November when Humans of New York raised $72K in 12 hours, "Real communities and real relationships have immeasurable value. They are built, not bought, and consistently delivering an honest, interesting and genuine product is a surefire way to build them. And if you've built them honestly, they will gladly and swiftly activate on issues in line with the health and survival of the community."

(In case you thought that was a fluke, he did it again last month when he raised $100K+ in 72 hours.)

I wrote about how agencies and consultants add "phenomena" like these to their arsenals of "the power of social media" and how that totally misses the point. This is not about technology, this is about community.

What's happening in my hometown of Edwardsville right now is a heartwarming and sterling example.

Last Friday afternoon, Happy Up, Inc., owner of two specialty toy stores in Edwardsville and Clayton, posted to their Facebook page that the bank had called their loan. Within an hour, a Facebook group had been created by customers sad to see the stores in jeopardy (as of Thursday it had over 4,100 members). On Saturday, some Edwardsville residents and parents with media, marketing and legal skills who knew the owners approached them to find out the details and consider how a community campaign might be able to help. On Sunday, the owners posted a message to the community (pdf) articulating more detail that these are hard times for many and they were uncomfortable asking for financial help, but expressing their appreciation to the community for the outpouring of support now and over the past 26 years. On Monday evening, the group of concerned parents and community members launched a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of $76,875. By Tuesday night, the pledges topped $25,000.

Wednesday, the media blitz kicked in - organized and executed by community professionals. Small businesses in and connected to Edwardsville started offering a percentage of sales toward the effort. The campaign organizer gave directions on what to tweet and post so the message was consistent and leveraged the interworkings of social media. As of 2 p.m. Thursday, the pledges are over $51,000 with a day to go.

So, looking at this from a community and digital crowdfunding standpoint, here's the thing that sticks out the most to me: The Humans of New York "population" (the likes on its page) is 595,320. The population of Edwardsville is 24,293. Take the percentage of that population active on social networks and the comparison gets even more poignant (the Happy Up Facebook page has a mere 697 "likes"). The average HONY gift on its last effort was $33 and the current average on the Happy Up campaign is $84. My point? This comparison between two community-driven examples drives even further home the point that this is about real people and community, not about social media, technology or the internet.

This is a brick and mortar small business, where people have touched real product, had real conversations and held their children's birthday parties (I've known the store owner since preschool). The bank that called the loan is made up of people who live in the same community with the people who started the campaign, and everything has been done with consideration of that fact. The owners have been clear that this campaign won't "save" the store but give it a chance to save itself. The organizers didn't use either of the go-to buzz sites for crowd-funding projects and causes (Kickstarter or Indiegogo), but simply a tool to get the job done (CrowdTilt, which is geared more toward shared purchasing and payments).

Real communities and networks drive action. The internet and social platforms offer the opportunity to leverage (and yes, sometimes even be a spark for) those communities and networks, to extend the reach of a message, to ease logistics, to support and leverage success into more action. But at the core of the most successful and high impact stories is community - whether physical, geographical, psychological, emotional. Real people.

Because, really, in the end, technology is merely a tool.

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