Groups, Teams, and Communities in Online Marketing

Groups, clubs, networks, teams, high-functioning teams, communities, families, and affinity groups: any time an individual meets another individual, they form a group, and the group has a dynamic. It might be one of mutual affection, antipathy, respect, but very rarely apathy.

On the Internet, we have an illusion of grouping people, just through the sheer power of communication.  Of course, we are each still at our own terminal (the end, terminus, or boundary of a network tie to others), typing away on a keyboard, or tapping on a smartphone.

Online marketers like the word “community”. In fact, there is a common designation of “community manager”. In his article “The Four Tenets of the Community Manager” , Jeremiah Owyang from Altimeter Group says that the first tenet is that of “Community Advocate”:

As a community advocate, the community manager’s primary role is to represent the customer. This includes listening, which results in monitoring, and being active in understanding what customers are saying in both the corporate community as well as external websites. Secondly, they engage customers by responding to their requests and needs or just conversations, both in private and in public.

Owyang is speaking of a community comprised of customers.  While much more dynamic definitions of community abound, there is so much disagreement on what community means among sociologists, that quibbling over the word might not be the fruitful path.

M. Scott Peck, the well-known author and psychologist, described community as a group of people who have gone through several stages emerging as a consensus-governed non-exclusive group.  Based on his workshops, Peck decided that real communities went through:

  • Chaos
  • Emptiness
  • True Community

I wouldn’t totally rule it out but it seems unlikely that such a community would emerge from interactions that were totally online.  It’s simply too easy for an unbounded group to slip in and out of the steps needed to form Peck’s idea of community.

Another American psychologist, Bruce Tuckman, had theorized that all groups go through several stages in their development:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing

And finally, because ostensibly a group forms in order to achieve something:  adjourning.

Do all groups form in order to achieve a goal? Or is that a team we’re speaking of?

In the 19th Century, ethnologists used the term “affinity groups”, as did Spanish anarchists (grupos de afinidad) leading to the term being used to describe political groups.  For the ethnologists, the phrase related to their use of the word “affinity” why inferred relationship by marriage or other tie, as opposed to genetics.  The other use of the word “affinity” infers “liking”.  We both might have an affinity for chocolate ice cream.  But like the word “community”, the phrase has been used in these many different ways that marketers might best let it be.

Teams, of course, definitely have a common goal.  They are organized for the purpose of fulfilling the goal.  The communities that I can think of might have common goals, but the goal is not necessarily the raison d’être.  Often, their purpose is in living a certain lifestyle. If we accept that notion, then Peck’s idea of community won’t serve.  And yet, what he describes is something more than a team – it’s a team that is pursuing its common goals in a certain way.

Social clubs, too, differ from communities.  We might visit our social club on Tuesday night, play some poker and recite some poetry, but then we return home.  The social club might be IN the community, or outside – but in some form or another, it stands apart. In other words, with social clubs, we come together to socialize – just to be together and share some activities that we all like.

Social grooming – and by extension, chatting – has been shown to be an important activity in bonding and creating cohesive social groups.  While often taken for purposeless activity, chit-chat can serve a strong purpose in helping people develop notions of trust and social capital. There seems to be more allowance for this in community, as opposed to team.  In a team, we might allow for some social time, but the group purpose is bigger.  In a community, we might have a bigger purpose, but the socializing can have a larger role.

Back to Online Marketing

What does all this mean to online marketing?

Groups are dynamic, and despite all of our attempts, don’t always behave the way we expect.  A group might form simply because they share a love of something, and then splinter and fragment into teams or subgroups, or even form a community. Communities can disintegrate or implode into horrible rivalries or result in high performing teams.

If marketers understand the groups being entered or called-upon, or if they are creating a group, the overall characteristics of the group, they can become a part of the group in a more meaningful way.  To enter a social community, for instance, and expect team work – or vice versa – could result in unfortunate outcomes.

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24 comments on “Groups, Teams, and Communities in Online Marketing

Ric, this is such a fascinating topic for me because it gets down to the nitty-gritty of how and why we form connections and the labels we select for those connections have important connotations.

I agree that groups don’t always behave the way we might expect them to. They are sometimes volatile in nature and evolve over time. In order for marketers to make their group interactions on the social web more meaningful, I believe it’s essential that we ascertain the purpose of a group’s existence – or the primary reason for it’s being – because not all groups exist or are formed in order to achieve a goal.

If we understand the reason for a group’s being, whether one we’ve created or one we are entering or calling upon, it’s logical to assume we will have more reasonable expectations of the kind of interactions that will take place within that space.

Something I’ve found interesting relating to the development of small groups, is the recent research of Marshall Scott Poole. I think the way he interprets small group interaction is an accurate representation of what I’ve experienced in #usguys (for example) – far more so than Tuckman’s model of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing – because Poole’s research has found that group development is often more complicated than previous models, such as Tuckman’s, indicate.

Poole argues that groups jump back and forth between three tracks: task, topic, and relation. The three tracks can be compared to the intertwined strands of a rope. The task track concerns the process by which the group accomplishes its goals. The topic track concerns the specifics of what the group is discussing at the time. The relation track deals with the interpersonal relationships between the group members. At times, the group may stop its work on the task and work instead on its relationships. When the group reaches consensus on all three tracks at once, it can proceed in a more unified manner. Breakpoints occur when a group switches from one track to another. Shifts in the conversation, adjournment, or postponement are examples of breakpoints.

This to me seems a more fitting description of how interactions take place amongst friends on Social Media networks.


    Hi Jacqui;
    Thanks for the comment – and the pointer to Poole. I do NOT know his writing yet; so am putting it on my reading list NOW! Indeed; what you’ve described here does seem to better fit online group forming. The “relation” track seems to cover all that status and social grooming interaction.

      Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

      Could it be Ric…

      Jacqui: “Poole argues that groups jump back and forth between three tracks: task, topic, and relation.”

      is related to Observe, Orient, Decide Act (Boyd)?

        Ric Dragon

        Hmmm. Might be stretching it a bit!

          Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

          I don’t know Poole, but Jacqui has read my old post on Autopoiesis, perhaps she could tell me if there is a connection.


As I was about to offer up an opinion, I realized I’d rather continue exploring yours — I need more, more more, Ric!

(the reason-being, I’ve experienced online groups in all the above phases and agree with your concluding paragraph)

Tell me there will be a part two.


    Jillian, your comment is an inspiration! Maybe I shouldn’t let this idea dangle. But I’m going to have to sequester myself in my cave for a bit, and soak it all in.



I’m going to continue with my Murray Bowen themed responses. :) I think you are on to something here on how groups incompletely form online. There have difficulties establishing cohesion because it is too easy to opt out, go elsewhere when certain emotionally charged situations occur. Bowen was one of the first to talk about Differentiation. Differentiation affects how individuals act, feel, and think in relationship to “others”, especially in group contexts. People who are less differentiated start to lose functioning and try to manipulate or control the functioning of others. We witness this in polarized opinions on the stream. ;-)

Another concept that Bowen discussed is Emotional Cut-off. Picture a 4 year old who stomps away, the proverbial take my bat and ball and go home… We see people simply disappear from groups on Twitter after unresolved emotional exchanges. I can name names, lots of names…

Well, the crux of the matter is that we, as a people, have difficulties handling large groups or density. The numbers are interesting, about 400 people or so relationships. As the number of people you have to interact with exceeds 400, increasingly dysfunctional behaviors and coping mechanisms come into play.. What is very interesting is that we can group them and then manage the relationships. For example, 400 people at work would be one circle, 400 people at church another circle. Seems like Google Plus has this figured out already.

At the root of all of this IS PRIMAL FORCES. We react at very deep emotional and heart driven levels. If asked I might simply say, I like Ric Dragon. But we’ve formed an “affinity” that intersects deeper emotions. Very successful brands are the ones that tap into these strong emotional bonds. For on-line marketing, this can seem to be a nightmare, a flash mob of interests. How do you effectively deal with the emotions of your customers, team members, affinity groups? Well guess what, I say you need to figure out how to truly be successful.

more later… @Josepf


    Thanks for another great & pithy comment, Josepf. You and Jacqui both have given me some things to add to my reading list. BTW: where’s the number 400 being used? The Dunbar is more like 120-180.

    What I really like about your comment – and that last one about Poole, is the notion that as we look at group dynamics, we get pulled into the world of phsychology on the individual level, too. Rich stuff.

I have to agree with Jillian, Ric. This is scratching the surface. I think you will find Poole’s theories rather interesting and I will also be looking out for the sequel!

Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu


I’m not sure what is fully gained by establishing the taxonomy, or more so applying these theoretical taxonomies. I would much rather look at all of these self social clusters more along an analytical grammar such as Boyd’s OODA. Which is to say, rather than say “Well, this is just a club and not a group” I would want to look at the ways in which the community/group/team creates a horizon of inside and outside, and how it collectively works to replicate/perpetuate itself over time. Such an approach seems much more fine-grained.

To me we have to talk about specific groups, the concrete thing being examined, to see what is lost by any one label structure. I guess that is why I also would shade towards what Jacqui is bringing forward (though not familiar), something that keeps the eye moving across the dynamic structure, especially when we are talking about online communities that have such short memories, and high mutation factors.

Another great post by you!

    Ric Dragon

    What was gained – for me, in this post – was that there seem to be archetypal group structures- and as online marketers, we’ve got to understand them, not just for the sake of saying, “hey, that’s more of a social club than a community” – but to help us see the salient elements more readily. If I don’t know an oak from a maple, I’ll see only the forest.

      Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

      I guess my thought is Ric – and I didn’t mean to minimize what you are saying, and sorry I was a bit tired when posting my first comment – is that I wonder when applying these boundaries actually diverts the eye from much more important kinds of differences. Once we use these kinds of definitions we can be boxed. Because I’m a philosopher (that weakness) when faced with analyzing the nature of radically new social phenomena, I want a radical grammar, something that can really move and adapt to the unexpected.

      I’m not saying you are wrong to seek these homologies between RL communities and online ones, but my temptation is always to dig into the deeper dynamics, beneath each. The pay off for this, of course, would be perhaps completely new ways of building or tracking these phenomena.

      (And, perhaps, that is why our thought paths are complimentary to each other.)

        Ric Dragon

        Oh, totally agree (puts the foils away) – need to dig in and get a grasp of the underlying motivations and behaviors. I’m only guessing – but if there IS an offline behavior- bet it exists online, too – and vice versa.

          Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

          But ric the difference in online are real threshold differences. We are not just brains in vats. The lack of physical presence in linguistic exchange completely alters the thresholds of interaction. And the degrees of speed and relative or vectored anonymity, alter the ways that off-line behavior is mapped onto online interaction. To be sure, offline behavior conditional all that we do online, but I suspect that the real differences in threshold (timing, sense of proximity, immunity of action, the speed of the transmission of group affects) make this all a different kind of animal, a virtual animal. My thought is just that these real differences are qualitative differences.

          Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

          Not to object, just to offer my skew. :)


          Reminds me of a great book (loaned to someone and never returned!) by James Martin, of Martin+Co = who suggested that computing would alter the way we’d be capable of thinking. It would follow that it would change the way we interact in communities, groups and teams, as well.


I love how much context you give in each of your posts. You begin by letting the reader get inside what has influenced you, then after they are on the same page (hopefully) you make your assertion.

If I were to put an analogy to the point I think you made with this post, it would be “groups of people can sometimes be like clouds. People may group together for a time, but sometimes dissipate just as quickly as they were brought together”. (not the full picture, just the one that was in my mind’s eye)

BUT… I believe people want community. They want to be accepted by others, they want to feel a part of something greater than themselves. This desire is what makes us group together to begin with, and it is what great leaders often tap into when trying to rally support.

So, I think, despite a group coming together for their own reasons (and often disparate and individual reasons), some are waiting for a catalytic event to propel a leader to take them towards something greater than themselves.

I think I have now gone off in a bit of a tangent, and only given one of many cases possible, but alas, it is where my mind took me.

Thanks for your post.

    Ric Dragon

    Hi Chris; not a tangent at all – but may pretty central…
    If desire to be part of a community really is a universal driver of behavior, we’d definitely need to be all over it. I’m not sure everyone needs to be part of a community – at least not the way Peck meant community. I do think people need to feel they’re a member of a group. Pepsi has done some work off of that need (Pepsi Generation). BTW, this also leads my own thinking to group biases – how studies (like Henri Tajfel) demonstrated that people will favor members of their own group, even if the group formation is arbitrary.

Sid Sudiacal

Wow! Yet another great post! And also great commentaries on the issue! =)

The concept of community has been one that I have often struggled with. As much as I would love to be a part of a community, there is also another part of me that balks at the thought of being “beholden” to a certain group of people. I have been in communities where I have given so much of myself only to receive nothing in return. Healthy communities, at least in my opinion, are communities where the person retains their individuality (they do not lose themselves in the group aka groupthink) and yet the community bolsters and improves that person’s well-being. Instead of losing their self in a group, the group serves to give that person a better sense of self than if they tried to do it in an isolated manner. I think the challenge lies in each member of a community to define a purpose that is bigger than themselves. I am often drawn to organizations that not only tried to serve their own goals, but tried to transcend them. That whatever it is they were doing, it went beyond it. For example, (i’m drawing this illustration from the Coke ads) Coke is not merely a beverage to quench your thirst (i love Sprite!!! but I digress), by opening that can of Coke, you’re also opening happiness. While Coke serves the purpose of ameliorating your thirst levels, its main purpose is to make you happy (which, if you really think about it, is rather transcendent). The challenge with each community is this: how do you remain the collective nature without sacrificing the individual nature of the group?

Sid Sudiacal

how do you retain the collective nature*

Karen Sharp

This discussion is so important, and strongly touches on some of my deepest commitments. I have much to say, but most of it is still quite inchoate.

The contrast between online and offline community I suspect is a bit of a red herring. There are essential components of community that seem to be less than fully functional in online groupings, yes. However I think it’s important not to contrast that to an imagined sense of experiential fullness in physically-proximal community. Our contemporary society has done much to break down the health and resilience of traditional RL communities too. There’s much work that has been done on this problem, and much that I have to say about it, but not here. However the same vectors of community-breakdown apply online as well. We have very few exemplars of strong and healthy community to take as behavioral models in either our silicon or our carbon worlds.

Given how unwell so many of our contemporary community structures are, I am (sympathetically) somewhat suspicious of much of our theorizing about community, my own included. I fear we are stumbling about blind, half-developing a science of rainbows, and half-describing an elephant. By no means do I think we should refrain from this work. I think it’s essential, one of the essential problems facing our time. But talking about it is tricky.

And the concerns raised in this comment thread are also crucial and important, and also tricky to talk about. Classic and important tensions between the collective and the individual. Or between insiders and outsiders. The pull towards community. The resistance to the pull. Questions about what is a community for anyway, and how do communities serve to uphold the practical well-being of their members, and how can businesses participate in that practical well-being, in good faith. These are crucial questions, that I don’t think have easy answers. (The absence of easy answers is an important part of community itself — communities thrive on resiliently maintained tensions. The imagined idyll of peaceful harmony is not in fact how healthy community functions.)

I think the most important way to live and work into the answers, though, is to look at what we are already doing. Take a self-ethnographic kind of approach. I think the online community of #usguys that I am only just getting to know is a perfectly viable way to look at these questions. Hopefully over time we develop stronger ways to live with the questions, and live and work our way into the answers. Because the more direct and authentic experience we have of communities and the genuine tensions within them, the better we can understand and address the systemic community illness of our time, and the healthier our practical-concern and economic participation in community can be.


    Karen, I agree – the “self-ethnographic” approach is laudable. There’s also something really inviting about being ethnographic in approaching a group where the members already refer to themselves as a tribe. Of course, even Napoleon Chagnon and Margaret Mead received criticism for there interferences with their subjects.

    In regards to the red herring – it would be interesting to discover different forms of communities emerging through online – might be worthwhile to keep an eye on that. Also, if there are differences, those differences can tell us a lot about the very nature of groups and communities. Perhaps.