In the world of marketing and communications today, conversations about building community typically devolve into trading tips and tricks about getting the most followers on Twitter or how to build a Facebook tab that will increase your “likes.”

There is a lot to mine in both topics, but I tend to lose patience with such discussions because most companies are skipping the most important strategic decision required to unite any group: properly defining the mission its members share.

The Turf War

The best lesson I learned about how a mission can unite a community wasn’t from work but from home. When we moved to our current house, my wife and I unwittingly walked into a turf war. Our neighbors were in a battle with the city about replacing the mix of grass and dirt on the playfield across the street with artificial grass. The new “field-turf” would provide better year-round access, but our neighbors worried about odors from the plastic and rubber, increased on-street parking, traffic and even hotter temperatures in the summer.

The fight was on, and we were quickly recruited via a series of rallying potlucks and backyard barbecues to plot the next move. Within weeks we’d met everyone in the neighborhood, a lightning fast introduction compared to that of the last place we lived.
Of course, my wife and I wouldn’t admit it, but we were secretly ambivalent about field-turf. But that didn’t matter. Our neighbors had a cause, which spurred them to actively find supporters, and we welcomed the invitation to join. Without realizing it, we’d been recruited for a mission, and the personal bonds it created accelerated the development of a community.

The Gravity of Motion

Adopting a mission for something greater is something that successful community builders have known the importance of for years. Mock TV anchor Stephen Colbert has built a “Colbert Nation” through hilarious antics to subvert politics and the media itself. Steve Jobs rallied Apple fanboys for more than a decade with a religious disdain for the gray boxes of Microsoft. Whole Foods aims for a more sustainable lifestyle and Starbucks works for fair-trade.

The best missions are always external. Telling others you aim to create the greatest tower in the city is self-serving; it may be good for employees but won’t win many supporters outside office walls. Transforming that same goal into an act that benefits others creates a mission that will attract supporters and build your community.

Missions Define Communities

A mission is a task that you assign to yourself and others. Determine the task, and it will quickly become apparent who you need for it to be accomplished. For my recent client Big Fish Games, a casual online game studio and distributor, their clarity toward their mission led to an interesting business model and community.

They believe everyone should have the opportunity to have fun and set a mission to make games that make people feel good. Their mission helped them realize who they needed to reach and align the resources and community to support their aims. Big Fish recognized that not everyone was having fun when it came to games. The gaming industry was leaving out a huge audience of women aged 45–65, while most studios fought for the wallets of a slightly higher-margin male aged 18-35. The company stayed focused on what games it wanted to create and hired the right employees to fulfill that goal. The designers there didn’t intend to create the next massive shooter quest or even have that desire.

Big Fish Games then saw a community sprout up on its own: A small group of women who’d met via the games called themselves “The Big Fish Babes” and made a trek to the company’s headquarters for their first meeting, espousing the appeal of the games they played. Their journey even took them as far as the Today Show to talk about how games for women their age made them feel better—and better connected.

Building a community does take hard work. It requires sharing your mission, encouraging others to adopt and spread it. Whether it’s a call for fun or a fight over turf, motion toward a greater goal has a gravity that attracts people. Setting forward on your mission will do the same.