As we frequently discuss on The Work Talk Show, inspiring ideas often happen when we aren’t at work. Those familiar with my writing know that I often see marketing analogies in stories and works of literature like Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The Six Honest Serving Men. Recently, while reading the fable Stone Soup to my kids, the background cycles of my brain were again struck by a metaphor that we can all use as we work to build communities around our brands online.

First, a primer for those of you who may not be familiar with the story of Stone Soup. The tale usually unfolds as three traveling strangers, often soldiers, who stop at a village in search of food with nothing more than an old cooking pot to their names. When none of the villagers will share with them, they opt to fill up their cauldron with water, boil it over a fire, and toss in a stone they find along the way. As the villagers pass by asking what the three are up to, they reply that they are making “stone soup.” With their curiosity sparked, the locals quickly pony up and offer additional garnishes and seasonings, creating an actual soup that is enjoyed by all in the end.

Like all fables, Stone Soup has a moral. While often used as an instrument for teaching cooperation and contribution, especially in times of scarcity, the recipe for stone soup is also relevant as we work to create community engagement online via social media.

You Provide the Cauldron

Too often we focus on the dynamic incorrectly. We mistakenly think that our social media marketing efforts will be defined by our own brand messaging and promotions. In actuality we have it backwards. By its very nature, social media is a multi-directional communications channel, meaning that what goes on in the space is defined by all contributors rather than just one. Remember, a conversation with only one participant goes nowhere fast.

That’s not to say that as brands we show up on social networks like Facebook and Twitter empty handed. As you recall, our three soldiers arrived at the village with one important item – a cauldron. We create the vessel for engagement by building a strong and open presence on our social networks. And, like the soldiers, we need to build a roaring fire for people to gather around. As marketers this means not only engaging but also dedicating significant time and appropriate tools to listening.

With all of this in place, the stage is set.

The Stone Is the Thing

One way to interpret the story is that our soldiers use the stone to trick the villagers. The analogy could jump the tracks here a bit, as it could seemingly advocate for tricking your community members. That’s why I choose to think of the stone as more of a conversation starter. While the stone could seem blissfully simple and irrelevant to any larger teaching moment in business, it does offer a couple key takeaways.

First, the stone is the opening offering, which should always come from the host of any community gathering. In your case this may be a useful link, an engaging photo, or an impactful statistic. Whatever you want to share that has value to your community. That last point is key and is the other critical trait that the stone possesses. Though somewhat misleading, the stone is what creates interest and curiosity among the villagers. This is no small feat and one that many marketers miss.

What can you offer or ask —questions make great “stones” — your community?

One Ingredient at a Time

What happens next in the story (and online if you’re lucky) is that people start adding ingredients. Just as it takes many seasonings and garnishes to get the flavor right, it takes the contributions of many to create a community with platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. As we are often reminded, social media is a “marathon not a sprint.”

Just like making stone soup, in social media you need to give gifts to your community first before you can get them to share with you. With a vessel to contain the community and a few stones to start your conversations, you’ll be cooking in no time.

How are you setting your social media table?

Photo via Flickr user † David Gunter