Community is both an aspirational goal and a pragmatic design element for building businesses and brands.

I came on this belief early.

I remember walking into the noisy and overheated BBS room at Atari Inc., my first marketing job some 25 years ago and seeing the frenetic flashing lights on the servers that housed the 2M+ members of the Atari User Group.

I was instantly struck…and inspired…that this is what marketing was all about.

Many user groups, developer organizations, open source communities, vertical market places and niche communities of interest later, I believe this more than ever.

The power of today’s social web lies not in counting likes or taking twisted paths to measure reputation, but in the evolution of social behaviors that these new platforms give expression to and the possibilities of creating infinite variations on the theme of community and commerce.

Everything certainly has changed.

Today, we don’t need web traffic as much as engagement. Nor contextual search as much as connections and community. Nor certainly new measurement systems or influence scales.

We simply need to connect with customers and build common value and brand trust. Not simple to do certainly but this is the new (and true) business mantra for today’s world.

Marketing, at its best is the architect of this and bridges company value with customer need. It is all about channeling people and communities, no longer simply clicks and traffic.

These are not just easy phrases but business realities.

I look to community as a broad avenue into the intersection of consumer behavior and business intent. It’s a directed goal to create early momentum or overcome later business inertia. It’s always served me well. It’s more powerful and utilitarian today than every before.

Community though is an idea of engagement that finds itself in many guises.

Whether you are figuring out how to attract the first group of early users for a marketplace. Or creating a platform for people to share ideas around fashion or wine or travel. Or building a fan base for your restaurant or non-profit organization. Or designing a flash communities built around a transaction or check in.

Starting with community as the social (and business) dynamic is a always a natural place to begin. It’s a chess game of people and value and product with group behavior as the game board.

Community as an ideal is rarely obtainable. It’s pure social magic at its best. As a sieve for finding customer connections, it rarely fails.

This is not new news of course.

The idea of the Interest Graph is a proxy for communities of interest. This grew out of the discontent about the friendship graph being too nebulous, too friend based and too noisy to be useful. Friendship is simply a bad filter. One-to-many is a poor design compared to the natural many-to-many that community can offer.

Social web thinkers have been evangelizing context and curation as the pathway to make all of this powerful social data actionable. Myself included. And certainly ‘Context not content is king” and “Context is a better filter than friendship to filter the social web’ are true to a point.

But neither are the end game.

You can keep connecting and reconnecting, sharing and pushing everything forward, but at the end, it’s like two lines streaming towards the horizon but never connecting.

Context is a step, community is where the lines intersect.

There are as many definitions as there are bloggers as what the next step for the social web and commerce and marketing will be.

Some call this smart commerce. Many speak to the connection between data and action. Most all see it as a algorhythmic parsing of the world of social inputs. A leap beyond explicit requests to implicit suggestions in an off/online continuum. A mash up of real-time, geo-aware, mobile and cloud-fed breadcrumbs for every part of our lives.

These are all correct but simply directional. To me, they are outlining a community-centered era with true social commerce and marketplaces to follow.

This is a both a pragmatic reaction to both the possibilities and the frustrations of the social graph and just a basic behavioral drive towards people aggregating naturally around shared passions and interests.

At the intersection of web and social evolution, we’ve moved from the commerce of clicks to social nets of friends to what will become a landscape of communities of interest as dynamic filters and aggregators. Commerce will be the spinoff, the exhaust of community not the reason for it.

The drive for specific connections and the dynamic power of the underlying connectors of the web is creating a network of vertical interests. A new slant on the power of the niche.

Not just a sports community but specifically kayaking or rock climbing. Not travel but adventure or wine or philanthropic travel. Not deserts but raw deserts. Not restaurant referral platforms but a useable local reality in all locales.

When you add global and mobile and real-time to this equation, there is almost no niche community that can’t have membership group that is too small to still be dynamic and viable. You can build a quorum base for a community across a global population for almost any area of interest.

This web of connected communities is centered around the individual. The customer. It’s a graph of ‘me’ connecting to a variety of ‘us’ communities. Rather than a big bland platform, we will be a member of many communities all connecting back to me and spreading out in a molecular social pattern. Like people and societies in our daily lives.

This ecosystem of communities is somewhat of an analog to what Fred Wilson refers to as ‘communities of engaged users’. An investment thesis that is the corollary to my market and brand building musings.

You can extrapolate this further and break down all the old channel constructs around business-to-business and business-to-consumer models. It’s all about Cs, about customers and now community. People migrating and connecting into groups around interests.

This also ameliorates one of the large disconnects for brands in a social world. They can stop struggling to be a person to their customers and find (sponsor and lead) communities of interest around connected topics. Yoga info exchanges and courses for yoga apparel makers. Developer communities for open source platform vendors. Sports medicine for athletic product manufactures.

This is an oversimplification of course.

But an opening direction. A first volley of how community, so powered and powerful on the social web is a metaphor and behavioral roadmap for business design. It’s a design thesis, not a prescription or a list of to dos.

From my first experience at Atari with the BBS community, through tectonic technological change, the core value and power of community holds…in fact, has increased.

Take people online or off, let them gravitate freely towards their interests, build a dynamic gathering place and provide leadership. Conversation and common ground and community and commerce may just happen.