Skip to content
Community members talking in person

The Importance of Language for Your Community

Trevor Owens’ book Designing Online Communities shows the value of language for an online community, including developing a language for users that reinforces community objectives.

I recently read Trevor Owens’ book, Designing Online Communities, which looks at the design process for web communities from a cross-disciplinary perspective. He discusses how psychology, sociology, history, linguistics and other fields of study can influence and inform our thinking about online communities.

Owens showcased the value of taking time to think about and develop a language for an online community. After reading his case, I’ve put together three questions on language that you can consider to improve your community’s language.

Let’s discuss the importance of language for your community, highlight where we’ve seen language used effectively, and dive into what we can do better as online communities.

Why is language important?

1. Developing a shared language builds community. Any sociologist could tell you shared language often forms the basis of a community. When everyone uses the same vocabulary, the community becomes more close-knit and there is a greater sense of camaraderie. You can shape community behavior with positive language.

2. Understanding the language of your community makes users feel like they’re on the inside. Everyone likes to feel important or in the know. Once again, knowledge of a community language helps people feel like they are an integral part of the group, fostering a stronger sense of member or customer loyalty.

3. The words that we use to refer to people change how we treat those people. Using the right words will help to reinforce the community objective, while the wrong words will obscure the purpose of the community. More on that in the next section…

Curious to learn more about communities? Check out The State of Community Management Report for industry trends, below. 

Download the Community Roundtable's State of Community Management Report

Where have we seen language used effectively?

1. Disney refers to all of their staff as cast members and their engineers as “Imagineers.” Developing these terms influences both how tourists view the staff at Disney parks and impacts how the staff perceive their own jobs. Regardless of whether they are doing custodial work, running rides, or dressed as a princess and taking pictures with kids, each staff member strives to play his or her part within the Disney Community.

2. The staff members at Apple stores are called geniuses. The tech support station inside? The “Genius Bar.” Would you rather receive help from Joe the tech support guy, or Joe the genius? Apple has branded their workers to the point that now there is a level of prestige associated with geniuses. It’s hard to say whether Apple geniuses know more than the average tech support person, but referring to Apple store workers as geniuses has changed the way customers think about them.

3. Starbucks has successfully developed a language for their menu. There’s a certain amount of pride that goes along with knowing just how to order a complicated drink at Starbucks. Someone who speaks Starbucks’ language is more invested in the brand and is more likely to enjoy the feeling of being an insider, rather than someone who hasn’t taken the time to learn how to order that unique coffee drink.

What can we do as online communities?

1. We should consider what we call the people who access our community. Do we refer to them as guests, users, members, citizens, etc.? Owens points out if people are referred to as guests, they are “invited into your space to be made comfortable and appreciated.” The term you choose to use will influence the strategies that are developed for your communities. We love how our Huggers have come together and embraced the title on the Higher Logic Users Group!

2. Consider how we refer to ourselves—the people running the site. Are we managers, owners, facilitators or something else? “The wording here is important. Owners are not stewards, or leaders of the community. Owners are not community elders,” Owens says, and continues, “owners own the community.” If someone were told that he was a leader versus an owner, their behavior and approaches to problems would likely be markedly different.

3. Think about the words used to describe activity. Do people on your community “post”? Do they “share”? Tweeting on twitter, liking on Facebook and pinning on Pinterest have all become iconic actions. How can your community brand the actions that your users take?

4. Think about how you refer to your community. Does your community function as a bulletin board where people can post their questions and announcements? Does it act as a town square where people can mingle and hear the latest gossip? Or is it a home in which the aim is to make guests feel welcome and comfortable? Using the right language – beyond “online forum” or “collaboration platform” – when referring to your community will help the community function in the intended way.

Leverage the Power of Language in Your Online Community

Online communities redefine how your customers communicate, collaborate, and stay in touch with your organization. Keeping these themes in mind, I hope you feel better equipped to leverage language as a positive behavioral force in your online community. If you think of your people as champions, they shouldn’t be the last to know – they should hear it often and feel it. How you communicate with them matters.

Don’t forget to check out Designing Online Communities, the book that inspired this post.

Looking for online community trends? Download the State of Community Management Report.

Download the Community Roundtable's State of Community Management Report

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in July 2015 by Ben Rossell, who was our summer graphic design intern and a Senior at George Mason University (GMU) at the time. It has since been refreshed to make sure we’re bringing you the latest and greatest.

Ben Rossell

Ben is a senior graphic designer at 360 Live Media.