One of the most powerful experiences that a group can facilitate is a sense of belonging. As human beings, we’re hardwired to seek out connections with colleagues, professional acquaintances, and interest-based groups.
“We humans have an innate need to belong — to one another, to our friends and families, and to our culture and country,” writes Karyn Twaronite, Global Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer at EY for Harvard Business Review.
“The same is true when we’re at work. When people feel like they belong at work, they are more productive, motivated, engaged and 3.5 times more likely to contribute to their fullest potential.”
Another report found that high belonging corresponded to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days.
It’s clear, from a behavioral sciences perspective, that online communities bring value to our lives. And the same goes for brand community-building, for organizations of all types. Whether you run a company or professional association, one of the most powerful investments that you can make is in a platform that brings people together.
Especially with the rise of people connecting virtually in 2020, there’s a need for organizations to give careful thought to the way that they engage members, customers, strategic partners, and other individuals. The question that most community builders navigate is how to translate real-world experiences into a digital environment.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through 7 types of branded online communities — and how each one brings people together in a unique and meaningful way. Let’s start with an overview before reviewing different kinds of community in-depth.
Categories of Online Community
One of the challenges of organizing a digital community is the need to connect people across space and time zones. Human beings evolved to engage with each other in the physical world — for many of us, the process of building empathetic bonds across a screen may feel unusual or uncomfortable.
Peter Groenewegen and Christine Moser at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam have described online communities as “a challenging and still-evolving field for social network research.”
However, this year has made many organizations realize that building online communities is essential to long-lasting customer relationships.
In a recent study of network structures, the two organizational science professors identified the following attributes as essential to supporting our humanity as people:
- Alignment around shared interests
- Willingness of participants to connect
- Facilitation of knowledge sharing
- Enrichment of communication through social interaction
- Connection to a common set of values
- Social glue through information sharing and advice-giving
For organizations, a branded community is a professional network that connects people around a centralized, shared desire for collaboration and growth.
Translating Theoretical Ideas into Action
We’ve found that online communities take several forms and can, in general, be grouped into three categories. If you’ve already got a branded online community, chances are it takes one of these forms:
- Invite-only private communities that are gated by a login
- Public communities that are open to the public and searchable
- Hybrid communities that have some public elements but require a login for full use
Every community is unique, taking different shapes and forms based on their member base, goals, brand affiliation, and leadership. There’s always a bit of art involved, especially with regards to crafting an experience that your members find inviting, engaging, productive, and enjoyable.
To plan your branded online community, it’s important to consider the needs of everyone you’re bringing together into your virtual space. The right first step is to evaluate the goals and objectives of your members. It may make sense to field a survey, conduct interviews, or read discussions on public social networks like LinkedIn.
To help you get started with establishing your professional community, we’ve organized a list of 7 types of online communities, along with some basic definitions and examples.
7 Types of Online Communities
If you already have a branded community or you’d like to start building one for your organization, keep in mind that you can combine any of these types of online communities in one platform. It’s common to see a community that combines technical support with an online community of practice, for example.
The goal of a community organizer is to bring people together in a meaningful, intentional, and engaging way. Simply organizing a group will not provide the level of support needed to initiate and sustain traction. A simple way to increase the likelihood of success is to study best practices from others. Let’s get started.
1. Online Communities of Practice
You can think of an online community of practice as a special interest group. These communities consist of like-minded individuals who are solving common problems in their careers. Often, members of these groups have niche areas of focus and rely on communities of practice to find and connect with one another.
These groups will typically host training sessions, informational webinars, panels, and even online conferences. The goal of these sessions is to make it easier and more enjoyable for people to continue learning and evolving in their focus or passion area.
For inspiration, take a look at the following examples:
- The Pragmatic Alumni Community (PAC) connects product professionals to exchange tools, examples, and tactics. The community exists to answer the question, “How did you do that?” This information-sharing provides the structure needed for its members to level up in their careers.
- Gain Grow Retain (GGR) is a community that helps customer success leaders and managers align their professional ambitions with company growth objectives. Members of this community can ask tactical questions, participate in educational webinars, and help their peers navigate challenges in their business. This community of practice helps members level up their skills in a way that increases the value of customer success teams within organizations.
- The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) has built a community of practice that brings together executives from membership-based organizations. The group creates a space for participants to engage in in-depth discussions and receive feedback from professional peers. Topics influence the strategic direction and health of members’ organizations. Examples include member management, volunteer management, meeting planning, marketing, retention, and COVID-19.
Hear more about ASAE’s online community, Collaborate.
2. User group communities
These communities connect groups such as customers, strategic partners, or value-added resellers to share best practices around a product — particularly software. The community members are usually product super users or the primary product user, so it makes sense for community organizers to provide an additional layer of hands-on interaction in the community, beyond training, conferences, or customer support.
It’s worth noting that user group communities aren’t always directly affiliated with a company. Passionate users might form their own space for other users to connect, independently of the company, if the company doesn’t offer a user or customer community already.
You’ll often find location-based user groups (for example, Marketo users in Atlanta might form a user group so they can get together and share best practices). User groups work well in an online community space, especially when you use an online community platform that helps you easily segment your users into different groups.
User groups provide valuable networking opportunities by connecting people from different organizations. Members come together to learn more skills, address support issues, and problem solve or troubleshoot.
To see an example of an online user group — and the dynamics that take place — pop over to the Higher Logic Users Group. Customers can browse a range of discussion topics, including technical questions, best practices, and in-depth strategic discussions. The community offers a variety of content for customers to consume, like webinars, discussions, Q&A, and blog posts.
3. Learning and Networking Communities
These communities are all about bringing people together to study a specific topic and to bring together professionals in a particular field. Members could be students in an educational program or attendees from an event or conference. These groups may also be industry associations or professionals in similar fields within/across geographies.
One example of a learning and networking group is the CFP Board. This organization strives to grant financial planning certifications and launched its community in 2016. Members join this group to grow in their professions and level-up in their livelihoods.
Members of the community typically join to do the following:
- Network with other students through a discussion forum. Members can get advice, ask questions, seek out support, or offer value by sharing their thoughts.
- Access a library of resources, tools, and information. These resources provide value in helping members grow in their careers.
- Study for exams and professional situations. Webinars and mentorship opportunities are available for aspiring professionals who are interested in moving ahead in their professions as certified financial planners.
By offering this tangible value, the CFP community grew 12% in unique contributions between 2018 and 2020.
4. Advisory Boards or Customer Councils
Your customers are your company’s most important stakeholders. For this reason, it’s important for businesses to maintain a direct line of communication to their needs and insights.
These perspectives are especially important to an organization’s leadership levels at the C-suite. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, companies need to prioritize honest and authentic feedback from diverse sources.
One way to connect the dots between your customer base and executive suite is to build a customer advisory board or council – and then build a community where they can connect with each other and with you. You can think of this community as a hand-picked group of people who care about your business.
You can reach out to this group when you have questions about your product direction, marketing messaging, or customer service strategy. This group will also be a valuable resource for high-level guidance on the direction that you can take your company. The best part of giving your customer advisory board an online community is that you can help those great conversations happen all year, instead of at one or two in-person meetings.
For example, check out the Discovery Education Network (DEN). This branded online community connects educators to participate in engaging discussions, share best practices, and access instructional resources.
Discovery Education creates standards-based digital content for K-12 students that includes textbook and multimedia content. Professional development opportunities are also available for 4.5M educators. Discovery Education content reaches learners around the world in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Within the context of this business model, a customer advisory council is invaluable. The Discovery Education team has access to a consistent sounding board for testing product development concepts.
They have also found that by hosting a broader community of practice for educators using their product, they can easily identify their power users who will be of most help on their council.
5. Task-focused Communities
The goal of this type of community is to align people towards a tactical objective. Members of these groups typically work together in a collaborative and action-oriented way. Example communities include:
- Volunteer associations
One example to check out is ASM International, the world’s largest membership association for materials professionals. This association has organized many different communities based on tasks that members need to accomplish. The group also focuses on driving tactical actions including encouraging lurkers to post, connecting members during virtual events, and introducing emerging professionals with more experienced mentors. The goal is to encourage participation that is collaborative, objective-oriented, and meaningful.
6. Support Communities
With this type of community, the goal is to create a peer-to-peer network to offer technical and strategic support.
These groups are particularly helpful in technical settings, in which software developers and other builders need to navigate complex creative challenges. In peer-to-peer communities, customers might work together on technical or strategic questions before they contact your customer support team.
For inspiration, take a look at the Jama Software User Community.
Jama Software is a solution for requirements, risk, and test management. Technical professionals can use the software to define, align, and develop complex products, systems, and software.
These types of workflows benefit from imaginative, collaborative thinking. In the Jama Software User Community, members exchange information, stay up to date on product releases, learn about software integrations, and stay up to date on bugs. Members can also participate in continued education and training.
Oh, and remember what we said about using your online community to host multiple types of communities? Jama Software is a great example of a community doing this. They support their customers in the community, but they also connect users for learning, networking, events, and more.
7. Online Event Communities
Conferences (whether you’re hosting a virtual, in-person, or hybrid event) are valuable opportunities for people to connect. Before these events, it’s valuable to bring attendees together, so that they have a head start on getting to know each other before the event. During the event, attendees will appreciate having access to a setting where they can continue to discover and converse with their peers. After these events, you can keep the conversational momentum going and have a place to store all your resources.
Look at how Strategic HR has used their online event community this year to power networking and connection.
Strategic HR works with human resources teams, and you can imagine how HR teams have had to change plans quickly and adapt throughout the pandemic. Here’s how Chief Operating Officer Katie White described their virtual event:
“With coronavirus, HR teams are in the hotseat. Our audience is charged with creating policies and taking care of employees and safety in the workplace. When it became clear that we would have to shift to a virtual event, we wanted to make sure we could create a way for our attendees to network and connect – something they highly value from our in-person events. That’s exactly what our event community did.”
A virtual event community can help facilitate deeper conversations and more meaningful professional relationships.
Online Communities Create Real Business Value
In addition to bringing people together into a shared space, your online community will help your organization grow. Communities are multifaceted enough to meet multiple goals and use cases. These examples show that it’s possible to concurrently drive multiple outcomes for a business.
Here are some ways that an online community can map back to revenue:
- Prospect conversion or lead generation
- New user enablement and education
- Knowledge sharing
- Ideation and crowdsourcing
- Creating new advocates
- Leveraging existing advocates
For more proof, check out these online community stats around return on investment and revenue. The key is to deliver value, along with meaningful and memorable experiences. People are hard-wired to seek connection. Your organization will benefit from embracing these human impacts.
Jenny is a Community Strategist at Higher Logic. She has a strong background in community management, working with customers to implement strategies that would ensure their community produced the most engaged users possible. Prior to Higher Logic, Jenny was ingrained in the nonprofit sector as a grant writer, marketing specialist and—you guessed it—a community manager.
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