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What is an Online Community? The Basics & Benefits

Communities are all around us, whether they’re made up of family, friends, or a group of people who share our interests. Online communities take similar principles from in-person communities and make them virtual.

In an increasingly digital era, and with many professionals working remotely across the globe, online communities are becoming an essential component of keeping people connected – especially for organizations looking to bring together their members or customers.

If you’re new to online communities or want a refresher, this post will help you understand

What is an Online Community?

You’re probably already part of an online community, whether it’s a NextDoor community for your neighborhood, or a Facebook or LinkedIn group that brings you together with others who have a common interest. You might even think of a sub-Reddit on specific topic as a community.

Sometimes the concepts behind what an online community is can feel abstract. So think of it this way: at its root, an online community or virtual community is a group of people with a shared interest or purpose who use the internet to communicate with each other. Online communities and online community platforms typically have their own set of guidelines and needs, like online community engagement, moderation, and management.

The type of online community we’re going to focus on in this post is a big one: Branded online communities, or communities run by organizations.

What is a Branded Online Community?

A branded online community is a professional network that brings people together around a shared, organization-based experience to facilitate expansive online collaboration and growth. This type of community is one your organization uses to connect your members, customers, employees, partners – any audience you’re trying to connect.

Branded online communities play a huge part in your customer or member experience. They break down the traditional one-way exchange of information & open up communication to deliver increased value. There are several different types of branded online communities – with one of the main differences between them being whether they’re private (gated by a login or invite only), public and searchable, or hybrid with some public elements but requiring a login for full use.

How do Online Community Platforms Differ from Facebook or LinkedIn Groups?

It’s not uncommon to see the term “online community” applied to various similar, but distinguishable technology solutions, including forums, knowledge bases, social media groups, and even listservs.

One of the greatest areas of confusion for people who are new to the online community software industry is the differences between large public social media networks, like Facebook or LinkedIn groups, and branded online communities. While an average user might casually “spend time” on a public or personal social network, members of private online communities are often intent on investing time with a purposeful mindset, seeking to engage with a specific organization’s content for personal growth or professional growth.

Social media groups and online community platforms may have similar goals – like connecting people online – but there are vast differences in their functionality and features when it comes to strategizing and targeting your audience. Branded and private online communities, for example, often provide a higher degree of privacy, making members feel more comfortable asking specialized questions.

We recommend using a proprietary community platform for several reasons:

  • More control: If you create your community on social media or open source solution, you’re subject to their changes, with no say, effectively building your house on rented land.
  • More security: Community vendors place privacy as top priority – it’s their job. With a Facebook or LinkedIn Group, you have a limited ability to protect your members’ privacy and your own information.
  • More data: On a social media platform, the Social Media company gains the invaluable data your community generates about your members and customers – you do not. If you create your own online community, you’ll have access to all that data, which helps you understand your users and create a personalized experience for your members or customers.
  • More community management tools: With a community platform like Higher Logic Thrive or Higher Logic Vanilla, engagement tools are built in, specifically designed to help you create an engaging experience.

Branded Online Communities in Practice

When community members log into your community (which you should make easily accessible from your website), they can participate in a variety of ways, like:

  • Asking another member how they addressed a shared challenge
  • Reading top discussion posts from the week
  • Suggesting an improvement to a product or service you offer
  • Signing up to become a volunteer or speaker at one of your events

An online community is not just another piece of software that your organization buys — an online community creates a destination for real people to engage with their peers and your organization. Your community can serve as the virtual town hall for your organization, or provide recognition, support, and connection when your customers or members need it the most.

“Community engagement supports every member’s success by giving them access to the knowledge and value of the entire community. By supporting them in their work, it inspires their loyalty. It exposes people to new ideas, prompts product and service use, and rapidly surfaces shifting needs.” – The 2020 State of Community Management Report

4 Characteristics of Great Online Communities

  • Engagement & Support

    community supporting each other

    1. Great Online Communities are Built for Engagement & Communal Support

    Not all online communities will look and feel the same – but a good online community should be tailored to fit the needs of its unique members and organization. To bring everyone to your online destination, you need to think broadly about the audience you want to involve. Ask yourself: what is your online community for? how do you want your members or customers to benefit from the community? And how can you make the space inclusive?

    These answers will influence your tactics and strategies to achieve high engagement. If your community is for customers who use a specific tool or product, your purpose would be to provide educational content that helps customers make the most of that product, and to foster networking between your customers so they could work together to address shared challenges and opportunities. If the community you build online is for a local cycling group, the purpose might be to connect, plan biking events, and collect input to advocate for bike safety regulations. No matter your community goals, making sure the user experience is easy, secure, and intuitive helps ensure engagement.

  • Multidimensional

    diverse group of people collaborating through community

    2. Great Online Communities are Vibrant & Multi-Dimensional

    A great online community is multi-dimensional, diverse, and vibrant. It thrives because of the people who are part of it. Gathering your customers, members, partners, or other intended audience together helps drive collaboration in your industry and growth for your organization.

    By breaking down the traditional one-way exchange of information and opening up your communication, your community also creates opportunities for user-generated content (e.g. peer-to-peer advice, brainstorming, discussions, Q&A, etc.) that delivers more value than you can create on your own. And for many organizations, the customers or members who actively contribute to the online community and engage with their peers also become the people who remain the most loyal.

    With your online community, you can tap into people’s unique perspectives, invite them to share their expertise and knowledge, and inspire engagement and connections across your industry. This enhances your organization’s ability to communicate, grow, and remain relevant.

  • Shared Purpose

    two women working together with shared purpose

    3. Great Online Communities Grow from Shared Purpose

    What’s one of the key things that makes a community a community? Shared purpose, or people coming together to achieve a goal or solve a problem. There are communities of golf players, who want to share tips and ask which clubs to buy; Sephora consumers who want the latest beauty tips; and marketers looking for inspiration for new campaigns.

    Your organization may have specific goals that you want to use your community to achieve, like ticket deflection, member retention, or increased revenue, but it’s important to always remember that underlying purpose for your community. We create communities for people – people who want to connect and learn about something together.

  • Moderation

    woman moderating an online community

    4. Great Online Communities are Thoughtfully Moderated

    Making sure your online platforms feel safe and enjoyable for all your participants is essential for the long-term health of your community.

    That’s why community moderation is so important – and why it helps to have  dedicated community management. A large part of becoming a good online community moderator is knowing how balance controlling conversations to maintain order, contributing to keep conversations fresh, and giving members, employees, or customers enough freedom to feel like they can express themselves. You don’t want mayhem, but you don’t want to discourage discussions before they get going.

    Members should genuinely feel like the online community is a place where they can express their knowledge and opinions without being stifled, but having guidelines helps protect your organization and community members.

8 Benefits of Branded Online Communities

Online communities have a lot of benefits for your organization – they increase satisfaction and revenue, and help grow entire organizations, including growing member or customer loyalty. And so many people – including the next generation of customers and association members – have come to expect a modern, engaging experience online. With an online community, you meet this expectation because it helps you:

  • Create real connections
  • Stand out from the competition with a better experience
  • Generate leads and acquire new members
  • Improve your products and programs by gathering and addressing feedback
  • Decrease support costs by crowdsourcing support
  • Increase revenue through in-community advertising and more
  • Drive referrals by giving your advocates a voice in the community
  • Grow your organization

Let’s dive into each of these benefits and why they’re important for your organization.

1. Online communities create real connections

Communities create connections between members and a link between customers and real people at your organization. Users with questions can tag fellow members in a discussion or post a question and get a response from someone in the community. Most importantly, they can feel connected to something bigger than themselves.

Helping your customers or members effectively function, create, and innovate with each other online, creates ripple effects throughout their experience. Giving your community members a community where their voice is heard, makes them more invested in your organization. The sense of belonging your online community builds translates to higher engagement and loyalty.

“We heard a lot that teachers felt alone, like they were on an island, and they couldn’t connect with anyone else. We started an online community because we wanted a place for our members to interact with each other.” — Educational Theatre Association

2. Online communities help you stand out from the competition

Online communities have many internal functions for your organization, from content creation to marketing intelligence. But for the users, they often play an enormous part in their experience and overall satisfaction. You and your competitors may look similar on paper, but an online community can be a great differentiator.

Research from the Temkin Group in 2018 found that companies that earn $1 billion annually can expect to gain, on average, an additional $775 million over 3 years of investing in customer experience (with SaaS companies standing to earn the most, at $1 billion). And that impact has only grown with the rise of remote work and with Gen Z – a generation of digital natives – joining the workforce. People are looking for more options to connect and find resources online.

An online member community or customer community gives you a vehicle to stand out from the competition, answering questions and meeting your users’ needs, either with real-time peer-to-peer advice or by developing products and programs that align with what you see customers or members talking about in your community.

3. Online communities generate leads and acquire new members

If you’re looking to generate more leads or acquire more members, a community can be a great place to start. Why? Because a community makes you discoverable, and you’re providing value right away. Aberdeen findings show that an online community platform helps firms improve return on marketing investment (ROMI) by 33 percent.

Communities with public sections create tons of user-generated content through discussion forums, articles, and updates that are indexed by Google. When prospects search for solutions to their problems, your community will show up in results, increasing brand awareness. As your user-generated discussions grow, the community grows in search authority, content, and relevance, boosting leads, and brand awareness.

“One of my goals is to expand our audience and bring more traffic to our website, and the community is a really critical tool in helping us do that, in a way that no amount of marketing can do.” — Allison Dolan, Chief Content Officer, Educational Theatre Association

4. Feedback, ideation, and crowdsourcing

If you want users to engage with you and each other, you need to show them that they’re being heard and you’re taking their feedback and thoughts into account. Organizations use online communities to build meaningful relationships with customers or members, which translates into greater brand loyalty and upsell opportunities.

“When we started aggregating data [in our community], GDPR was strongly searched and frequently discussed in the community. So, we created a group and started pushing more GDPR content and resources based on the data we had collected. This was well before the regulation went into effect – we knew we had to be proactive. We put together a GDPR program much faster because we saw it growing early.” — Reggie Henry, CIO, American Society of Association Executives

Branded online communities are designed to start conversations about your organization and its offerings. Take full advantage of that by tracking the most common complaints, sources of confusion, and new feature ideas. All of these are areas where you can improve your product to make it more efficient and appealing to your market.

“As the director of community management, I’m the voice of the customer. I’m the instigator – the person who collects the ideas and pokes product management. Being able to source ideas directly from the community has been pivotal to supporting customer success.” – Michael Torok, Director of Knowledge and Community Management, Delphix

When you do make a change based on community member feedback, let the community know. People love when their suggestions (or frustrations) are taken seriously and spur action. You may even win more loyal users because of it.

5. Online communities decrease support costs

One of the greatest benefits of an online community, aside from driving positive member-driven and customer-focused communications, is the ability to empower your people to self-serve, reducing time you spend on transactional calls and support costs.

You can launch branded online communities to help users help themselves. Their user-generated content seeds the community with new ideas, expert articles, and answers to frequently asked questions. Struggling users can search those resources any time, asking questions in discussion forums, or finding answers in videos and blogs.

In this way, users can relieve the burden on your customer support team by sharing creative ways to resolve issues and innovative ways to use your product, improving the value for every customer reading the discussion.

6. Online communities drive revenue growth

A branded online community can help you earn more revenue through a combination of awareness, engagement, and data-driven sales enablement.

  • Community members can naturally discover a course or product through discussions with other community members
  • Sales teams can identify potential new members or customers through community activity
  • Advertise your partners or sponsors in your community, or drive more interest in your own opportunities through advertising

Creating a community empowers your users to engage in discussions about your products and services, including providing feedback and sharing unique ways they’re using your products to solve problems. They’ll become more and more likely to take you up on that cross-sell or up-sell opportunity.

7. Earn referrals and create loyalty through customer advocates

Users who love your organization and what you do want to talk about it. They want to share their stories and pass on their knowledge, and a community gives them a place to do that.

Developing an online community ambassador program nurtures your advocates and acknowledges the value they’re providing to your organization. You can use gamification, ribbons, and badges to highlight each advocate’s contributions and make them feel special, for instance.

You can also give them special access to advance information on organization updates and product releases to keep them “in the know” and inspire them to continue advocating for your organization.

Encourage your advocates to connect with their peers, other users, and prospects in the community at large as well. They’re experts on your products, so they’re great at spurring discussions, answering questions, and helping people find the best solution to their problem – all of which builds loyalty and encourages users to keep buying with you.

8. Online communities grow your organization

Ultimately, communities help grow your organization. According to 2020 research from The Community Roundtable, branded communities offer incredible ROI. Check out these online community stats:

  • Average overall communities see 4,530% ROI
  • Advanced overall communities see 7,071% ROI
  • External average communities see 6,130% ROI
  • Internal average communities see 1,967% ROI

…that goes up as communities age.

  • <1 year: 1,469%
  • 2 years: 2,778%
  • 4 years: 4,136%
  • 7 years: 4,782%
  • 10 years: 5,315%

Thriving communities yield more value for every participant than they contribute.

  • On average in an advanced community, a member contributes $67 of value per year and receives $614 of value per year.
  • On average in an advanced community, an organization invests $153 of value per year and receives $682 per year.

Online Communities Empower Shared Growth

Now that you know all about online communities, you know that online community engagement can help your organization connect your customers, members, partners, users, or employees all in one place and engage with them – every day.

This ongoing engagement can be the foundation for your shared success. That’s the power of an online community. When you can create continuous, meaningful interaction with your member or customer base, you open the door to incredible transformation.

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