What is an Online Community? The Basics & Benefits

Community Strategy // Online communities are all around us, connecting families, friends, neighborhoods, and finally, businesses: Branded online communities help organizations with everything from being more transparent to deflecting support cases.

Melanie Bond
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Communities are all around us. We’re part of many communities, whether they’re communities made up of family, friends, or shared interests. Online communities take similar principles from in-person communities and make them virtual.

If you’re new to the idea or an online community or want a refresher, this post will help you understand:

What is an Online Community?

You’re probably part of an online community or two, whether it’s NextDoor for neighborhoods or a Facebook or LinkedIn group around a common interest or shared value. You might think of a sub-Reddit around a certain topic as a community. However, sometimes the concepts behind what an online community is can feel a bit abstract.

Aren’t communities built in person? How can an army of strangers online make a customer feel seen? Before you go look for concrete examples of online communities, take a look at this definition:

At its root, an online community or internet community is a group of people with a shared interest or purpose who use the internet to communicate with each other. Online communities have their own set of guidelines and needs, like online community engagement, moderation, and management.

But the type of community we’ll focus on today 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 to bring people together around a centralized, shared organization-based experience or purpose for expansive online collaboration and growth.

The type of community we’re talking about here is one that your organization would build online to connect your members, customers, employees, partners – whoever the community’s members might be.

These communities play a huge part in customer or member experience. They break down the traditional one-way exchange of information & open up communication to deliver increased value.

Curious to learn more about communities? This guide is a great place to start: Online Community 101.

How Online Community Platforms Differ from Facebook or LinkedIn Groups

For people who don’t work directly with online community platforms and strategies every day, a term like “online community” can often become blended among a myriad of buzzwords surrounding social networks, platforms, and strategies.

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.

Think about the approach this way: 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, seizing the opportunity to engage with a specific organization’s community for personal growth or professional growth.

While these platforms share similarities, like the ultimate purpose of connecting people online, there are vast differences in their functionality and behavior when it comes to strategizing and targeting your audience.

For real, community engagement to happen, users need to feel a high degree of comfort about their privacy, asking questions, and belonging to the space. Sharing and showcasing their expertise often gets diffused on social media platforms or open source solutions. 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 any and all of 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, they gain invaluable data that your community will inevitably generate about your members and customers – you do not. If you create your own online community, you’ll have access to all that data, helping you understand your users and creating a curated experience for your users.

More community management tools: With a community platform like Higher Logic’s, engagement tools are built in, specifically designed to help you create an engaging experience.

Branded Online Communities in Practice

Once community members log in for the first time (you can make a branded community easily accessible from a website), they can participate in a variety of ways, like:

  • Ask another member a question about how they did something
  • Read top discussion posts from the week
  • Suggest an improvement to something you offer
  • Sign up to become a speaker at one of your events

But an online community is not just another piece of software that an organization buys — an online community is about creating a destination for real people. 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

Online communities take several forms:

  • Private communities gated by a login or are invite-only
  • Public communities that are easily searchable
  • Hybrid communities that have some public elements but require a login for full use

After you get to know the seven types of branded online communities, learn more about what distinguishes your average online community from a great one.

4 Characteristics of Great Online Communities

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

Not all communities look and feel the same – they take many shapes and forms to fit the needs of their unique members and organization.

In order to bring everyone to your online destination, you need to think broadly about everyone involved – how will they benefit from the community, and how inclusive is the space?

To answer that, back up: What’s your online community for? The answer will influence your tactics and strategies to achieve high engagement.

Think of your community as being for a specific group with a specific purpose. If it’s a community for people who use a specific tool or product, the purpose would be to learn, educate, and network with similar people. Or, if the community you build online is for a local cycling group, the purpose might be to connect, plan biking events and advocate for bike safety. No matter the community, it functions best when interactions are easy, secure, and intuitive.

2. Great Online Communities are Vibrant & Multi-Dimensional

A great community is multi-dimensional, diverse, and vibrant. And it thrives because of the people who are part of it. People are unpredictable, creative, and diverse, and bringing them together in a place where they can interact and engage can seem overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be – and this gathering of unique people usually advances your organization.

By breaking down the traditional one-way exchange of information and opening up your communication, your community will deliver value far beyond expectations. When you can tap into people’s unique perspectives and invite them to share their expertise and knowledge with others, you inspire engagement and connections that are relevant and meaningful.

In the end, you’ll probably discover that people who feel like a critical part of the community because of their distinctive contributions are also those people who remain most loyal and lasting. This cycle of distinctiveness – tapping into the unique qualities of people and allowing them to influence others – is just one way a community can enhance an organization’s ability to communicate, grow and remain relevant.

Check out The State of Community Management Report for industry trends, below. Download the Community Roundtable's State of Community Management Report

3. Great Online Communities Grow from Shared Purpose

After looking at all these examples, we can look back at our original question: what makes a community a community? Shared purpose, or people coming together to achieve a goal or solve a problem. Golf players want to know which clubs to buy. Sephora consumers want the latest beauty tips. Marketers want inspiration for new campaigns.

Your organization may have a larger goal for your community, like ticket deflection, member retention, or increased revenue, but we always have to come back to the basics. We create communities for people, people who want to connect and learn about something together.

How can you get back to or discover a shared purpose this year?

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 where community moderation becomes so important. And it’s another reason why having dedicated community management is so important. A large part of becoming a good online community moderator is knowing how to strike the balance between 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 even 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 you and the community.

8 Benefits of Branded Online Communities

Benefits from a branded community trickle down to increase satisfaction, revenue, and help grow entire organizations, including growing customer loyalty. With a community, you can:

  • Create real connections
  • Stand out from the competition with a better customer 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 one of these benefits and why they’re important for your organization.

1. Create real connections

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

“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

If your customers or members can effectively function, create, and innovate with each other online, imagine the ripple effects throughout their experience – and your organization – offline.

At the end of the day, if your community members know they have a community where their voice is heard, they’ll become invested in the community. And that sense of belonging translates to higher engagement and loyalty towards your organization.

2. Stand out from the competition with a better customer experience

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 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).

A customer community or member community gives you a vehicle to stand out from the competition, answering questions and giving those moments of surprise and delight, either in real-time or by developing products and services that match your customer needs.

3. 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. 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. 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. 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.

Melanie Bond

Manager, Strategic Services

Melanie is Manager of Strategic Services at Higher Logic. Melanie advises clients on community management strategy and best practices for building a highly engaged and successful community. Prior to Higher Logic, Melanie worked at WeddingWire as a Senior Customer Success Manager.

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