What is an Online Community?

Posted by Sarah Robinson-Yu on Jun 4, 2019 9:00:00 AM
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8 minute read

What is an online community?

The idea of an online community has garnered a fair amount of attention over the past few years, especially since providing top-notch customer experience (CX) has become a priority for many organizations. In fact, increasing customer engagement through improved CX is one of the top business priorities of 2019, and an online community is one of the most effective ways to do this.

It’s not uncommon for the term “online community” to be somewhat ambiguous to those who haven’t had direct experience using one. I myself once had a broad idea of what this term meant, but as it turns out, there’s so much more to what an online community is, what it can achieve and why it’s successful.

With that in mind, this blog will provide you with everything you need to know about online communities. To ensure that all bases are covered, this blog will be divided into three sections:

  • What is online community?
  • What can an online community achieve/ what does it do?
  • Would an online community be beneficial for your organization?

Let’s dive in.

Online Community Defined

The reason why there’s sometimes a fair amount of confusion or ambiguity surrounding the term “community” is because it’s a term that gets thrown around often to describe any situation where people congregate over similar interests.

I mean, fair enough, I guess that’s what “community” is in a nutshell; a group of people that share common interests, goals or viewpoints.

But while this definition is, by all standards, accurate, the confusion over the term itself is a result of an overuse by marketing teams, sales teams, and business execs, who neither know what it actually means, nor even have an online community themselves.

The truth is, a shared interest is really just one piece of the pie. The rest of the pie is made up of social connections built around the shared interest and expanded through the bonds that develop between community members. A community is about social connectivity and relationships built around an interest. It’s these relationships that enable a community to be successful.

An online community is usually created by an organization or a brand and serves as a place where members, customers and fans alike can congregate. There are essentially two types of community platforms:

  1. Branded community platform
  2. Social media platform

A branded community platform

A branded community platform is essentially a community that’s hosted by the organization or brand itself. What this means is that the community forum is usually located in either of these spots:

  • In a folder, found in the URL slug, such as domain.com/forum.
  • In a sub-domain like forum.domain.com.

Either way, a branded community is an extension of the website itself since it has the domain name in it. Vanilla, for example, provides the software for a branded community.

A social media platform

A community built on a social media platform means that an organization or brand has their community on a platform like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, etc.

Since a community hosted on a social media platform isn’t an extension of their website, it means that there is much less control. For example, if a community is hosted on Facebook, the community’s functions are limited to what Facebook allows. This includes privacy functions, engagement functions (gamification, ideation, etc.) and analytical functions.

Control spectrum of community platforms

As you can see from the chart above, the types of commonly used community platforms fall into a spectrum; the range of the spectrum is based on the amount of control the organization has. The highest level of control can be found on a company website, while the least amount of control is on a social media platform. A branded community falls smack dab in the middle!

The Purpose of an Online Community

As stated above, a community serves as a place for those with similar interests and goals to connect. However, when looking more closely, there are actually a number of underlying purposes that a community can serve.

Customer Support

One of the most common reasons that organizations look to have an online community is to provide self service customer support. Organizations look to implement this method of self service customer support for two primary reasons. Firstly, customers expect you to have it—statistics show that 73% of customers want to solve product or service issues on their own. Secondly, a support community can save you money if your customers are able to find their answers in your community rather than contacting your support team.

Product Development

It’s common for organizations to use the power of their community to help with product development and create new ideas for future designs. This is done through implementing ideation functions within the community, allowing you to gather top ideas from the people who know your products and services the best. In some cases, brands will have their Community Manager introduce an idea to the community for feedback to get a feel of whether or not the idea would have traction. In other cases, community members themselves will come up with a number of great ideas which other members can comment on. In many cases, communities will have a separate idea section for product development.

Webinar - Using community for support and product dev

Customer Experience

Implementing a community to improve customer experience is a key strategy used by many organizations and brands. Customer experience is the overall experience that a customer has with your brand. Improving customer experience leads to a decrease in churn rate and works to attract new customers — statistically speaking, 77% of your customers will recommend you after they have a positive experience. Brands look to community to give them a CX boost in order to deliver a positive experience and capitalize on the benefits.

Customer Engagement

Online communities are also created to increase customer engagement and create more hype around the brand. Customer engagement is one of the most important things to have when it comes to online communities since engaged customers buy more, will help spread the word about you and participate within the community. When members are engaged, it helps strengthen the bond between members through a number of interactions within the community; this ultimately helps to fulfill the entire purpose of having a community.

Market Research

A community is a great place to start market research, and if your community is engaged enough, it’s likely that you’ll get an overwhelming number of members who are willing to give their time to answer your questions.

Brand Loyalty

An online community, when used correctly, can increase brand loyalty, which is a huge reason why having a vibrant and engaged community is so important. Brand loyalty, created through a strong emotional connection with the brand mission, values and personality, is something that all organizations strive to achieve.

statistics on brand loyalty

The benefits of brand loyalty can be seen in the chart above.

Identifying and creating super fans

An online community is one of the best tools to help brands identify and create super fans.
Super fans are passionate, engaged leaders of your community, online or offline, and they’re very important to have. Super fans help the community in a number of different ways, and spend their free time doing this because they genuinely care about your brand. Super fans often answer a large majority of your support questions, engage with and help onboard new members, provide updates to your organization on community health and act as leaders within the community, modeling the types of behaviours that you want others to emulate.

Collecting feedback

A community is an excellent place to collect and gather feedback on everything about your products, services, brand, customer service, etc. Literally anything you want to know, you can trust that your community will likely voice their opinion before you even ask. Collecting feedback has a number of benefits, but most notably, collecting feedback allows you to improve customer retention, improve customer engagement and improve your products and services. In fact, 86% of Fortune 500 companies use their community to provide insights into their customer needs through collecting and analyzing feedback.

Is an Online Community Right for You?

Now, the million dollar question. You know the ins and outs of community and the number of benefits that it brings to the table. So, is it right for you? Is it something that your organization needs?

Yes, absolutely.

While we may be a bit bias, being aware of the massive benefits that a community can bring to an organization will do that to you!

Now, while the size of your organization and customer base might play a role in the type of platform that you select for your community, there are a number of other factors that should also be taken into consideration when making your decision.

These factors can all be summed into one question: how much control do you want to have over your community?

Essentially, the more control you have over your community, the more likely that your community will be able to thrive and fulfill its purpose, as discussed in the previous section. When you select a social media platform for your community, there is an inherent lack of control over a number of different factors, including:

  • Culture
  • Design

  • Privacy
  • Authenticity

Social media communities only allow for so much customization, and ultimately, they don’t give you the tools you need to make your community an extension of your brand personality. This is something that most organizations care about since it’s their brand personality that attracts customers in the first place.

Concluding Thought

Now that you know the importance of an online community, it’s up to you to determine which community platform is best for your needs.

Take a look at this free webinar to help you get started on making your decision!

Webinar - Control your platform and community destiny-2

Topics: Community

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