What is an online community

June 16, 2022

What is an online community?

Communities are a fundamental part of the human experience. By organizing ourselves into distinct groups based on shared ideas, interests, and goals, we gain a sense of belonging and purpose, as well as opportunities to learn, share, and help others.

In today’s digital world, communities now exist virtually, removing many of the obstacles to membership. This has resulted in a golden age of community participation, with 76% of internet users worldwide actively involved in online communities. 

At the same time, organizations are unlocking the power of online communities as a medium for bringing value to their customers and the business. 

In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about online communities, covering: 

If that sounds good then read on. 

Types of online community

While all online communities have fundamental things in common, not all communities are the same. One of the best ways to understand and categorize the differences between communities is to look at the motivation of their members. 

Generally speaking, communities can be divided into the following groups: 

Let’s take a closer look at each category. 

Communities of practice

In communities of practice, people come together to improve at a particular skill or trade. They do this by pooling their knowledge and expertise, providing opportunities for shared learning and career growth. 

Communities of product

Communities of product are where people come together due to a shared interest in a particular product or service. Whether they use the product professionally or as a hobby, the community provides a place to share best practices, catch up on news and updates, and ask and answer product-related questions. 

These communities are usually run by the company that builds the product or service, but in some cases, they can grow organically to fill a particular need.

Communities of play

Communities of play consist of people who share an interest in a particular sport, activity, or hobby. In these communities, there is a stronger emphasis on having fun than on learning and knowledge sharing, although the latter can happen as a byproduct of the former. 

Brand communities

Communities also exist around popular brands, where the motivation of members is purely to share their love for the brand with like-minded people. These communities often start when a brand takes on a life and culture of its own, separate from the products associated with that brand. 

High-quality or unique products are the gateway to a wider customer obsession with anything and everything related to the brand. 

Overlap between categories

While these categories are a useful way of differentiating communities, not all communities fit neatly into one box. In many cases, a community will overlap multiple categories. For example, a community built around a niche SaaS product could qualify as a community of product or practice. People will use the community in different ways, depending on their motivation for membership.

Online community platforms

If you are interested in building your own community, one of the biggest decisions you’ll make is which platform to use. With so many to choose from – each with its own unique benefits and limitations – it can be difficult to know where to start. 

In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the most popular choices and outline the pros and cons of each.

Facebook Groups

With over 10 million groups and 1.8 billion users engaging with online communities monthly, Facebook Groups is one of the most popular platforms for online communities. But does being most popular also mean it’s the best? The answer, of course, is no. 

As a social media platform with the option to create distinct groups, Facebook wasn’t specifically designed to house online communities – and it shows. 

What you gain in familiarity, you lose in low privacy and a lack of hands-on control. If they change something to the platform or remove certain functionality, there’s nothing you can do about it. On top of this, you have zero ownership of your community data. 

LinkedIn Groups

Like Facebook Groups, LinkedIn is another social media platform with group functionality. And again like Facebook, its lack of privacy and control options makes it an inferior option to a dedicated community tool. 

LinkedIn has the following two group options: Standard and unlisted. 

Standard is the most common. These groups show up in search results. Anyone can ask to join them, and members can invite and approve their own connections to join the group. 

Unlisted groups are invitation-only, allowing you greater control over who can join. But on the flip side, they don’t show up in searches, making organic growth very difficult.

Slack 

Slack is primarily a workplace communications tool, allowing internal teams to replace email with instant messaging. That functionality also has utility for online communities – particularly ones that benefit from synchronous communication and the ability to organize conversations into distinct channels. 

That said, Slack’s corporate design is apparent in its lack of options for personalization and moderation. And in most cases, you’ll have to upgrade to the paid plan to make it work long-term – so the bigger your community grows, the more it costs. 

Discord

Like Slack, Discord is a platform designed to enable real-time conversations and chat. But unlike Slack, it has its roots in gaming, which is reflected in its overall look and feel. For this reason, it is often known as ‘Slack for GenZ.’

Discord also offers far superior audio-video functionality, as well as built-in moderation settings, making it a better all-rounder for communities that need a range of real-time communications. 

Discourse

Discourse is a modern open-source forum platform specifically designed for housing online communities. This approach shows in its extensive moderation tools and customizability. 

Unlike Slack and Discord, which focus on real-time chat, Discourse allows community members to engage in asynchronous conversations, making it an ideal choice for larger communities spread across different time zones. 

Discourse’s asynchronous communication style also means that old conversations can be used time and again to create evergreen content – which is particularly useful when members often need answers to common support-related questions. 

The benefits of running an online community

Now we know what online communities are and the platforms you can use to build one, let’s take a look at some of the benefits that come with running an online community.

Generate leads

Online communities are a great way to engage people with your brand before they even become customers. They allow you to get to know people who are interested in your brand or product offerings, helping you to understand their needs and wants. 

This all makes it easier to find high-quality leads and turn community members into loyal customers. But that said, the focus of your community should be to bring value to members, not to bombard them with sales pitches. 

Product feedback

Customer feedback is an essential ingredient in building truly impactful products and services. With a community, you have direct access to a wealth of information and insights about your products. 

By asking community members for feedback, not only do you get to improve your offering, but you also build a sense of trust and loyalty among your customer base, who feel empowered by their role in shaping the direction of your product.

Minimize user churn

Research shows that it costs 5x more to acquire a new customer than it does to retain an existing one. Online communities help minimize churn by engaging your existing customers, nurturing a sense of trust and loyalty between them and your brand. 

The more people participate in a community, the more likely they are to be loyal to your brand. So creating a community that gives people real value could have a massive impact on your bottom line.

Outsource customer support for free

Online communities are a great place to seek advice and help from the people who know your product the best – your customers. By empowering customers to ask and answer support-related questions, you essentially outsource your support processes to the community.

This process is highly beneficial to community members, too. Not only do they have access to an army of product experts who are eager to help, those that provide support feel a strong sense of purpose and meaning in their community role.

Create customer advocates

Brand advocate is another powerful community role that you can assign to the most loyal and passionate community members. Essentially, advocates act as external marketers, spreading their love for your product or brand through content, word-of-mouth, and other online activities. 

Brand advocates can be an incredibly powerful community marketing tool, especially if they have a large following outside of your community. 

How to start an online community from scratch

At this point, you may be wondering: “Sounds good, but where do I start?” Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here, we’ll outline some basic steps you can take to build a community from the ground up. 

Step 1 - Choose a platform

This first step is perhaps the most important. The platform you choose will largely dictate the look and feel of your community, how members communicate, and the options you have for moderation, personalization, and community management. 

To you make the right choice, here are some points to consider:

We recommend choosing dedicated community tools over social media platforms with group functionality. With a platform designed specifically for community-building, like Discord or Discourse, you’ll get critical features such as moderation tools, personalization options, and the ability to assign community roles

Step 2 - Choose your audience

Once you’ve chosen a platform, it’s time to turn your attention to your audience. Ask yourself the following questions: 

Communities are meant to bring value to people. Without knowing who those people are and what they want, it’s impossible to provide a community space that meets their needs. Spending some time thinking about what your target market looks like will save you a lot of time later on.

Alternatively, you could dive deeper into this process by creating personas that represent your ideal community member. This requires a lot of research into your existing customers as well as a good deal of thought about the direction you want your brand to go in the future. 

Step 3 - Create content

Once you know who you are building a community for, you can go about creating content and events that are relevant and engaging. Use your target audience or the personas identified in step 2 to guide this process. 

Content is perhaps the easiest way to bring direct value to community members. Here are some key points to consider: 

Step 4 - Animate and moderate

With your community populated with keen members and high-quality content, you now have the ongoing responsibility to make sure it’s a safe and positive environment for all members. Moderation is key to this process. Here are some suggestions for getting it right:

On top of moderation, your community manager will play a key role in keeping the community active and engaged. They should be a familiar face to all members and be on hand to keep dialogues flowing and welcome new joiners. But it’s important that your internal staff don’t dominate the community too much. 

Step 5 - Reward members and grow the community

As your community grows over time, you’ll start to notice that some people are more active than others. Make sure you have a plan in place to reward positive contributions to your community. You can do this in several ways: 

All of these examples will help motivate members to directly participate in bringing value to the community, which in turn will help improve and grow the community.

How to measure your community’s health and performance

The steps outlined previously are all critical in building and running a high-value community. But unless you have a clear understanding of how your community is performing, it is difficult to make smart decisions that maximize its potential. 

Some community platforms have built-in analytics capabilities that allow you to view performance-related data. The degree to which you can drill down into that data depends on the platform you choose. And in many cases, access to more advanced metrics requires you to upgrade to paid plans. 

Another option is to use a dedicated community analytics tool like AhoyConnect. Our revolutionary platform integrates with a multitude of community and social platforms and tools, providing a holistic view of the health of your community across multiple channels. 

With AhoyConnect, you can unlock the power of community data, allowing you to: 

If you’d like to find out more about how AhoyConnect can turbocharge your community efforts, why not get in touch with us today?

Like this article? Spread the word.
Join our Team

We are looking for exceptional talents and fun people to work with.

Unlock the full potential of your community

Request a Demo