What is an Online Community? (And How You Can Grow One)

Most of us are members of some type of online community. And there’s a good reason why this is the case: they are powerful social hubs that benefit us immensely. We join them to learn, network and connect with people who share our values.

But the benefits of communities don’t just stretch to members. The brands and people behind these online spaces use them to raise awareness and build a loyal group of followers.

This article will take a deep dive into what exactly online communities are. If you’re interested in starting one but aren’t quite sure how then this guide’s for you.

What is an online community?

An online community is a group of people who interact online around a shared interest, challenge, or goal. People with a shared sense of belonging use these spaces to share knowledge, learn, build networks, or simply discuss their interests without meeting face-to-face.

These communities have their own rules and norms that vary depending on their use. They can form organically, but they are often started by individuals or brands who want to encourage virtual interaction around a particular topic.

Branded online communities can be a powerful way to increase product awareness, create deeper relationships with customers, and build authority in your industry.

An online community is not a social network

People often confuse online communities with social networks. But they are not the same thing.

A social network is a place where you link up with people you know and grow your network. These sites have a far broader reach than a typical online community.

Online communities are more focused on specific groups.

These differences mean that people often prefer communicating in communities. Global Web Index found that people are more likely to have meaningful conversations in communities than social sites, and are more likely to feel respected.

The Community feeling
GlobalWebIndex report

Online communities can be open or closed

Open communities allow anyone to see discussions that take place, maximizing the number of people who can benefit from the information. These groups tend to have lenient rules around who can sign up and contribute.

Public Subreddits are an example of an open community. Anyone can see the content in the group. Contributing is as simple as signing up for an account and clicking join on the relevant community.

The downside is that this puts a significant burden on community leaders to moderate content and ensure discussions stay high quality.

Closed communities are those that only members can see and interact with. These communities often have stricter requirements about who can join.

While this makes community growth slower, it is easier for community leaders to keep conversations on track. Closed communities often bring significant value to their members.

Most communities have these features

Online communities have many tools and features to connect people, but given below is a list of commonly found features:

  • Posting lets people ask questions and start discussions.
  • Threads let people comment on these discussions.
  • Points systems let people reward high-quality content.
  • Groups within a community let people discuss subtopics.
  • Users can interact through messaging or tagging.
  • Members can share multimedia posts, not just text.
  • Notifications alert members to new content.

This set of features drives discussion and engagement, ensuring members get maximum value from their time.

Online community vs. audience: What’s the difference

Communities and audiences have much in common, but there are significant differences.

The biggest is the direction of communication. When you build an audience, the majority of the interaction travels from you to your community.

Think about what happens when you publish a blog post or a YouTube video. Your audience learns about your opinion and has basically no way to share their ideas.

Comments sections do exist, and these allow brands to have some interaction with the audience. You may also communicate when you share posts on social sites.

But in both these examples, the total flow of knowledge mainly travels from the content creator to the audience.

Audience vs. Community
Audience vs. Community

Communities are much less centralized

The flow of knowledge in online communities is far less centralized.

Everyone has a relatively equal opportunity to contribute. It’s easy for members to speak to each other and with those behind the community.

Community creators do still have slightly more power. Their decisions around moderation, community rules, and discussion topics can point the group in specific directions.

Audiences and communities can work together

These differences don’t mean that you shouldn’t build an audience. In fact, many people have huge success by turning an existing audience or user base into a thriving community.

It works because your audience already has a common interest.

If they are actively seeking out your content or product, there is a good chance they will also be keen to discuss related topics in an internet community.

Brands with an existing audience have two significant advantages when building communities.

  1. It’s easy to promote your community. You’ll reach the critical mass required to get your community off the ground much faster than if you build the community from scratch.
  2. You know what interests your audience. It’s easy to build community features around the interests, challenges, and goals you already know your audience faces. This increases the chances that people will join.

If you’re in this situation, it’s just a case of creating the type of community that will attract members and help them reach their goals.

There are many types of online community

At Tribe, we help many brands create different types of online communities. Here are the four kinds we see most often.

Community of practice

A Community of Practice (CoP) is a space for people with a shared interest—usually a profession—to gather.

These are excellent spaces to learn and share knowledge and best practices about a particular industry. These communities are also a great way to build networks.

The MO Pros community for marketing operations professionals is a great example of this type of community. It is an exclusive community that encourages discussion, Q&As, and collaboration around marketing operations-related challenges.

Read more about MO Pros’ thriving community of practice here.

Community of practice member benefits Community of practice brand benefits
✔️Gain access to shared knowledge.

✔️It’s a great way for members to expand their network.

✔️ Build brand awareness among people in your industry.

✔️ Establish yourself as an authority.

Support community

Support communities (or customer communities) are built around particular products or pieces of software. Users share tips and tactics about how to get the most from these products.

In many cases, the brand behind the company will also offer support to community users.

There are several benefits to running a support community over other forms of customer support.

  • You create a library of support tickets that people can use as a self-service reference to overcome challenges. One answer can help multiple customers.
  • Other users may answer questions. This takes the strain away from your support agents. You can serve more customers without increasing the size of your team.
  • Businesses can collect feedback and suggestions from customers directly from the community. And leverage the community as a channel to share progress and updates.
  • Community posts will be indexed by search engines like Google. This increases the visibility of your community. People searching for relevant queries may see the community and join it.

ConvertKit has a great support community. It aims to help creators who use the platform get the most out of the software. ConvertKit encourages this by sharing resources and providing support to members, thus improving the customer experience.

The platform has grown to 44,000 creators and has 7,000 answers—a vast library of content for new members to learn from.

Read more about the ConvertKit community here.

Support community member benefits Support community brand benefits
✔️Instant access to a library of support content.

✔️Gain help from other users and the brand’s support team.

✔️ Create a powerful self-service resource.

✔️ Customer support teams have fewer tickets to deal with.

✔️ Build a stronger connection with customers, thus increasing retention.

Internal communities

Internal communities are those used inside an organization to help people connect and work together.

These communities are perhaps the simplest to grow and run.

You already have a membership base—the people in your community. The key to ensuring people use it is identifying organizational challenges and building the community around these goals.

IBM did this through its CSR Influencers Network—a group of IBM employees committed to making a social impact. The organization already had social impact initiatives, but it knew these leaders would benefit from a space to organize and discuss their activities.

The active community now does a great job of encouraging and motivating participation in these programs.

Read more about the IBM CSR Influencers Network here.

Internal community member benefits Internal community brand benefits
✔️ Network with people in the organizations.

✔️ Easy communication helps work get done.

✔️ Encourage collaboration and communication.

✔️ Increase access to company knowledge.

Social community

Not all virtual communities form around professional needs. Many are built around interests, hobbies, or social groups.

Members of these communities benefit by being able to connect with people with similar interests. While brands gain significant awareness among a passionate community and create loyal brand advocates.

The Love Wellness community is a good example. It’s a space where women can discuss their passion for wellness. It enables them to learn from others, share their stories, and get expert advice around topics such as nutrition, pregnancy, and self-care.

Read more about the Love Wellness community here.

Social community member benefits Social community brand benefits
✔️ Connect with others who have a similar passion.

✔️ Learn from more experienced members.

✔️ Raise brand awareness.

✔️ Form a connection with those in your community, thus increasing brand loyalty.

What makes a great online community?

Community building is all about creating positive online spaces that meet the goals of members. Successful online communities tend to have several characteristics in common.

A powerful sign-up incentive

All the best communities provide potential members with a powerful reason to sign up. Without this, it’s far harder to grow your community.

In some cases, the appeal of the community will be enough motivation. But if similar communities already exist, you need to do more to stand out.

Here are some incentives:

  • Access to a network: If your community is already established, then the network may be enough of an incentive to encourage signups. This is especially likely to be the case in professions where connections can be crucial to career growth.
  • Access to support: Access to support is a powerful sign-up incentive. If people know they can receive the help they need in your community, they are more likely to join.
  • Access to exclusive community content: Offering exclusive content like webinars, videos, or blog posts to community members can incentivize sign-ups.

Ways to encourage engagement

In an ideal world, community engagement happens naturally. But this isn’t always the case.

The 2020 CMX Community Industry Trends Report found that encouraging quality discussions was the biggest community management challenge.

CMX report on top frustrations about online community
CMX report on top frustrations about online community

Here are some techniques you can use:

  • Create separate spaces for different topics. This helps organize discussions and shows where people can find the specific types of content they are interested in.
  • Create conversation starters. As a community manager, you should take steps to start conversations. This could be anything from asking questions in your group, to running events and AMAs that get people talking.
  • Offer rewards and points: Rewards and points won’t encourage conversation on their own. But applying gamification in your community can provide enough motivation to keep people coming back.

An active moderation team

A lack of moderation can be a huge community killer. Without it, your discussions are at risk of going off track, which can be off-putting for members.

Documenting community rules and highlighting them is an effective way for moderators to introduce expectations.

You could also vet new members to ensure their intentions align with your group’s values before letting them in.

A shared goal

Ultimately, the people in your community should all be there to achieve a shared purpose or goal. It doesn’t mean they can’t have differing opinions or viewpoints, just that they should want the same outcomes from their community participation.

You must choose the right community platform

When creating an online community, you must choose the right platform. While you can use groups on social media platforms, most companies benefit from a branded community they control.

This ensures you own all your data, allowing you to build deeper connections without the threat of an algorithm change or decision made by a third party affecting your community.

Tribe is a platform that enables businesses to build these online communities. Pipedrive, IBM, ASUS, and ConvertKit are some of the industry leaders that are building and growing their community with Tribe.

Find out more about how Tribe can help you build an online community by clicking here.


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Duncan Elder

Duncan is a content marketer with a passion for all things digital marketing, SaaS, and online communities.

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