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What is an Online Community?

August 2019
online community

What’s an online community anyway?

The shortest answer is this - an online community is primarily an aggregation of people with a shared purpose who use a dedicated online space to express their thoughts, build networks, collaborate, add value to each other, and connect with the brand (community leader) that binds them together.

However, one should not consider online communities as equivalent to social networks. The key difference here is that while in case of online communities the members are connected to pursue their shared interest, hobby or profession, social networks are built on top the pre-existing relationship of the members.

In the present scenario, communities have gone mainstream with at least 66% of companies building different types of communities. In the US alone more than 56% of adults are accustomed to using online forums/communities for self-service according to Forrester.

So, what’s driving this growth of online communities? In the subsequent section, we’ll cover this in greater details. However, let’s first understand the essential elements of online communities and different types of communities that businesses are building.

Key elements of an online community

Consider the following five key pillars of the community to ensure that the online community is truly crafted to deliver value to the members:

1. Shared purpose

The effectiveness of the community is primarily based on the shared purpose of the members. It establishes the ultimate reason behind why the member would join and contribute to the community. It is the greatest link between why the brand exists and what it promises to deliver -- finally this is something that community leader (brand) and the members strive to achive together.

Tribe’s client, SkyScanner, a leader in travel space, brings its super users together in a secure and private online space to enable them to share their ideas, get feedback on their travel products, and champion the idea of customer-centrcity by adding the Voice of Customer in the product strategy. For Decathlon, a leading retailer in sports goods, their Huddle initiative is a place to congregate sports lovers, build connections, share advices, and inspire each other.

2. Member experience

A community must be built in a way that would always adapt to the needs of the members in a continous manner. It is known that the business wants to engage the users, increase lifetime value, and get vauable insights, but it must also give importance to the needs of the members and make it a great experience in the process.

So, your community must be designed with a robust blueprint to onboard, engage and retain members while enabling them to easily achive their goals -- right from finding the correct information swiftly to building solid networks and solving problems.

3. Collaboration

Irrespective of whether the community is for external audience (customers) or internal audience (employees), it must have collaborative elements ingrained in it. Hence, your community software should be able to support the members in working together to create compelling user-generated content.

4. Engagement

The members should remain engaged within the community. It can be anything from contruting content and promoting high-quality contributions to following other members and partcipating in ideation.

This means your comunity platform and community strategy must be in sync to deliver the right environment to help members get the most relevant content and interact with each other. Finally, they should be recognized (via points, bdages, and leaderboards) for their contribution and encouraged to continue with the same zeal.

5. Advocacy

Supporting the members, collecting the feedback, and deriving actionable insights to improve your community experience and product is the ultimate winning strategy. However, the factor here is to identify the super users in your community and empower them with tools to improve your community.

These super users would eventually become your loyal customers and evolve as brand advocates by using their own network to promote your products and services.

Types of online communities

Based on the type of audience, online communities can be commonly classified into customer and partner communities, employee communities, and professional communities. Let’s explore the details of these communities:

Customer communities

These are external communities designed for potential customers, customers and partners. Again, these communities can be public or private depending the goal of the community. For example, a community designed to attract new members would a be public community while a community for most involved customers designed to collect feedback would be a private community.

The top use cases of customer communites are support communities (deflecting support tikets by promoting self-service and knowledge base), customer acqusition, engagement, retention, and feedback collection.

Employee communities

These communities are mostly internal communities designed to improve the engagement and productivity of the employees or members of an organization. Generally these communities are private in nature and access is completely controlled by the owner of the community.

Generally they are used to improve culture by building strong bond between the employees, share knowledge by creating a dynamic knowledge for the company, and increase efficiency by allowing members to collaborate and discuss.

Professional communities

These are communities of shared passion -- the idea is bring together group of people who have the same passion, professional expertize and wish to pursue their interest by connecting with their peers. These communities can be either public or private depending on the business model.

Factors driving the growth of online communities

There are several reasons why there is a huge demand for these types of branded online communities, but let’s cover the four key factors here:

User acquisition, engagement, and retention

Public online communities are practically an open space for customers and prospective users to congregate and create content. Search engines frequently index these community web pages with user-generated content and tend to give priority in terms of ranking as well. Check out the following example in which a search query related to Spotify gives user-generated content as top results.

user generated content search result

This opens up a whole new, powerful organic growth opportunity for companies.

Apart from acquiring new users, communities also help in engaging your existing customers; keeping them involved with the brand’s offerings (i.e. helping peers with issues and posting innovative use cases) to keeping them informed about new updates.)

When customers are engaged with your brand, they tend to return to the platform and stay loyal to your brand.

Here are some ideas to keep your users engaged in your online community:

  1. Send emails to prompt users to come back to the community with specific actions -- For instance, if a user is subscribed to a topic or follows certain member, send a notification when there is new and popular content on that topic or from the concerned member. You can also encourage them to introduce themselves or read more on a particular topic.
  2. Leverage social proof by building case studies or getting testimonials on how the community adding value for users. Use that to motivate the inactive members.
  3. Acknowledge, appreciate, and feature high-quality contributors so they continue to do the good work. This will help in keeping the community vibrant, increase return visits and add value to the community in terms of quality content. Member reputations and leaderboards are some of the common practices to achieve this.
  4. Run contests and competitions in the community. For your community, the end goal can be anything from influencing user behavior to sourcing ideas and generating content rapidly. Reward the winners with promo codes that can be redeemed to purchase your products or services or even exclusive prizes.

Here is an example of our client, SmartNora (a snoring solution) running a campaign in their community to source stories from their members around snoring:

competitions in online community

Enabling self-service & knowledge sharing

It is the growing desire of customers to connect, self-educate, and self-serve that is fueling adoption of knowledge base in online communities.

The curated content generated in a community is a valuable knowledge base that can help customers easily find solutions to their problems without necessarily having to reach out to an expert. Members often use communities to discuss their issues, ideate, and come up with different plans.

Taking note of this, you could create a weekly round-up of the best discussions, best solutions to product issues, or ideas posted in your community. In addition to sharing their own knowledge, you can and should encourage members to also source books and high-quality third-party content related to your industry and share ideas on why they found it useful. You can do this as the owner of the group as well.

This sharing of knowledge creates a network built on helpfulness and education. Even if you’re not necessarily the one giving the advice, you establish trust and authority by being the brand behind the community that made it possible.

Authentic customer insights

The very nature of most online communities is informal and friendly, making it a good place for candid discussions and free flow of ideas. Many companies treat communities like this as big focus groups where they can collect feedback and generate candid insights.

For instance, companies can use the community to carry out one-to-one discussions with their super users. Abrand can recruit its most active and valuable users from the community and create an exclusive group. Then, the group can be used to facilitate focused discussion. Your superusers can submit ideas and give feedback on what they think of others’.

When companies proactively seek opinions from customers use those to improve the product, their customers feel empowered and valued. They feel like they’ve directly impact the direction of the company and become even more invested.

For example, one of Tribe’s clients, SkyScanner has built a highly cohesive community with their super users to get feedback on the new user interfaces, product roadmap and crowdsource high-quality ideas for their upcoming online tools.

Establishing brand authority

Brand value is one of the most valuable, though also most intangible assets a company owns.

In fact, according to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), brand valueaccounts for close to 20% of enterprise value on an average.

It allows companies to charge a premium and establish trust in the value they deliver. That’s the reason, almost all of the companies have thought leadership as a key component of the long-term growth strategy.

When a company builds a community around its product, service, or the industry itself, it is essentially positioning itself as the leader in that space. They can propagate their ideas for the vertical and set the agenda for the discussions.

Again, even if the opinions and knowledge don’t come directly from you; you will be known as the one who facilitated the conversation.

Boosting employee efficiency and improving culture

Every organization is striving to create strong employee networks to become more agile and flexible, impove professional satisfaction and employee engagement. This helps them use the the collective wisdom of their employees to find solutions to problems swiftly, and essentially achieve competitive advantage.

Another key aspect is to identifying if you have a well-defined and well-accepted company culture for your employees. If yes, your community can further amplify the cohesiveness by bringing the employees closer. It can also help you bring about changes in the culture and behaviour of employees with transpaent and multi-dimentional communication

Build a thriving online community

Every successful online community is highly dynamic and fosters two-way conversations between the members and community owners. A community can consist of completely diverse set of members, and keeping them connected in an online space to collaborate, network, co-create can seem complex. But, with right strategy and a robust community platform you should be able to reach your organizational goals.

By moving away from the traditional one-way communication, leveraging the members’ unique thoughts, and creating a encouraging space for them to share their knowledge with others, you would foster value creation in the form of strong networks and engagement.

Eventually, your community would be able to create a group of members would remain an important part of the community owing to their valuable contributions. These members are the one who would stick to your brand and become evangelist. The most imprortant factor here is that this whole process is repeatable and a future-proof strategy for any company to communicate and grow.

Join top businesses empowering their community using Tribe platform.