What Is An Online Community, Anyway?


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Quick! What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “online community?”

Facebook? LinkedIn? Your company’s support forum?

The definition of online community varies depending on who you talk to. Joanne Jacobs, a digital strategist who spoke at a live online session at a past Community Manager Appreciation Day (CMAD), says “Communities are not just a random gathering. They’re a group of people who come together for a purpose.”

Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, adds that “B2B online communities are professional networks that contain a blend of content and collaboration opportunities around a shared business-based experience.”

Most experts agree that at the heart of every community is a shared purpose. The 2017 Community Values and Metrics Report found that more than half (54%) of respondents listed it as a strategic initiative for their organization.

However, too many branded communities slowly become nothing more than support forums, featuring stale, outdated posts rather than more valuable user-generated content.

Below, we’re taking a look at what a community is not, and breaking down the different types of online communities to help you see how yours can be improved.

1. A community is not simply a means to provide customer support

Yes, many companies have successfully used their branded communities to streamline and more effectively deliver customer support, but this view is slowly shifting. More and more communities are trying to develop advocacy, as evidenced by the 2017 Community Values and Metrics Report: of the 47% of communities who have shifted their focus, the largest group (27%) has begun to focus on advocacy instead.

2. A community is not a place in which a community manager contributes all of the content

Think about it: just as successful support communities have crowdsourced answers to lighten their support load, so should the wider community contribute thoughtful discussion, advice and insights via discussion forums, surveys, blog posts and articles in order to provide a rich variety of perspectives and experiences to the group.

3. A community is not something that grows on its own

Just like any initiative, branded communities must be nurtured in order to thrive. This means engaging members with fresh content, and recruiting your advocates to share their passion for your company and help you build a vibrant customer community.

Now that you have a better idea of what a community is not, let’s take a look at the different types of online communities. In order to keep it simple, we’ve boiled it down to two main types:

  1. Public social networks
  2. Branded online communities

1. Public social networks

Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Quora and Stack Overflow are examples of public social networks. These communities are useful for finding out what customers are saying about your industry—and sometimes, your brand—by allowing you to listen and monitor conversations.

They can also teach some great lessons on engagement, like how to use rewards, upvotes, and paths to external content in order to drive interactions.

And while public social networks can certainly help you create brand awareness and reach by going where your customers are, you’re not as likely to get as much in-depth insight and interaction around your specific brand as you would with a community that you both manage and own.

2. Branded communities

Branded communities can either be public or private. However, rather than using rented properties on public social networks, these communities reside on a brand’s website or other owned property. Because of this, companies with branded communities are able to manage and own data about their site visitors, as well reap the SEO benefits that community content often provides.

Branded public communities, such as Salesforce.com’s Salesforce Discussion Forum or Spiceworks IT community, exist to help customers use products more effectively and to solve customer problems. They also serve as a rich source of lead generation by allowing prospects to see how the company’s existing customers use their product.

Private branded communities, which require a login, help companies develop deeper relationships with customers by giving them a safe place to share ideas, advice and interactions about their brand. Companies often launch private communities with a strategic purpose, such as capturing the voice of the customer or gathering product feedback.

At Influitive, we believe that communities are all about people: their passions, their emotional connections, and their interactions not only with each other, but with the brands they love.

And we’re not alone: according to the 2017 Community Values and Metrics Report, 66% of respondents define their community as a place where members develop relationships with each other online or offline.

To build those relationships in your branded community, it’s up to you to nurture your customers’ passion and build a solid wall of trust that will help you see a return on your online community investment.

The 2017 Community Value and Metrics Report found that the top measures of community ROI being used are:

  • Retention (54% of respondents)
  • New customers (37%)
  • Customer satisfaction ratings (37%)
  • Customer loyalty (31%)
  • NPS (28%)

Plus, 23% of online communities have now made Acquisition and Advocacy their main focus in order to get closer to their customers and drive awareness and growth for their brand.

Creating a strong community is a cycle. By listening to what your customers are saying, providing them with a community that matches their needs, and applying the feedback they give you, you’ll quickly see increased customer engagement and satisfaction—and your online community will become the valuable asset it was meant to be.

This post was originally posted on March 4th, 2015 and was updated on March 29th, 2017. 

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Cassandra Jowett
Cassandra Jowett is the Content Marketing Manager at Influitive, the advocate marketing experts. With a background in journalism and 7+ years in startup marketing, she's passionate about sharing insights, best practices and stories about advocate marketing, and the people and technology that power it.


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