For decades, community has been the heart and soul of the internet. Trends come and go, but one constant is our desire to connect with others around the world.
Today, as our trust in traditional sources of online community continues to be eroded by misinformation and abuse, internet users are abandoning social media in droves to find more secure, niche and rewarding places to interact, connect and share knowledge.
Online communities have become a major trend in our online behavior – one that is set to continue over the coming decade as the power of social media platforms begins to decline.
Yet in spite of their growing importance, many of us still don’t fully understand what these communities are or their benefits to how we connect, learn and play. So what exactly defines an online community, and how have they come to play such a vital role in today’s web landscape?
What is an online community?
In a nutshell, an online community is a space on the internet where people can connect, interact and share their experiences on a particular topic, interest or event. These spaces can vary in size from broad, like the social media platforms nearly all of us use, to highly specific communities designed for a particular function.
Reddit, the Spotify community, Mumsnet are all examples of prominent online communities today. But many are also designed for B2B interactions, bringing together the best and brightest minds within an industry to facilitate networking and collaboration. An example of this type of community is Winmark, which provides professional member networks for C-Suite leaders.
A somewhat broad description? Perhaps – but this loose definition only points to the versatility of online communities. They can take many forms, from providing education, to entertainment and social interaction, to professional networking. This versatility, combined with increasing demands for more human and personalized online experiences, has led to companies increasingly looking to web-based communities to strengthen their relationship with their customer base.
Different types of online communities
The majority of online communities can be broken down into six distinct categories:
- Knowledge and learning communities
- Advisory communities
- Event communities
- Membership communities
- Brand communities
- Communities of action
Let’s take a closer look at these six types of online community.
1. Knowledge and learning communities
This type of community is suited for organizations which rely on the sharing of information and knowledge. They are tailor-made for the purpose of sharing insight, offering a glimpse into the research process and peer review. For these organizations, communities add depth to their products and services and invite their audiences to engage with them more actively. They also allow brands to engage with experts and influencers in their field, helping them to become a go-to destination for expertise.
For knowledge-sharing brands, building an online community allows them to create a hub of discussion around their content. This can be supplemented by contributions from community members, extending the shelf life for published research and opening the door to a wider range of perspectives.
Wilmington Healthcare’s OnMedica community is a great example of a successful knowledge and learning community, designed for use by healthcare professionals. The community offers a wide range of resources to the medical community, from clinical reference material to news and comments from other doctors. Due to the potentially sensitive nature of some of the resources available via OnMedica, as well as the need for trustworthy resources, the community was equipped with a verification process that only grants complete access to GMC registered doctors.
2. Expert networks & advisory committees
Expert networks are designed to benefit organizations with knowledge and insight to share. They allow companies to highlight the wisdom and experience of their consultants and advisors, as well as offering a direct channel to these experts for community members.
Communities in this vein connect business leaders with industry experts, allowing them to access their expertise and build valuable relationships within their industry. One example of a community in this vein is Lifelabs, which showcases experts in order to help users find a life coach who suits their needs.
3. Event communities
At the heart of an event is a community of like-minded people united by a shared interest. For many B2B conferences and exhibitions, this community comes together every year, sometimes several times, to network and discuss the latest in their industry. Event communities extend this engagement and nurture the conversations all year round, providing value for sponsors, speakers and attendees alike.
With real-life events being almost entirely unavailable for the past year, online event communities have thrived. From conventions and expos to live musical performances, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that almost any event can be converted successfully to a virtual format. But this is more than just a flash in the pan – the virtual events industry is now on course to be worth $774 billion by 2030, with virtual and hybrid events replacing many in-person ones permanently.
4. Membership communities
At their core, communities are about bringing people together. Membership communities are created with this exact purpose in mind, uniting people who work in similar fields and prompting innovation and collaboration. The need for these communities has risen dramatically over the past year, with many industries still depending on regular interaction between members in order to continue carrying out their work during the pandemic.
Several Zapnito communities fit this description, including Wiley’s Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) which connects those with a passion for molecular life sciences. By connecting the best and brightest minds in this field, scientists are able to collaborate and share their thoughts with others from across the globe.
5. Brand communities
In the modern age of marketing, building a relationship with customers that functions as a two-way street is absolutely essential. Brand communities open up this dialogue and offer a channel of communication between brand and customer, allowing customers to feel personally involved in the journey of a brand by providing ways for them to participate.
Longstanding Zapnito partner Springer Nature have used their web of online communities to strengthen their ties with the scientific research community, with unique programs such as their ‘Behind the Paper’ scheme allowing readers of their journals to gain a greater insight into the process behind the science and feel more invested in the stories of researchers. As we enter the Open Access world of the future, this sense of involvement will be crucial in ensuring that Springer Nature retains readers and are able to persuade researchers to partner with them.
6. Communities of action
Some communities are set up with the aim of uniting people around a specific goal. These are communities of action. Communities of action unite people from different industries and areas of expertise to find solutions by pooling their resources.
One community of action powered by Zapnito is WildHub. Run by WildTeam, an organization dedicated to providing resources to animal conservationists, the community
facilitates partnership and collaboration between conservationists around the world. To date, the community has over 1000 members spanning 80 countries, allowing vital conservation work to continue during a time of severely limited international travel.
The history of online communities
Part 1: Forums & Chatrooms
The pivot towards more specialized online communities has been a trend of the last five years or so, after an era heavily dominated by social media. But there was once a time before the dawn of Facebook and Instagram when niche communities ruled the web.
As the World Wide Web began to explode in popularity in the late 1990s, it attracted a fervently dedicated following of hackers and tech enthusiasts who saw the near-limitless potential of the internet to permanently alter the way we share and consume information. The newfound ability to share and create with people all over the world could totally displace the power structures of our society, with everyday people no longer relying on traditional media giants for knowledge and entertainment.
The internet landscape of the early 21st century was largely defined by niche communities. Often, however, these took the shape of forums and chatrooms. While forums are home to a large range of thought-provoking discussion and can allow expert knowledge to be shared, they lack some of the key capabilities of the online communities we know today. Discussions in these spaces are often dominated by those who shout the loudest. The anonymity of forums, important though it may be in certain instances, makes it easier for people to be abusive to other members while hiding behind faceless accounts. It is perhaps these shortcomings which prevented forums from becoming the default mode of online interaction, paving the way for the rise of social media monopolies in the years that followed.
Part 2: The Rise of Social Media
The arrival of social networks such as Facebook and Myspace took the concept of online communities into the mainstream. By the end of 2010, Facebook had over 600 million active users worldwide, representing a fundamental shift in human behavior as online networking became almost inescapable.
As the algorithms became more mature and the social channels developed an increasingly accurate model of behavior, ad campaigns became ubiquitous. Sponsored content began to dilute the integrity of these sites, creating an avalanche of noise over which trusted voices struggled to be heard.
The last 5 years have seen trust in social media and traditional news outlets fall among millennials and Gen Z, heralding a pivot back towards more specialized online communities. Many within these demographics now value the opinions of their friends and fellow community members more than that of marketers and traditional advertising. Brands can take advantage of this developing trend by building their own communities, allowing them to amass a loyal following who will continue the conversation around their products and services.
Characteristics of online communities
We’ve already established that online communities can take many forms and serve a variety of purposes, from knowledge sharing to uniting the customers of a specific brand. However, the most successful communities generally tend to share a few of the following key characteristics:
- A clear plan for success
- Tailored towards wants/needs of members
- Encourages personal relationships/interaction between members
- Boosts expert voices
- Central to business strategy (not treated as an add-on)
Let’s zoom in a little here and break down what these five points mean.
1. A clear plan for success
For any online community to be successful, there needs to be a clear plan in place for success with achievable and quantifiable goals. For some communities, the aim is to attract as many members as possible. For others, success might be measured in ROI or the amount of organic content created by users. There are no right or wrong answers to the question of what success looks like, as long as everyone knows what they’re working towards and is pulling in the same direction.
This plan should also take into consideration how members will be greeted and directed upon joining the community. Having designated community managers is crucial here; it will be their job to direct members to features and content that they might find useful, as well as starting conversations and connecting users who might benefit from interacting with one another. Users of a new community will often be reluctant to interact with others at first, so it is crucial that someone is on-hand to get the ball rolling.
2. Tailored to wants/needs of members
Though having a clear plan is important for any community, it still pays to be flexible. If members are using the community differently than anticipated, it is better to roll with it than to try to change their behavior. As long as they are getting something out of the community, members will continue to return – and building a core group of returning users is a vital step on the road to a thriving online community.
The first members to join the community should be the sounding board for future developments. Find out what makes them tick and what they want out of an online community, and work towards making this a reality. It’s always better to aim to please the members you already have, rather than going after new ones.
3. Encouraging interaction between members
Communities exist to bring people together. What good is assembling the greatest minds in a chosen industry if there is no plan to foster interaction and collaboration?
Encouraging interaction between community members is particularly crucial to expert networks and knowledge-sharing communities. These industries thrive on connections being made and information being shared. The purpose of online communities is to facilitate this.
It is also important to consider the safety and privacy of members. The ability to network and interact is a vital component of any community, but so is providing the freedom and safety to enter conversations without the risk of harassment or abuse. The privacy of members should always be protected, even without the option of anonymity that social media provides.
4. Boosting expert voices
As we covered earlier, one of the main attributes of online communities that separates them from social media and forums is the ability to effectively provide a platform for expert voices. The leaders in a given field should be able to make their voices heard above the noise in order to share knowledge with those who can learn from it.
Online communities are able to provide this by controlling who has access to post content, meaning expert insights can be highlighted as such. This means that users get the most out of the information available to them, safe in the knowledge that it is coming from a verifiable source.
5. Central to business strategy
As online communities continue to experience a boom in popularity over the coming years, many organizations will seek to get in on the act. There are countless benefits to galvanizing an online community. Reducing acquisition costs is just one of them, as the referrals powered by a loyal network of brand advocates is significantly more effective than most ad campaigns.
What separates the best communities from the crowd, however, is that they are not treated as a gimmick or a publicity stunt. Running a successful online community is a full time job that requires time, energy and staff whose primary role is to oversee everyday management and ensure members’ needs are being met. An online community is more than just the software that powers it; any organization that builds its own community needs to be an active member and contributor.
So what have we learned?
In an online climate defined by excessive noise and broad social networks, many of us are increasingly concerned with ensuring our time online is spent wisely – particularly now that the pandemic has forced us to spend more time looking at screens than ever before. With this in mind, online communities are a sustainable investment for organizations looking to build trust, participation and lasting relationships with their customers and audiences.
With trends showing a pivot away from social media towards more niche online spaces, we will undoubtedly see online communities playing a more significant role in how businesses engage with their customers and even how we use our leisure time online. At a time when human connections and meaningful relationships are more sought after than ever, it’s time to start building brands around the people that make them successful and turn the brand-customer relationship into a two-way street.
For more information on how an online community could improve your relationship with your customers, get in touch with the Zapnito team today.