What Exactly is an Online Community?

Though there are many advantages of online communities, including taking your professional networks online in a way that lets you own your data, relate through consent, and build authentic connection, the term itself can feel somewhat broad. With online communities popping up left and right, how do we actually define what an online community is and why it’s useful?

What is an Online Community & How can it Help Your Organization?

By definition, Market Business News (as well as a host of other reputable resources) defines online community as

“a group of people who have a common interest and communicate through the Internet. They get together online through websites, discussion boards, instant messaging, email, etc., and pursue their interests over time. An online community is a network of individuals who communicate with one another online.”

Now that we have a better understanding about what an online community is, let’s take a peek at the types of online communities that exist. Today, online communities can be put into two different categories. We have public social networks (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok), and branded online communities (the inverse of a public social network).

While public social networks are huge—and have fewer guidelines, restrictions, and requirements for joining—we’re going to focus on the latter. Branded online communities.

What is a Branded Online Community?

Whatever you want to call them—branded online communities, communities run by organizations, online communities for professionals—branded communities (like Mobilize) are the opposite of public social networks. 

Similar to the definition of an online community, branded online communities start out with “a group of people who have a common interest and communicate through the Internet,” but then kick it up a notch by defining that group of people as a professional network (again, as opposed to a social one).

What the professional network of a branded online community does is bring people together around an organization—and a common purpose or shared experience within that organization—and help it grow in meaningful, sustainable, collaborative ways. 

That is, help it grow far beyond and with much more depth, data ownership, and authenticity than a public social network ever could. No shade to public social networks (😉). 

By building your own branded online community (hint: it takes hard work, smart strategy, and distributed leadership, but it’s worth it!), your organization takes the traditional one-way exchange of information and transforms it into a better way to communicate and connect with its members, customers, employees, and partners.

The benefits? Well, to name a few: meaningful intra-community connection, a useful exchange of information and ideas, and increased return on investment. And, if you haven’t already heard, unlike with public social networks, having your own branded online community means you get to OWN YOUR DATA.

How Online Communities Increase Your ROI

Online communities increase ROI

How does building your own branded online community help your organization? While we’ll take a more in-depth look at this in a little bit, below are a few of the ways in which online community building promotes growth for your organization.

  • Drives product innovation
  • Helps you better know your customers, partners, and community members
  • Increases engagement
  • Helps position your organization as a go-to authority in your industry

Branded online communities also increase your return on investment in a major way. Over time, your online community appreciates in value as its membership expands and activity increases. 

According to CMX, “85% of marketers believe that having a branded online community improves the customer journey and increases trust.” In other words, when you support and nourish your community, your community supports and nourishes you (More on the seriously strong connection between marketing and online community building in a minute!). 

Take it from us, if you staff and build your community using a combination of effective strategy, distributed leadership, data, engaging content, and empathy, it will grow and give back to you in ways you never imagined.

13 Advantages of Online Communities

Now that you have a better idea about what an online community is—and, more specifically, a branded online community—let’s dig a little further into the advantages of online communities.

13 Benefits & Advantages of Online Communities
  1. When you opt to create your online community through a private platform, you get to collect unique data directly from your audience, with their consent, and OWN IT. Whoa.
  2. By tapping into unique data, your online community becomes far more useful and beneficial to your organization.
  3. Easy access to important data—our new analytics product makes it easier to make business decisions based on your data.
  4. Engagement! Through online communities, you truly get to know your members and, as a result, form more authentic and useful relationships with them. Once engagement, transparency, and mutual respect are established, your members will also tell you what it is they want from you (if you use it for good, that is).
  5. Online communities are lightyears ahead when it comes to security, control, and user trust.
  6. Each online community is like a virtual town hall. Through your very own town hall, your organization gains recognition, support, and connection. It can also become known as the go-to thought leader for your specific industry. 
  7. Online communities allow you to access the knowledge, insight, and hot topics of discussion occurring within an ENTIRE community. All at once and in an organized way.
  8. By building an online community, you automatically create a far better user experience. Along with trust, transparency, and value, user experience is integral to member retention and growth.
  9. Which leads us to: lead generation and member acquisition (online communities increase your discoverability—wahoo!).
  10. Thanks to feedback and input from your members, online communities are an excellent way to regularly improve your products and programs.
  11. By crowdsourcing support, you simultaneously decrease costs. How can you say no to either?
  12. When members of your online community are given roles, they become advocates for your community and bring others into the fold, all while gaining what they feel is important for their own personal and professional growth. Through this kind of relationship, the exchange becomes much more of a two-way one, as opposed to a traditional one-way.
  13. Online communities help you grow your organization as much as you want (like we always say, if you build it, they will come). Building online communities is no gimme—but put in the work with a dedicated and distributed team, and your community will grow!

Why you Should add an Online Community to Your Marketing Stack

While we’re fairly certain you know what a marketing stack is—or at least your marketing team does 😉—let’s start with a quick definition of the term. TechTarget defines a marketing stack as something that’s “also called a marketing technology stack… it’s a collection of technologies used by marketers to perform, analyze and improve their services.”

To which we will add: why wouldn’t an online community be part of your marketing stack and strategy?!

Most marketing stacks include an email marketing platform, a content management system (CMS), customer relationship management (CRM) software, and analytics tools for tracking different efforts across different mediums.

When you add a branded online community to your marketing stack, you automatically enhance your organization by:

Building member relationships beyond one-way email marketing – With your branded online community, you get to take engagement, intimacy, and authentic relationships far beyond what you would normally find through traditional email marketing campaigns.

When you create a branded online community as a marketer, you move from just “CRM” to “social CRM.” That is, from one-way communication to two-way communication. With the latter being how quality relationships are formed!

Owning the data and making the most of it– As we touched on earlier, when you build your own branded online community, you get to own the data (no third-party miners or interference!). 

With this unique data, the world is (almost) your oyster. You can continuously improve user experience, products, tools, and more. All thanks to explicitly shared data.

Improving SEO – While the algorithms (thankfully) change, and seem to get better, every year, SEO remains imperative to the discovery and growth of brands and organizations.

How does a branded online community boost SEO?

Online communities help generate a healthy flow of user-generated content (UGC)! And because content is queen when it comes to user engagement and SEO (UGC tends to rank higher in search results and people trust it more), when you receive an influx of quality UGC via your branded online community, you in turn can use that content to further inform and support your organization’s SEO.

In a small nutshell, a branded online community ensures that, if you’re going to put in the time, effort, and resources, you’re going to get the kind of unique data you deserve. The kinds that you can then use to build even more authentic, two-way communications and relationships that drive awareness, promote loyalty and advocacy and inspire growth.

Types of Online Community Management Platforms

Community platforms have many different purposes.

When it comes to community management platforms, there isn’t just one kind. In fact, there are a number of different types of online community management platforms to choose from, depending on your goals and the kind of organization you run.

As TrustRadius notes, community platforms “manage the process of creating and maintaining a space for productive discussion among community members. Members can share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns.”

Not sure which kind of community management platform is right for you? Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Product/ Brand Communities When it comes to products and brands, the way to a customer’s heart exists both within the product itself, as well as far beyond the product. Whether we realize it or not, as humans we all want to identify with “our people” and “community.” Which roughly translates to: it’s a really good idea to build a product or brand community where your customer connects, engages, and feels like they’re part of something bigger than just your product.

“A brand community is a group of customers who are invested in a brand beyond what is being sold… While this might be a new idea for you, many of the world’s best brands have been putting community building to the test for years”

Insight Communities Insight communities are “a way of conducting research with a group of people over a period of time. The group can be very large (thousands of people), very small (less than a dozen) or anywhere in between… They can last a few days or continue indefinitely. And they can be closely controlled or they can be very open and organic.”

While this definition of insight community sounds a little all over the place, ultimately what insight communities offer are more in-depth profiles of highly engaged members. All through first-party data collected from specific people in real time.

Listservs A listserv is “a method of communicating with a group of people via email. You send one email message to the ‘reflector’ email address, and the software sends the email to all of the group’s subscribers.”

While listserves do serve a purpose, let’s take a quick peek at how they eventually fail when it comes to authentic online community building.

Best Alternative to Listserv (hint: Online Community!)As we’ve said before, an online community management platform is the best alternative to a listserv. Why? Mostly because:

“As your community grows in complexity… the limitations of a listserv become apparent. A listserv’s greatest strengths—its ubiquity and focus on email can also be its weakness. Your audience expects to use SMS, apps, social media, and many other forms of communication. Listservs don’t meet these expectations… Listserv members can have a tough time finding history or communication threads relevant to them, making it hard for new community members to catch up, or for veterans to make good use of shared knowledge…. At this point member engagement declines significantly, defeating the purpose of group communication in the first place.”

Membership Communities Membership communities and membership community platforms “allow you to restrict access to exclusive content and accept online payments, donations, and fees.” This more or less means that membership community platforms are great at giving businesses and brands the power to create members-only areas.

Inside these members-only areas, brands can offer content like coaching, special reports, newsletters, events, and much more.

Which is the best Community Management Platform for you?

Well, it depends. Several factors can help you decide which community platform is best for your specific needs.

When choosing the best community management platform for your organization, you’ll need to know the kind of online community (see above) you want to build. You’ll also need to define your goals and objectives and, as TrustRadius points out, “consider whether membership will be explicit and exclusive so that the community is open to registered members only… and [perhaps] set up a free community platform or private social network group to run a testing phase.”

However you begin building your online community, and whichever community management platform you choose, the thing is to begin! Once you do, you’ll know even more about what works and doesn’t work for your community objectives, and your efforts will eventually snowball into one beautifully built and managed online community.

Best Alternative to Facebook Groups

We wax left and right about how the best alternative to Facebook Groups is a private online community.

We could also tell you how Facebook Groups are restrictive, noisy, and rather hard to manage. Or how, to quote ourselves, “as Facebook’s timeline gets filled up with more and more content, your group [becomes] competition with hundreds of brands and friends for attention—limiting your ability to connect with your external group.”

But nobody likes mansplaining or unsolicited advice, so we thought we’d share a little about how private online communities differ from public ones. And let you decide for yourself whether or not Facebook is still your organization’s best friend.

So, here we go.

How Online Community Platforms Differ from Facebook, LinkedIn & Social Media

Community platforms aren't the same as Facebook.

While Facebook, LinkedIn, and other public social networking platforms are wildly popular, they have been one of the only options for quite some time. 

Mostly riddled with third-party data sharing, vanity metrics, opaque data policies and hidden consent terms (thank you, iOS 14.5), and lackluster customer support, the growth of private online communities is indeed a much-welcomed breath of fresh air. Albeit one the world of online community platforms has had to convince people they should take. Just breathe in, it will be ok. 

Circling back to the point where we first defined “online community” as the inverse of a public social network (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc), let’s dive a little deeper now.

While users generally spend time on social network platforms in a rather casual, scrolling kind of way, individuals who belong to private online communities are there for very specific reasons.

With online community platforms, users are not passing time between the dentist and an oil change. Nor are they mindlessly scrolling. For private online community members, it’s all about making the best use of their time in a targeted way. They’re asking: Why am I here? What do I want out of this relationship? How can this benefit me?

In other words, online community members want to engage with a specific organization’s community for very specific reasons: personal growth, professional growth, showcasing their expertise, sharing insight, tapping into trusted thought-leadership hubs. 

It’s extremely difficult to accomplish any of these things when the platform you’re trying to accomplish them on is public, ad-driven, and full of chatter. When shared through public social media platforms, insight and expertise often gets diffused and lost in the noise, algorithms, and near-constant scroll of users.

For real community engagement to occur, members also need to feel 100% in sync with an online community. They need to know how it protects their privacy, feel as if they belong to it, and feel comfortable asking questions and sharing insight within it. 

It’s in these finite yet really important elements (data privacy, comfort, personal and professional growth opportunities, etc) where online community platforms differ greatly from Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networking sites.

Examples of Online Communities

Now that we’ve gone through some of the defining characteristics of online communities, and what sets them apart from public social networks, we thought we’d share a few online communities in action. Take a look at some of the online communities powered by Mobilize.

Work with experts who build successful communities

Mobilize is made up of community experts who have launched communities for the likes of the National Restaurant Association, United Nations’ SDSN, Dermalogica, and more. We work with you to align your business goals with a tailored community strategy to ensure its success.

Whether you’re just getting started or are looking to improve outcomes with your existing community — we have strategies and industry-tailored programs to help you get things done. Schedule a demo for a personalized walk-through of our technology and learn about our expert-led strategy services.