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What is an Online Community?

Last updatedJuly 1, 2024
AuthorKai Forsyth

An online community is a digital space where people connect and interact with each other around a shared interest, passion, or goal. These virtual gathering spots have become an integral part of how we build relationships, exchange ideas, and find belonging in an increasingly digital world.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the ins and outs of online communities. We’ll cover what they are, how they differ from social networks and audiences, and the powerful benefits they offer to both members and organizations. Whether you’re looking to join a community or build one of your own, this guide will give you the foundation you need. Let’s dive in!

What is an Online Community?

At its core, an online community is a group of people who interact with each other on the internet around a shared interest, goal, or purpose. It’s a digital space where folks with something in common come together to learn, discuss, support each other, and build relationships.

Think of an online community like a neighborhood. Members have their own virtual homes (their profiles), there are public spaces to mingle (forums, posts), and the whole group is united by something they have in common—whether that’s a hobby, profession, or passion.

So what makes a true online community? Let’s look at some of the key features you’ll typically find:

  • Posts or threads where members can start conversations, ask questions, and share knowledge
  • Commenting to facilitate discussion
  • Member profiles to showcase identities and build trust
  • Private messaging or tagging to connect individually
  • Upvoting, liking, or point systems to surface the best content
  • Notifications to keep members coming back
  • Subgroups to dive deeper into niches
  • Diverse content formats like text, images, video, livestreaming, etc.

The exact mix of features will vary from community to community, but they all work towards the same goal: sparking conversations and forging connections.

Open vs Closed Communities

Another important distinction is whether a community is open or closed. In an open community, like public Reddit forums, anyone can view content and participate. The benefit is the potential to reach a wider audience. But there’s also less control over membership and content quality.

In a closed or private community, members must meet certain criteria to join, whether that’s paying a subscription, applying for access, or being invited. These gated communities foster greater trust, privacy and depth of conversation—but may grow more slowly.

The choice between open and closed depends on the community’s goals. But in either case, what defines a real community is sustained interaction, not just passive content consumption. Members don’t just absorb information, they discuss and contribute themselves.

Online Community vs Social Network

If you’re active online, you’ve probably heard the terms “online community” and “social network” used interchangeably. But while they share similarities, communities and social networks aren’t one and the same. Here’s how to distinguish them:

Social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, are built to facilitate broad communication among people with existing connections. You add friends, family and acquaintances, and your feed is populated by their posts and updates. The relationships are the foundation.

Online communities, on the other hand, are united by shared interests first. Members may not know each other initially, but they join because they care about the community’s topic. The relationships form through participating in discussions and getting value.

Think about a social network you belong to. Most likely, you joined because your friends were there. Now consider a community you’re a part of. Chances are, you sought it out because you wanted to learn or discuss something specific.

While you can certainly find and join communities on social networks (like Facebook Groups), standalone communities tend to foster more focused, in-depth discussions. Why? A few reasons:

  • Intentional membership: In an online community, everyone is there because they consciously chose to be. They want to engage with the content and people. On social networks, many are there to passively scroll and click “like”.

  • Niche focus: Online communities generally drill down into specialized subtopics. For example, while you might find a general photography group on a social network, a dedicated photography community would have areas for landscape photos, portrait techniques, gear reviews, post-processing tips, and more. The specificity leads to richer, more substantive conversations.

  • Sense of trust and belonging: People often report that they are more likely to feel a sense of belonging and willingness to share opinions in online communities compared to social networks. The focused discussions and option for more privacy creates an environment of trust.

  • Less noise: Social networks are designed for quick hits of information and entertainment. Ads, memes, and life updates from your cousin compete for attention. But in a well-managed online community, everything revolves around the shared purpose, leading to more signal and less noise.

None of this is to say that social networks are inferior to communities. They’re just different tools, better suited for different purposes. And in fact, they can work well in tandem.

Many organizations, especially businesses focused on building brand communities, use social networks to build awareness and funnel people to their communities for deeper engagement. You can think of your social network presence as the top of your engagement funnel—grabbing attention—while the community is the lower portion, where you form relationships and nurture brand loyalty.

Audience vs Community

If you’re a business, creator, or organization, you might wonder what distinguishes a community from your general audience or customers. Let’s break it down.

An audience is a one-to-many relationship. The communication is primarily from you to them, like on a blog, email newsletter or social media account. They consume the content you broadcast.

A community is a many-to-many relationship. Members interact with each other, not just with you. There’s a sense of belonging and investment that goes beyond passive consumption.

Think of an audience as people who watch a TV show, while a community is akin to a fan club for that show. In the fan club, people don’t just watch, they discuss the episodes, share fan theories, and feel a sense of kinship with each other.

As the leader (the brand/creator/organization), your role shifts from broadcaster to facilitator. Rather than doing all the talking, you spark discussions, make connections, and provide a platform.

For example, let’s say you sell online fitness courses. Your audience is everyone who follows you on social media, reads your blog, or subscribes to your newsletter. They’re consuming your content, but not necessarily interacting with each other.

Now imagine you launch a private community for your course customers. In this space, they can ask each other questions, share progress, swap meal prep tips, and get accountability. Suddenly, they’re not just learning from you, but from a whole support network.

The relationship goes from a one-way street to a whole neighborhood. And that’s powerful for several reasons:

  • Peer support leads to better results: Think of Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous. We’re more likely to achieve our goals with the support of others on the same path.

  • Community builds loyalty: When members build relationships and get value from each other (not just from you), they’re more likely to stick around long-term.

  • You can crowdsource insights: What questions come up over and over? What do people get excited about? Communities provide a direct line to your audience’s needs and interests, which you can use to improve your offerings.

  • Communities are a powerful differentiator: In a crowded market, a thriving community can set you apart and increase the perceived value of your brand. People want to be part of something greater than themselves.

Shifting from an audience mindset to a community one can feel uncomfortable at first. It requires giving up some control and shining the spotlight on your members. But when done well, it pays off in dividends.

Types of Online Communities

While online communities share common characteristics, they can also take different forms based on their primary purpose. Here’s a quick overview of the 5 main types of communities, which can all manifest in online spaces:

While these types provide a helpful framework, many online communities blend elements of multiple categories. The key is understanding the core purpose that brings your particular community together.

Benefits of Building an Online Community

Online communities offer unique advantages that set them apart from traditional, in-person communities. When thoughtfully designed and nurtured, they deliver immense value to both members and organizations. Let's explore some of the key benefits that make online communities so powerful.

For community members

Connect with diverse perspectives from around the world

One of the greatest strengths of online communities is their ability to bring together people from diverse backgrounds, regions, and walks of life. Unrestricted by geographical boundaries or time zones, members can connect with others who share their interests, no matter where they are in the world. This diversity exposes members to new ideas, experiences, and ways of thinking that they might not encounter in their local circles.

For example, in an online community for entrepreneurs, a member from a small town in the United States can learn from the experiences of a seasoned business owner in Singapore, while also sharing their own unique perspective. This global exchange of ideas fosters innovation, personal growth, and a richer understanding of the world.

Access support and resources 24/7

Online communities provide a space where members can seek help and support whenever they need it. Unlike physical communities that may only gather at set times, online communities are always active. Members can post a question or share a challenge at any hour, and there's a good chance someone will be available to offer guidance or encouragement.

This round-the-clock access to support is particularly valuable for communities focused on topics like mental health, parenting, or addiction recovery, where timely support can make a significant difference in a member's well-being and success. The ability to tap into the collective wisdom of the community at any time empowers members to overcome obstacles and make progress on their own terms.

Learn and grow through easily discoverable content

Online communities are treasure troves of knowledge, with valuable insights and resources accumulated over time through member interactions. This user-generated content is not only beneficial for active participants but also for those who discover the community through search engines.

For instance, a programmer struggling with a specific coding challenge might search online and stumble upon a thread in a developer community where members have discussed and solved that exact issue. Even without actively participating, the programmer can learn from the collective experience of the community.

As more content is created and indexed, the community becomes an increasingly valuable resource that can attract new members organically. This discoverability amplifies the impact of the community, allowing it to serve as a hub of knowledge and support for anyone who seeks it out.

For companies

Scale customer support and reduce costs

For businesses, online communities provide a scalable way to support customers and users in customer communities. By encouraging peer-to-peer support, companies can leverage the knowledge and experience of their user base to address common questions and issues. This not only provides faster, more diverse support for customers but also reduces the burden on the company's support team.

As the community grows, so does the wealth of user-generated content and solutions. Over time, this creates a robust, searchable knowledge base that customers can turn to for self-service support. By deflecting a portion of support inquiries to the community, companies can significantly reduce support costs while still providing excellent customer care.

Gather insights and feedback to drive product innovation

Online communities provide an unparalleled opportunity to gather insights and feedback directly from customers and users in customer communities. By observing the conversations and discussions within the community, companies can gain a deep understanding of their customers' needs, pain points, and desires.

This real-time feedback loop enables companies to make data-driven decisions about product development, feature prioritization, and resource allocation. For example, if a software company notices a recurring request for a specific integration or feature within their community, they can use that insight to inform their product roadmap and deliver value to their users more efficiently.

The open dialogue within online communities also allows for more iterative and collaborative product development. Companies can engage users in the co-creation process, soliciting ideas, testing prototypes, and refining solutions based on community feedback. This partnership not only leads to better products but also fosters a sense of ownership and loyalty among community members.

Establish thought leadership and build brand advocacy

Online communities provide a powerful platform for companies to demonstrate their expertise and establish themselves as thought leaders in their industry. By actively participating in discussions, sharing valuable content, and helping community members succeed, companies can build trust and credibility with their target audience.

This thought leadership not only attracts new customers but also transforms existing customers into passionate brand advocates. When members experience the value and support of the community firsthand, they are more likely to recommend the company's products or services to others. This organic word-of-mouth marketing is invaluable in today's crowded digital landscape.

Moreover, the user-generated content within the community, such as success stories, case studies, and testimonials, serves as powerful social proof for potential customers. As the community grows and more members share their positive experiences, it creates a virtuous cycle of growth and advocacy for the brand.

Expand reach and acquire new customers

The open, discoverable nature of online communities makes them a valuable channel for attracting new customers and expanding brand reach. As community members engage in discussions and share content, they create a rich tapestry of keywords, questions, and topics that can surface in search engine results.

For example, if someone searches for tips on a specific topic related to your industry, they may discover a helpful thread from your customer community in the search results. This inbound traffic not only exposes your brand to new potential customers but also allows them to experience the value of your community firsthand.

Furthermore, online communities can serve as a gateway to your other offerings. By providing valuable content and support within the community, you can build trust and demonstrate your expertise, making members more likely to explore your products, services, or paid membership options. This organic customer acquisition path often leads to higher conversion rates and customer lifetime value compared to traditional marketing channels.

Summary

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this guide, from the definition of an online community to the nitty-gritty of how they benefit members and organizations. But if there’s one overarching takeaway, it’s this: Online communities are powerful. They’re transforming how we interact, learn, and connect with each other and with the brands and causes we care about.

We crave belonging and purpose in an increasingly digital world. Communities offer a way to find “our people” and go deeper than surface-level interactions. They give us spaces to geek out about our passions, get vulnerable about our challenges, and feel seen and supported.

And for organizations, communities are a game-changer. They provide a direct line to your customers or audience, a way to gather insights, increase loyalty, and yes, drive real business results. Building a community takes effort and long-term commitment, but the payoff—for your members and your company growth can be immense.

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