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What is an Online Community? The Basics & Benefits

Written by Hunter Montgomery | on March 7, 2019 at 11:25 AM

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In the fast-paced world of modern technology, many leadership executives and organizations understand that building online communities for their customers or members to learn, share, and collaborate is critical for increasing growth and relevancy.

They know that successful online communities can help them engage and inspire their audience, creating the unique and individual experiences that improve the overall customer experience (CX). Focusing on CX in tandem with your online community is incredibly valuable in terms of driving loyalty, by the way.

Research from the Temkin Group found that companies that earn $1 billion annually can expect to gain, on average, an additional $775 million over 3 years of investing in customer experience (with SaaS companies standing to earn the most, at $1 billion).

For those who are still learning or want to brush up on their knowledge, we’re here to offer some clarity on what a successful online community is and how it can benefit organizational growth by helping you deliver value to your customers, partners, members, or prospects.

Spoiler alert: When we say online community, we’re not talking about Facebook. Keep reading...

At a base level, an online community is a group of people with a shared interest or purpose who use the internet to communicate with each other. Organizations often create online communities as a professional, sometimes private, network to bring people together around a shared business-based experience or purpose for expansive online collaboration and growth.

1. Private Online Communities Differ From Public Social Networks

Connecting to everyone in a voice and format that is educational, insightful and fun requires strategies and techniques that leverage individual contributions without compromising big picture goals and objectives.

But for people who don’t work directly with online community tools and strategies every day, a term like ‘online community’ can often become blended among a myriad of buzzwords surrounding social networks, platforms, and strategies.

One of the greatest areas of confusion for people who are new to the online community software industry is the differences between large public social media networks, like Facebook or LinkedIn for example, and smaller private communities, like branded online customer communities, partner communities, or member communities.

Think about the approach this way: while an average user might casually “spend time” on a public or personal social network, members of private online communities are often intent on investing time with a purposeful mindset, seizing the opportunity to engage with a specific organization’s community for personal growth or professional growth.

While these platforms share similarities, like the ultimate purpose of connecting people online, there are vast differences in their cost, functionality, and behavior when it comes to strategizing and targeting your audience.

What are those differences, you ask? Read The Ultimate Guide to Public Social Networks vs. Private Online Communities to find out more details.

2. An Online Community Can Optimize the Customer Experience

Whether your audience is made up of customers or members, they have high expectations (perhaps higher than you’d like to admit). In order to engage everyone, you need to create a distinctive and original experience that allows everyone to better function, create and innovate. And if your customers or members can effectively function, create and innovate with each other online, imagine the ripple effects throughout their experience – and your organization – offline.

Online communities have many internal functions for your organization, from content creation to marketing intelligence to effective integrations with other business solutions like marketing automation, but for the customers, they often play an enormous part in their experience and overall satisfaction. (See: 4 Stats that Link Customer Satisfaction to Your Online Community)

If you want customers to engage with you and each other, you need to show them that they’re being heard and you’re taking into account their feedback and thoughts. Leading brands use online communities to build meaningful relationships with customers or members, which translates into greater brand loyalty and upsell opportunities.

In fact, recent Aberdeen findings show that an online community platform helps firms improve return on marketing investment (ROMI) by 33 percent.

For more on that, check out this resource: [eBook] Transform Your Customer Marketing

At the end of the day, if your community members know they matter – which they do – they’ll actually feel invested in the community. And that sense of belonging translates to higher engagement and loyalty towards your organization.  

Don’t just use the community to benefit your organization. There needs to be something in it for your customers, too. Otherwise, why would they log in and interact? Use your community to create the best customer experience possible for everyone who interacts with your organization.

You and your competitors may look similar on paper, but an online community can be a great differentiator in terms of delivering value.

Learn more: 3 Customer-Focused Benefits of an Online Community

3. Online Communities are Built for Engagement & Empowered Communal Support

Not all communities look and feel the same – they take many shapes and forms to fit the needs of their unique members and organization. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for success.

In order to bring everyone to your online forum, you need to think broadly about everyone involved – how do they benefit from the community, and how inclusive is the space? To do so, first you need to be very clear on one question: what is your online community for? The answer will influence your tactics and strategies to achieve high engagement.

Ask yourself: Are You Prepared to Master the Engagement Economy?

Think of a community for a specific group. If it’s a community for people who use a specific tool or product, its purpose is to learn, educate and network with similar people. Or, if the community is for a local cycling group, it’s purpose is to connect, plan biking events and advocate for bike safety. No matter the community, it functions best when interactions are easy, make sense, secure, and intuitive.

One of the greatest benefits of an online community, aside from driving positive member-driven and customer-focused communications, is the ability to empower your people to self-serve, reducing customer support costs.

For example, Jama Software’s online support community serves as a primary knowledge base that customers often reference first for help. They found that even when customers do create a formal support ticket, 73 percent of Jama’s responding staff have found many inquiries can be solved easily by linking a customer directly to the best resource on the community.

“Our ticket volume has continued to go down since launching a community in 2014, even though our customer base has grown. The tickets that do come in are more technically challenging than they were in the past.” –Kristina King, Manager, Technical Support, Jama Software

Read the case study to learn more: Jama Software's Online Community Success Story

Bring a Vibrant & Multi-Dimensional Online Community to Life

Communities do not thrive because of lists or products or processes. A community is multi-dimensional and vibrant. And it thrives because of the people that are a part of it. People are unpredictable, creative and diverse, and bringing them together in a place where they can interact and engage can seem overwhelming. But it doesn't have to be – and it usually advances your organization.

By breaking down the traditional one-way exchange of information and opening up your communication, your community will deliver value far beyond expectations. When you’re able to tap into people's unique perspectives and invite them to share their expertise and knowledge with others, you inspire engagement and connections that are relevant and meaningful.

In the end, you will likely discover that people who feel like a critical part of the community because of their distinctive contributions are also those people who remain most loyal and lasting. This cycle of distinctiveness – tapping into the unique qualities of people and allowing them to influence others – is just one way a community can enhance an organization's ability to communicate, grow and remain relevant.

Want to learn more about how an online community can help you attract new members or customers, encourage engagement, drive retention, and increase revenue?  Take a look at our blog post: Measure What Matters: KPIs For Online Community Success.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in August 2016 and has since been updated to reflect accuracy and ensure we’re bringing you the latest and greatest.

Topics: Online Community Management, Engagement, Customer Communities, Member Communities, B2B Communities, Customer Experience, Member Experience, Member Engagement, Online Community

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