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What Is an Online Community?

Written by Hunter Montgomery | on August 18, 2016 at 8:30 AM

What is an online community?

In 2016, many executives and organizations understand that building online communities for their constituents to learn, share and collaborate is critical for growth and relevancy. They know that successful online communities can help them engage and inspire everyone -- customers, partners, members and prospects. And this is a big part of creating unique and individual customer experiences, which is incredibly valuable -- according to Gartner research, in 2016, 89 percent of businesses are expected to compete mainly on the basis of customer experience.

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. It’s not an easy balance to strike, especially when people bring different perspectives, expectations and timezones to the table. But it’s balance people expect from you and your organization -- and the engagement and excitement it creates has a positive effect on the entire organization’s value.

Optimal customer experience

Your customers have high expectations. 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 customers 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 functions for your organization, from content creation to marketing intelligence, but for the customers, they often play an enormous part in their experience. 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. If they 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.

And why do communities contribute to an overall better customer experience? In Jay Baer’s recent book, “Hug Your Haters,” he found that customer advocacy increases 16 percent when complaints are addressed. And, when negative reviews are not addressed, advocacy declines an average of 37 percent.

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 very similar on paper, but your constituents are certainly different -- and you want your community to be a good differentiator.

Engaging everyone

But not all communities look and feel the same -- they take many shapes and forms to fit the needs of their unique members and organization. In order to bring everyone online to your 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 the community for? The answer will influence your tactics and strategies to achieve high engagement.

Think of a community for a specific group. If it’s a community for people who use a specific tool or product, it’s purpose is 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, are secure and intuitive. The foundation upon which a community is built has two parts: technical -- what the platform has to offer -- and social.

Vibrant and multi-dimensional

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.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2014 has been updated for accuracy, relevance and freshness.

Original research explains the impact online communities have on businesses.

Topics: Online Community Management, Member Engagement, Online Community

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