What Is An Online Community? (Plus How To Build One)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 11 May 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Online communities are an effective way for businesses to interact with their customers. These communities generally form around a common interest and can help enterprises to actively engage customers. Learning about the utility and features of active online communities can help you understand how to leverage them for business growth. In this article, we define 'What is an online community?', explain its benefits, discuss how they differ from social media groups, highlight the features of an effective community and share how to build one.

What is an online community?

Knowing the answer to 'What is an online community?' can help you understand how they can help businesses. An online community is a group of people who interact virtually, usually about a common interest, challenge or purpose. While many individuals create online communities based on interests, businesses also find it useful to cultivate an online community and interact with customers. These forums can have different rules, which may change based on the creator or purpose of the community. For example, companies that want to promote a particular product or service may create a community and only add existing customers.

Building an online community can be an excellent method to develop genuine relationships with your audience and consumers across digital platforms. These communities enable audiences to interact with a brand, share their experiences, learn more about upcoming products and find attractive discounts or offers. It is common for people to confuse online communities with social networking groups, but they are not the same. Online communities are usually more flexible in allowing members to post questions, start discussions and add comments. Besides writing posts, these communities usually allow users to communicate through engaging in real-time chats, tagging one another and sharing multimedia content.

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How online communities can help businesses grow

Here are some ways in which online communities help businesses market and promote their products:

Higher customer retention

Online communities allow consumers to ask or answer questions about a company's products and services. This helps customers gain confidence and show loyalty to the brand as they actively participate in a community with others. Active interaction and engagement can help improve customer retention and brand recognition value.

Reliable customer insight and feedback

Online communities can become a source of authentic customer complaints, queries and feedback. Product managers and designers can analyse the input from such communities to create products that meet customer expectations. These communities can also help businesses test product concepts and get feedback on upcoming product ideas. This can also result in higher innovation and creativity as companies try to incorporate customer feedback and innovate their products for maximum customer satisfaction.

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Increased engagement and interest

Active participation in answering questions, responding to queries and raising complaints can help customers increase their engagement with the business. Businesses value engaged customers who associate with their brand. This can help create a community of participative and active customers willing to respond to call-to-actions more easily.

Higher revenue and growth

By assisting businesses in promoting products and engaging customers, an online community can help improve revenue and sustain growth. These forums can act as an authoritative source of information about the company and its products and become a source of valuable customers and leads. Sales and marketing teams can also find relevant leads and prospects in online communities.

Streamlined customer service

Some businesses use online communities as a platform to offer seamless customer service. This is usually prevalent in technology companies, as starting new topics or raising complaints can result in registering a ticket for resolution. Having a dedicated platform for customer service can simplify the delivery process and improve customer satisfaction.

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Differences between branded online communities and social media groups

Here are some differences between online branded communities and groups on social media platforms:

  • Degree of engagement: A regular social media user may casually spend time on a public or personal social network and remain a passive participant in social media groups. Conversely, those who belong to private online groups tend to engage actively and more mindfully.

  • A**utonomy**: A community usually offers its participants more control than social media platforms. A business can modify the space to add new interactive features or apply moderation rules.

  • Security: Businesses allow community moderators to ensure customer privacy and information. This may not be possible on social media platforms, as personal data is easily available on such forums.

  • Accuracy: An online community can become a source of accurate and reliable customer feedback and information, as only verified or engaged customers usually participate. This may not be the case in public social media groups.

  • Tools for community management: Users and community members usually experience a more engaging and relatively spam-free experience with a community platform. This is because these platforms often have integrated tools that prevent spam, detect malware and reply when the moderators are unavailable.

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Features of great online communities

The following are some characteristics of effective and engaging online communities:

Active participation

One of the distinguishing features of a great online community is the active participation of members. It is essential for businesses to encourage members to initiate discussions, respond to questions and share their opinions. For example, many communities about technology products and companies have regular and lively discussions about upcoming products, features, improvements and updates.

Inclusive and supportive

Online communities that are diverse and inclusive of different users tend to have more active and engaging discussions. Allowing people to present their unique perspectives and share their opinion can help create a space where all members feel heard and valued. It is essential for businesses to focus on inclusivity to create a thriving, vibrant and active community of users who interact with each other despite their differences.

Thoughtful moderation

Since the internet can anonymise users and their identities, it becomes crucial to moderate the community against abuse or harassment of members. To ensure that everyone in the community feels secure and welcome, moderating the activity is essential. This is vital for the long-term growth and activity of the community, as it ensures that members can share their thoughts and ideas respectfully.

Sustained growth

No matter the size of the community, it is essential that it continues growing and adding new members. A great and influential online community continues to attract new members and engage them. Once the growth stagnates, it can be challenging to maintain the same level of engagement and participation from the existing members.

How to build an online community

Follow these steps to find out how to build an online community:

1. Define what you are trying to accomplish

It is essential to clearly identify the purpose of the community and define what utility it can serve for customers. This can also help design the community and select appropriate features during development. By highlighting the benefits of joining the community, businesses can encourage higher participation and engagement.

2. Select a community platform

Businesses can choose to host a community on their website or a separate web address. If the existing customers already exist on a third-party platform, companies can also consider starting a group there. This choice can depend on the intended size, purpose and accessibility to the community.

3. Identify internal and external stakeholders for the online community

Develop clear roles and responsibilities in managing and growing the community. Team members with specific roles, such as moderation or promotion, can work together to achieve shared goals. You may require a team of designers, developers, project managers, moderators and data entry specialists to run the community effectively.

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4. Develop moderation rules and norms

Create comprehensive rules of admission and engagement to establish a sense of discipline and fairness in the community. Make sure these rules are easy to read and understand. Appoint full-time or part-time moderators to monitor, approve and censor posts made by members. You can clearly define what behaviour or language can result in a penalty.

5. Promote your community

Getting people to join your community is crucial once the community is operational. Create promotional material targeting the main purpose of the community and share it with customers. Similarly, onboard valuable customers or influencers as the first members of the community and encourage them to promote it in their network.

6. Keep developing the community

Keep adding new features, changing the rules of moderation and increasing the security as per the feedback of members. Set up polls and questions to ask members what they expect from the community. Analyse which types of posts and discussions garner the maximum participation and encourage them.

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