Online communities: Why we sign up. Why we settle down.

A headshot of Amanda Moloney

by Amanda Moloney

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Marketing nomenclature seems to reinvent itself every season. While some of today’s trendier (read: fleeting) marketing terms are so niche you won’t find them in any self-respecting dictionary, the word community suffers from a different kind of definition problem: it has far too many. As this Together Institute article points out, “the term is used as a catch-all phrase for anything that has to do with a collection of human beings, from the very tangible to the very abstract.”

Today, we want to talk about why people join — and continue to participate in — online communities. In this context, community has much less to do with physical location and much more to do with where your head is at.

An online community is defined and held together by the underlying connections between members. These connections may be based on deeply personal things like core beliefs, spiritual affiliations and socio-political ideologies, or more public things like hobbies, interests or professional paths. They may be things you actively pursued, like a passion for restoring antiques or being a dog owner. They may be things you never wanted to identify with, like being the parent of a child with leukemia or a compulsive gambler.

Online communities offer people a place to gel over shared experiences, values, goals and interests — no matter how obscure —  and irrespective of physical geography. The platform provides the “how” to form a community, but people still need a “why” in the form of a compelling reason to join and participate. These, humans have in droves. 

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We are social animals, with a complex and nuanced hierarchy of not just physical but mental and emotional needs. We have sought out and maintained ‘tribes’ since we were living in actual tribes trying — collectively — to get enough to eat and not get flattened by woolly mammoths, millions of years ago. Today, we rely on our respective tribes to feel safe, valued and included—but we want to pursue our own individual interests and desires too. Paradoxically, communities are able to foster both individualism and unity. When we find our tribe, we find the freedom to become our truest, most authentic selves. 

You might meet someone at random and luck into a shared connection, but we usually find people we like by doing what we like to do. Individuals are drawn to communities for different reasons.

Why We Join

Here are just a few of the most common motivations for joining a community, and how you can be there to serve them:

To learn something new.

Communities are an amazing place to learn something new or learn more about something you already love. Communities provide insightful, stimulating content that is refreshed on a consistent basis. Things like tutorials, AMAs, FAQs, and whitepapers are great sources of information that community members are able to dig into and follow up on by asking questions or getting help straight from the experts. 

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Of course, members themselves are also an excellent resource, with forums and chats allowing for organic discussion to unfold. There are plenty of interesting, intelligent and creative people online who are more than eager to share their knowledge and skills with the rest of the community. The best community managers focus on enabling members to exchange valuable information and ideas. They dole out a steady flow of timely, relevant content, pose thoughtful questions and present intriguing problems that solicit comments and input.

To be inspired.

Be assured that just when you think you’ve done/heard/seen it all, someone in an online community just posted something that will totally knock your socks off. Communities that know a thing or two about engagement provide not only quality content but plenty of avenues to drive and reward self-expression and keep the inspo flowing. These initiatives can include creative challenges, contests and activities which gain the most traction when they include baked-in feedback loops, reward systems and prizes. The result is an avalanche of awesomely inspiring activity that members can get truly excited about.

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The LEGO Ideas community does this exceptionally well. The community brings together passionate fans and creators from around the world to imagine, iterate, and evaluate ideas—some of which actually become new LEGO kits. They also run weekly challenges where members share and compare their original creations while earning points and badges that they can use as ‘currency’ elsewhere on the platform. They often put awesome prizes up for grabs including shopping sprees, signed LEGO sets, rare items and sometimes even trips. Even without all these bells and whistles, a community can simply incorporate member profiles or spotlights to put their most inspirational members on a pedestal. 

To connect with like-minded folks.

Since online interaction is basically all that a physically-distanced society can offer, the ability to simply connect with others has perhaps never been so important. But even in the best of times, our hectic, independent lives can make it difficult to find people you really click with. When someone finds an online community they’re interested in, they’re also likely to find people they’re interested in getting to know. At the very least, they’ll find a safe space to geek out about whatever they’re into among others who are equally passionate. 

A colourful cartoon illustration of two people sitting on a park bench, reading a book, and having a conversation.

Providing open discussion spaces allows for conversation to organically flow. To some extent, community members are responsible for fuelling these discussions themselves, but the community manager can still facilitate and guide things in the right direction. Providing new member introductions or simply asking members to introduce themselves to each other can be enough to get the ball rolling. It also behooves managers to set and enforce a good set of community guidelines to keep your forums and message boards free from personal attacks, discrimination and hate of any kind. As every space — online or off — should be.

To gain exclusive access.

Who doesn’t love having the inside scoop? Everybody relishes being treated like a VIP, and communities that offer plenty of perks are super attractive to prospective members. These perks could include things like members-only discounts, free samples, giveaways or prizes. But as surely as people love free stuff, they also love stuff other people don’t have. You don’t have to shower them with swag to show that you care. Insider newsletters or blogs, behind-the-scenes videos, early access to products or access to exclusive events and the opportunity to take part in product/user trials or feedback forums all do the trick. 

A big caveat with these kinds of communities is to ensure that you’re providing lots of consistent reasons to stick around, so that you don’t end up with thousands of sign-ups but no active members. Provide ongoing ways to keep your membership entertained, educated, informed, inspired, challenged and so on. At the end of the day, you want your members to feel like their lives are better because they are part of your community—and that takes more than extrinsic rewards. 

To progress towards a shared objective.

By bringing a large number of diverse and motivated people together in one place, online communities can excel at collaboration. Working towards a common goal can accelerate social bonding between community members and help your community achieve amazing things for your brand. People want to contribute their ideas, enthusiasm and energy to the brands they care about most. Why not invite your biggest fans and best customers to have a say in how things are done by working with them to innovate and solve problems together?

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Co-creation is an ongoing, collaborative process that can deliver continuous value. You can launch an ambitious creative or innovation challenge — like inventing a new product, building something awesome or producing entertaining content — to give your community something to really dig into.

Be sure to provide regular progress updates and consider hosting live streams with organizers and leaders to keep people excited and invested. You’ll also want to provide some lighter, complementary activities to give participants opportunities to warm up their creative brains and interact with each other, build a shared understanding of the problem, suggest and improve on ideas, give feedback to others, discuss implementation opportunities and roadblocks, and reflect on the process. These activities become a treasure trove of data and insights your marketing and product development teams can surely put to good use.

Making it stick. 

To its members, a community becomes far more than a product or service. In some cases, a community is an integral part of members’ social lives and identity. This is true even for communities built around a product or service. The importance of having respect for your members and the time, energy and loyalty they invest in your community cannot be overstated. People chose your community for a reason and it’s in your best interests to make it worth their while and support them on their journey. Some people will join the community for one reason and then stay for another. Don’t be afraid to introduce members to new things to do that are adjacent to their initial reason for signing up. 

There are many different reasons for joining an online community. Even the most intellectual or rational reasons also usually involve an emotional payoff. Remember that whatever the original factor was in motivating someone to click the “sign up” button, they will only continue to come back and engage because the community fulfills a human need. They want to learn, share, grow, get perks or be entertained while feeling heard and valued. If your community is a valuable, interesting and enjoyable place to be, your members are much more likely to keep coming back for more.

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