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What Is an Online Community? Everything You Need to Know

A headshot of Kennedy Lukey

by Kennedy Lukey

A colourful cartoon illustration of a community garden with working together.

When it comes to defining what an online community is, it is important to first understand the concept of community itself. While definitions vary by source, what is common across each interpretation is people. People, connection, and a sense of belonging are at the centre of every community, on or offline. 

Fabian Pfortmüller defines a community as “a group of people that care about each other & feel they belong together.” This sentiment holds true for online communities as well, but instead of gathering in person, members gather and connect online, irrespective of physical location.  

What is an Online Community?

Take a moment to think about the online communities you may be a part of, perhaps without even realizing that that’s what they are. Maybe you keep up-to-date with old friends in a university alumni group on LinkedIn, regularly contribute homemade recipes to a Facebook group like Mom’s Best Recipes, or belong to a super niche subreddit about a hobby you picked up abroad (don’t worry, we don’t judge). 

An online community is a digital space where people come together over common interests and experiences, mutual goals and actions, or a shared purpose. Every online community comes with its own unique set of norms, rules, and guidelines, depending on the community’s objectives.

Community objectives can range anywhere from holding one another accountable to solving real-world challenges. The objective of wallstreetbets (WSB) subreddit is to rally amateur investors around exciting stock picks. The objectives of the Salesforce Trailblazer Community are to bring Salesforce users together for local meet-ups and to help each other get the most out of their unique Salesforce implementations. 

The Different Types of People in Communities

Every online community, whether it’s a local Hot Wheels collector club or a national environmental association, has three distinct groups that engage or interact with it.

Community Members

Every online community is unique because its members and the ways they engage with the community and one another are unique. Each member has their own participation preferences, and some contribute and engage more than others. 

A recent study found that there are two distinct participation styles, both equally important to the success of an online community. 

  1. Frequent Interactors
  2. Infrequent Interactors

Members with stronger shared interests tend to interact more frequently than members with less in common. In general, frequent interactors tend to contribute ideas, whereas infrequent interactors provide feedback and conversation around those ideas. 

Although frequent interactors make up only about 20% of the member base in most communities, they account for almost 80% of the interactions. This closely follows the well-known Pareto Principle

Community Visitors

Community visitors are the people that “drop by” a community but aren’t actively participating. They get value from the community by observing, learning, and being inspired, even if they aren’t the ones engaging. 

Communities support search engine optimization (SEO) for brands by providing a constantly updated source for valuable content. Visitors who reference content from the community help build out the link footprint that improves search rankings.

A colourful cartoon illustration of a woman riding a bike with a basket on either end full of fruit and flowers.

Community Administrators

To ensure community health and vibrancy, there are two common community roles: community managers and community moderators. 

A community manager’s role is to ensure that the community and its members are active and engaged. They design programs filled with interesting and valuable things to do and activities that will help make sure community members are engaged and keep coming back.  

Community moderators are responsible for guiding participation and ensuring that community guidelines are being followed. They are often thought of as the party hosts.

Branded Online Communities

A common form of an online community is a branded online community. Brand communities are created and owned by organizations, and they are online gathering places where people connect over their affinity for a brand, its products, its services, or its mission. Other times brand communities are used by organizations to connect with employees, partners, or other important stakeholders.

There are many use cases for branded online communities, and we will cover 15 (!!!) of them a little later in this article. They often revolve around marketing, support, or innovation. 

Learn More: Why Brands Should Launch a Customer Community

Community Platforms vs. Social Platforms

To those new to the online community world, it’s rather easy to confuse an ‘online community’ with an online social network. 

Perhaps the biggest difference between an online community and a social network is intent. Although people might spend their free time on social media, casually browsing content and aimlessly liking posts from others, most of the interactions are fairly one-sided and lack true interaction and engagement. Members of an online community, however, are intentionally investing their time in a space they know provides them with a sense of belonging, purpose, and ultimately value. 

Brands use social media as a way to broadcast information to their followers or audience, and online communities are used by brands to connect with their members over shared interests, like a love of their brand. Communication goes both ways and both parties gain value from the interaction.

While your customers might be able to follow your brand on social media, like and comment, to truly engage and connect with them, you’ll need an online community to do so.  

Learn more: The Difference Between an Audience and a Community

When it comes to branded online communities, making the distinction between community platforms and social platforms is crucial. While some brand communities are hosted on social media platforms, like Peloton’s for example, it is more common for these organizations to use online community software (like ours). 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a community, but typically there are two strategies:

  1. Go where your customers are
  2. Build first and invite your customer to join

Go where your customers are: It is likely that many (if not all) of your customers are already active on social media. They might already follow you on Twitter, Instagram, and maybe even Facebook. 

When you go to where your customers are already connecting and engaging, you minimize the recruitment efforts needed to build a vibrant community. The downside is that you have to play by the rules of the social media platform you choose to build your community on. 

Peloton’s Facebook group may have reaped the benefits of quick scaling and minimal setup time, but they also run the risk of a lack of privacy and security because Facebook owns all of their data. Additionally, Facebook and other social platforms offer limited ways for members to participate, often providing no more than a simple ‘like’ or ‘comment’ option for members to interact with other members and your brand. This pales in comparison to the features and functionalities that come with a community platform. 

Learn more: If You Build It, They Will Come… Right?

Build first and invite your customers to join: When you choose to build a community using a community platform, you may have to put more effort into building awareness and getting members to join, but the upside often outweighs this initial obstacle. 

Community platforms provide you with a space you own, including all of your members' data. Backend reporting and detailed community insights can help inform business decisions and even help you decide what kind of content your members want to be served. 

Unlike the basic participation options available on social platforms, communities offer more valuable ways to engage with members. Challenges, activities, surveys, polls, and discussions can satisfy members' different participation preferences and can be designed with the express purpose of adding value for your customers and your brand. 

Learn more: Social Media vs. Community: Why Brands Need Both

The Benefits of Branded Online Communities

Brand communities have the potential to add value across your organization. Marketing, Customer Support, Sales, Product Development, and many other departments can reap the benefits of an engaged online community. To make our point, we’ve included 15 benefits of branded online communities:

Direct Access to Customers & Better Customer Experience

Online communities give you direct access to your customers, in a space you own and control. Interacting with your customers on a more personal level means a better understanding of their wants, needs, desires, and even frustrations with your brand. This allows you to serve your customers better and improve the overall customer experience.

A colourful cartoon illustration of a girl sitting cross-legged while working on her laptop.

No Competition for Attention & Contained Conversations 

Forbes found that most Americans are exposed to anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 ads every day. For brands trying to advertise to, or communicate with their customers, that is a lot of noise to worry about cutting through. Online brand communities allow you to skip the noise, directly reach your customers, and give you more ownership over the conversations happening about your brand and products. 

User-generated Content (UGC)

User-generated content is any content created by consumers of your products and services, rather than by your brand, and is often considered more authentic and influential. Research shows that UGC is 42% more effective than branded content and has a 6.9X higher engagement rate than branded posts. 

By giving you direct access to your customers, online communities also give you direct access to their content. When community members participate by sharing images, videos, and text, they’re creating UGC that can be repurposed into ads or posts. Brand communities play a key role in social media management by providing a pipeline of regular user-generated content.

Learn More: The Impact of Online Communities

Market Research 

Market research can eat up your most valuable resources: time and money. 

By owning an online community you are able to launch surveys, polls, and quizzes, and gather feedback and insights in a timely manner. Communities offer faster research turnaround times when compared to traditional research methods, at decreased costs. 

You can also segment members to gain deeper insights on specific topics and activities. Being able to connect with a high-quality, pre-vetted group of people who are engaged and provide rich insights gives your brand a leg up on the competition.

Some of our clients report up to 80% reduced market research costs and regularly turn around research projects in less than 48 hours - that’s real value.

Boost Brand Loyalty, Advocacy, and Positive Brand Sentiment

When you’re able to connect with your customers in a more intimate setting, you are able to deliver a better experience. Catering content to your community members' needs, and providing real-time support, can help nurture positive brand sentiment and boost brand loyalty. 

Additionally, owning a brand community dedicated to your brand’s biggest fans and most avid users allows you to nurture and grow brand advocates. These people already love your brand, by giving them a space to share their own knowledge and expertise with other members, you are involving them in the customer journey and empowering them to create other brand advocates.

Rich Insights, Data Ownership & Privacy

Online communities give you access to richer data and insights than are available through traditional social media platforms. Community managers can run reports on members and their participation, and use this information to inform business decisions. 

Unlike social networks, online communities allow you to own and control all of your member's data. This means no misuse of user information, third-party involvement, or concerns over privacy.

In short, communities give you more control, more security, and more first-party data.

Co-create to Improve Products, Services, and Processes

As a community owner, you’re able to create custom-designed challenges and activities that satisfy the objectives of your business. This means getting to co-create with the people who interact with your products and services the most: your customers. Involving your customers in different business activities means more informed decision-making, in less time and at lower costs. 

Marketing teams can source new campaign content, product development can gather ideas for new products, packaging and features, customer support can crowdsource FAQ content, the list goes on. Our clients report a decrease in time to market by as much as 300%. Imagine being able to innovate 3x faster...

Decreased Support Costs 

According to the 2021 Community Industry Report, customer support activities ranked as the primary objective for most online communities. While traditional customer support methods involve an organization helping a customer, brand communities empower members to help and support each other. 

When customers can support, train, and inspire other customers, it means that your team does not have to do that work, and it means that your products can be used more effectively, and often in ways that customers had not considered originally. That means lower headcount and increased customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Increased Engagement & Participation

Online communities offer more diverse ways for members to participate and engage. Challenges, activities, surveys, polls, and discussions are just a few of the many ways members can engage with each other and your brand. 

Online communities allow you to satisfy members’ varying participation preferences through these different forms, which means higher levels of engagement, especially when compared to social media and other marketing activities.

Research shows that engagement rates on social media range between 0.5% and 5%, whereas engagement rates in online communities are closer to 40%-50%. 

Increased Sales and Revenue 

A branded online community can help you drive sales and increase revenue in a few different ways:

  • Access to ongoing user-generated content means access to effective marketing content which can be used to generate more sales. 
  • Increased brand loyalty and advocacy encourages members to repurchase and recommend your product to others. 
  • Member support and discovery of new products, or ways to use products, leads to increased sales and repurchases.
  • The direct connection between a brand and its customers reduces barriers to buying because customers know there is a resource they can go to if they need inspiration or support. 

Our clients report that their customers are 89% more likely to repurchase because of community. 

Persona Development and Validation

Customer personas are an essential part of successful marketing activities and they help your organization better understand the users of your products. 

Online communities provide you with the space, and the people, to properly develop and validate customer personas by giving you direct access to the people who use your products and services the most. 

Rapid UX and CX Testing

User experience and customer experience are two of the most important things to consider as a brand. Improving both requires testing and feedback from your target audience. It can be hard to find qualified folks who can provide informed opinions for tests. Communities allow your brand to bring your customers and users together so you can launch on-demand tests and focus groups with the right people.

Home for Influencers

For brands working with influencers, an online community can act as a home for influencers in the sense that it provides a central space for sponsors and influencers to connect and collaborate.

Instead of one-off influencer campaigns, brands can use their community to connect customers with influencers and get more value from their relationships with influencers and thought leaders.

Behind the Scenes Access

Brands can use online communities to give customers and fans early access to things like new products, a unique connection to experts and thought leaders, and sneak peeks at new campaigns. 

This kind of red carpet access makes members feel valued and appreciated by the brand they love, and creates interest and excitement among your advocates.

A colourful cartoon illustration of a woman on her hands and knees gardening.

How to Launch an Online Community

We mentioned earlier that there are two main approaches to building an online community: building a community on a mainstream platform where people already are or creating your own experience that draws people in. In either case, there are a number of ‘must haves’ to ensure the launch of your online community is a success. 

A Clear Purpose

You’ve probably heard about the importance of defining your “why”, whether it be in personal or professional settings. Well, the same goes for community. 

Before launching an online community, you must first understand the purpose you want the community to serve. Are you looking for richer insights? A better understanding of your customers? A stream of user-generated content? Perhaps you’re looking for new ways to test products and services. All are valid and exciting reasons to launch a community, but setting a clearly defined intention will make a successful launch far more likely. 

Enough Time and Resources

This might seem like common sense, but oftentimes community is left as a side-of-desk project, with next to no resources, and high expectations. Ensuring you have not only enough time and resources, but the right resources is crucial for a successful community. 

Like any successful project, a community requires a dedicated budget and an adequately sized, and experienced team (or a few fast learners). You would not launch an event marketing campaign without setting aside a budget for a great booth, sponsorships, and a few team members who are both engaging and qualified to represent your company. You should think of community investment in a similar way.

Organizational Support

Having enough time and the right resources often starts with having proper organizational support and executive buy-in. Successful communities are the ones that have a strong connection to, and frequent interaction with, other departments in the organization. 

Learn more: Build an Online Community That’s Off the Hook 

The Right Members

Every large and successful online community we know today started out as a small group of people with something in common. It is important to make sure your community begins with the right people. This means the people that are passionate about your brand, or whatever topic your community is being built around. Put in the effort to seed your new community with folks who are likely to act as great examples for other new members.  

The Right Atmosphere

Sometimes the right membership base is anyone who likes to cook, and other times it's certified chefs. The difference between these two groups is exclusivity. 

When deciding who the right people are, you also need to decide how inclusive or exclusive your community is going to be. For anyone who likes to cook, all it might take is a passion for food and a simple login page to register. For certified chefs, this might look like an exclusive invite list with sign-up instructions not available to the general public. 

Deciding whether your community is inclusive or exclusive will help set the tone for the community.

Valuable Things To Do

Once you’ve established who’s going to be in your community, and how they’re going to join, you can then start to leverage why they joined your community in the first place - their shared interests, passions, and experiences.

Giving your members valuable things to do, like fun challenges and activities or interesting topics to discuss, provides value for both the community and its members. This keeps members engaged and participating, helping you reach your objectives.

Learn more: Community Platform Features

Realistic Goals & Expectations

Shooting for the stars is always encouraged, but a successful community is built on realistic goals. As you’re setting up to launch your online community, it's best to set clear and achievable expectations that are established across teams. 

The more specific the goals, the better. While “boosting brand awareness” is a great goal to have, it’s important to also determine how this will be measured and tracked over time.

Learn more: How to Launch an Online Community Ebook 

What a Successful Online Community Looks Like

Now that we’ve covered what an online community is, the benefits, and how to successfully launch one of our own, here are 9 characteristics of what a successful online community looks like:

Members are connecting

When community is done right, your members will be actively connecting with other like-minded folks and discussing shared interests and goals. 

While fueling these conversations is in part up to the community members themselves, a truly successful community provides members with the guidance and support they need to keep these discussions alive and flowing. Community managers and moderators can move conversations in the right direction, and programs such as new member introductions help get the ball rolling. 

Members are working towards a shared objective

While your brand or organization may have a community objective in mind, a successful community also supports members in working towards their own common goals. People are eager to contribute and collaborate, especially when it involves a brand they love. Doesn’t it make sense to invite these people to have a say and work to solve problems together? 

Take Rust-Oleum’s Creator’s Studio for example - a community of DIYers that have come together over their shared love of creating and their appreciation of quality paint products. They are working together to learn and get better at their hobbies, and this mission encourages people to participate on a regular basis.

Members are learning and being inspired

Successful communities are the ones where people go to learn something new and become inspired by others. This means providing members with new and exciting content on a regular basis, and nurturing a space where others feel like they can share and provide feedback.

Members are active and engaged

Active and engaged community members are a good indicator of a healthy online community. The ability for members to learn and be inspired (see above), relies on members engaging with each other and actively participating. 

Two things need to happen in order to support the goal of engagement: 

  1. Community managers need to promote engagement by making sure the community is filled with valuable things to do, like challenges, contests, and activities. 
  2. Community moderators need to encourage and guide participation while providing timely feedback to members who do choose to participate. 

Features such as gamification, points, and badges can also help encourage participation and engagement. 

Member are empowered, recognized, and rewarded

A successful online community doesn’t just help community members, it empowers them to help each other.

To help foster an environment of support, it’s important to recognize and reward members who are exceptionally good at helping others and contributing to the community. This might include special badges and titles, extra points, or even exclusive access to swag, events, and content.

A colourful cartoon illustration of an older woman holding a flower pot.

How members are rewarded is not nearly as important as making sure they feel valued and recognized for their contributions. 

There are excellent community manager(s) and moderator(s)

In any successful community, the community manager acts as the party planner and the moderator acts as the professional host of the party. 

It’s a community manager's job to plan and organize the fun (and valuable) things to do within the community. A great community manager is certain to listen to member feedback and tailor content based on what members are interested in. 

Community moderators are responsible for welcoming new members, nurturing discussions, and make sure the conversations happening within the community are lively. 

A good community team could be the difference between a successful community and a flop. 

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

New members are joining on a regular basis

In the same way that most customers have a finite lifespan with a product or brand, all communities, even the successful ones, experience member churn. This means that for a community to be truly successful, you must commit to regular member recruitment. 

This might mean recruiting through your regular marketing channels, like social media, your website, or email list. Continuing to bring in new voices and fresh faces into the community will help keep members engaged and ideas flowing. 

There are clear rules and guidelines

It’s imperative for community success that managers set and enforce a clear set of community guidelines. This will make sure discussions remain on topic and are free of any personal attacks, bullying, or discrimination of any kind. 

Rules and guidelines keep members feeling safe, and ensures the community continues to act as a ‘safe space’ where members feel comfortable sharing and expressing themselves. A safe community is the foundation for a successful community. 

You have the ability to track, measure, and report on success

Along with setting realistic goals and expectations, a successful community should also enable owners to measure and report on KPIs.

The ability to report on community health minimizes guesswork, holds community teams accountable to their goals and can help admins identify blind spots or areas for improvement that may have otherwise been overlooked.

This also makes it easier to quantify the value of the community when talking to other departments in the organization, or when advocating for more resources and support.

Learn more: How to Manage a Thriving Online Community

Examples of Successful Branded Online Communities 

Some of the world's biggest brands are leveraging the power of branded online communities, and that number is only expected to rise with key players like HubSpot, Forbes, and Deloitte recognizing the value of community and customer participation.

Here we share five of the best and the brightest branded online communities: 

Learn more: 10 Brands Killing it with Branded Communities

LEGO Ideas

With over 1.8 million members, LEGO Ideas is one of the largest examples of a successful brand community. Members join the community to connect, build, create and share with other LEGO fans. 

The community encourages members to share their own unique set ideas and vote on submissions from others. Ideas with enough votes are then selected and given the opportunity to become real-life LEGO sets sold on shelves.

Through Ideas, LEGO is launching new fan-created products multiple times a year.

A Mac laptop with LEGO Ideas on the screen.

Beauty Insider Community

The Sephora Beauty Insider Community allows Sephora customers, makeup enthusiasts, and experts to connect, share, and discuss with other beauty lovers. 

The community is filled with content from members and serves as a hub for user-generated content, product testimonials, and customer feedback that’s used across social media and other marketing activities. 

According to David Spink's most recent book, The Business of Belonging, members who participate in the forum spend two times more than their average customer and their power members spend 10 times more than their average customer.

A Mac laptop with Sephora's Beauty Insider Community on the screen.

Harley Owners Group

Harley-Davidson is one of the ultimate cult brands. Their community, the Harley Owners Group, serves as a central location for Harley owners to connect over their shared experiences and plan meetups and rides.

The community provides members with exclusive benefits and direct access to the Harley brand. It encourages knowledge sharing and boosts brand loyalty and advocacy.

A Mac laptop with Harley Owners Group on the screen.

Creator’s Studio

Rust-Oleum leverages the Creator’s Studio community as a way to connect with their customers. Often sold through third-party retailers, Rust-Oleum was missing out on valuable customer data that you can only get from a direct brand-customer relationship. The brand community allows them to establish this connection, gather their own data and insights, and get to know their customers.

A Mac laptop with Creator's Studio on the screen.

Duolingo

The Duolingo community is an excellent example of how community can help organizations scale, and quickly at that. Duolingo community members share a common goal of learning and teaching others. Thanks to the efforts of committed community members, Duolingo offers over 100 language learning courses, most of which were developed with the direct help of the community.

A Mac laptop with Duolingo on the screen.

That’s All Folks  

Online communities are truly magical places, big and small, where people come to connect, learn, and be inspired by others with shared interests and goals. Sometimes they’re as big as LEGO Ideas and other times they're tucked away in the smallest corners of the internet. Regardless of size or notability, what makes online communities so special is their ability to make people feel like they belong. Regardless of your location, background, or interest (no matter how niche) there’s an online community out there waiting for you to join it and start discussing. Or, maybe it’s time you start one of your own.

If you’re interested in learning more about online communities, or maybe even taking the plunge to start your own, check out our Platform Features, subscribe to our channel, and visit our blog for more fresh community content.


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