Businesses build online communities to build authentic relationships among their external audience (their customers, fans, and followers) and their internal audience (employees, vendors, partners, and team members).
Online communities are groups of people who have a connection with your brand and/or each other. It can become the heartbeat of an online business and attract new customers, fans, and followers. Online communities also have a high potential for return on investment and significantly influence the reach of a business.
There are different types of platforms (free and paid) available for brand building. Similar to real life, there is a place for everyone.
What Is An Online Community Platform?
An online community platform, private or public, is essentially a website where users can interact. It’s a digital network where people can find like-minded peers to share ideas, thoughts, and knowledge with others. Online community platforms enable people to connect through forums, comments, events, and Q&A sessions.
The purpose of these interactions are often to increase social capital. Platform features generally include profile, messaging, contact lists, file upload, and media sharing capabilities.
Types of Online Communities
There are three types of online communities.
1. Public social network
Public social networks allow users to expand their business and/or personal contacts. The most well-known public social networking sites include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, etc. A social network is generally accessible to everyone. They are free to join and varying community guidelines.
2. Branded community
Branded communities are designed for a group of customers who are invested in a brand beyond products and services. They offer social networking capabilities limited to customers and site visitors who are often brand loyalists and advocates.
Imagine SOHO house, or a private members club, but online. These spaces are intended to be an exclusive place where community members can interact with one another and learn more about the brand (or website) itself. For example, Amazon has a community where members can post product questions and general comments.
3. Public-Private hybrid community
While social networks are often open to anyone with an internet connection, some communities allow members to create private groups. A company, for example, can host a private forum for employees on a public social network like Facebook.
Online community platform features
Brands continue to invest in the creation of communities for their customers, employees, and fans. This is a part of a larger process of community management. The owner of an online community will want to create a successful user interface (UI) and user experience (UX).
Online community platforms are websites that have their own login and password. In this case, you would have your own website where members log in when they want to virtually enter the community.
The platform interface should be user-friendly – easy to register and use. A few common features include:
- Community name
- Community description
- Number of forums
- Number of topics per forum
- Total number of threads per forum
- Total number of posts per topic
- Maximum number of members
- Required number of verified members to make a thread visible to others
- Maximum number of unread messages in Inbox (per member)
- Total number of unread posts (per member)
- The entire length of unread posts (per member)
- Default language for new members
- Default language for all forums and topics
Why proprietary online community platforms are preferable
There are significant differences between a proprietary online community platform and third-party social media networking groups.
A proprietary (or “owned”) community platform is owned and operated by one company and designed to support a defined business strategy. The platform aims to provide businesses and organizations with tools that facilitate engagement and collaboration among members. As a result, users and group owners share responsibilities. Group owners are responsible for content moderation and engagement.
“One major pro to owned community platforms is that they give you tighter controls over your branding and messaging — without having to compete with the noise of other communities on the same platform,” according to Hubspot.
Since it is proprietary, the brand has an incentive to develop new features and monetize the platform. If the software is open-source, no one would pay for those features unless they were helpful to other open-source projects. As a result, if there are good ideas for non-obvious features, it’s likely that volunteer open-source developers are not implementing them.
Advantages of branded online communities
There are several advantages to launching a branded online community.
- Engage ideal customers
- Develop lasting relationships
- Build brand loyalty
- Foster word of mouth
It can also help brands:
- build a consistent brand image
- generate valuable market research
- create a loyal community of supporters
- develop new revenue streams
- increase brand awareness
- expand knowledge of the competitive landscape
- identify industry, competitor, or market trends
- attract new employees
- explore new partnership opportunities
Four characteristics of great online communities
Every successful online community shares the following characteristics:
- Easy to participate. People should not have to work hard to figure out how to participate.
- Welcoming. People feel at home right away. They don’t have to prove themselves before they can belong.
- Shared mission or purpose. People feel part of something larger than themselves, as they contribute to conversations.
- Transparent. People know what’s going on, how things work, and what others are doing.
Online communities can help a startup or small business build brand awareness, increase leads, and drive conversions. With a clear purpose and the right content moderation, these communities can become powerful marketing channels. Their ability to create relationships between brands and customers makes them an effective marketing strategy that businesses in almost any industry can (and should) leverage.
Christian Buchner is the CEO & Founder of Expertshare, a conference and collaboration platform for virtual and hybrid events as well as offers live streaming and e-learning.
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