What is an online community?
Everyone has a basic understanding of what a community is, and yes – online communities share many characteristics with the communities that we belong to in the physical world. But what exactly do you picture when you think about an online community? Is it your Facebook network? Your Linkedin contact list? A hobbyist website forum that you subscribe to?
With the various types of social media platforms that are ever-present in our personal and professional lives today, you’re likely an active member of several online communities already.
What attracts you to them? Why do you engage with other members of these communities? Most importantly, what’s in it for you?
Answering these questions may give you a hint about the value that a healthy online community can bring to your online business.
We define an online community as:
A group of individuals who interact online around shared interests, values or unifying goals.
This definition may sound oversimplified and is likely a concept that you’ve come across before while building your online business. However, many businesses fail to recognize the effect that an online community will have on their mission in the long run. The web is so chock full of marketing rhetoric that focuses on stuffing email funnels with over-optimized sales copy, it can be easy for entrepreneurs to lose sight of their bigger picture in the race to gain and retain customers.
On the other hand, businesses that get it know that their community is so much more than a pool of potential customers – it’s a group of people who truly believe in their mission and want to actively participate in it.
Not only do community members buy from these businesses, but they also help them amplify their impact in the world by being active participants in these business’ narratives. Engaged members show up voluntarily, and advocate for their community’s products or messages. They are an extension and an expression of brand loyalty.
Any type of business can have an online community, and having a community can help any business.
Consider the following:
- A high-level business coach who interacts with her clients through an open Facebook support group
- A professional designer who helps newbies break into the industry through a membership site that provides tutorials, lessons, and tips
- A software as a service (SaaS) business seeking feedback from current customers to improve their product
- A personal stylist building her customer base with daily social streaming
All the businesses listed above stand to benefit by building an engaged online community. Why? Because regardless of the type of business or the product, creating a platform for your customers, clients or fans to interact with you and each other creates countless opportunities to further your business’s mission.
What does a business need to start a community?
To get started, the only technical requirements for an online community are:
A platform for its members to freely share and communicate with one another. (community platforms and media will be discussed in Chapter 3)
A shared value or goal that brings them all together.
… that’s it!
Chances are, your business may already loosely satisfy these requirements without you even realizing it. But as an online entrepreneur, why should you invest time and money into building an online community if you’re already seeing a level of success without one?
What can an online community do for you?
Growing and nurturing an online community is one of the most important things you can do to amplify your business’s impact. So, what are the key benefits of building a happy and healthy online community?
- It will help keep your brand at the forefront of your community’s mind so that a purchase is not a one-and-done. If you decide to set up your community using a subscription model, this can lead to reduced churn, longer retention and longer customer lifetime value. If you choose a product model, this can mean more return customers/purchases.
- It eases your customer support burden, because the community jumps in to help their own members.
- It can turn customers into devoted fans and advocates who will freely and independently promote your product, business, and mission. This will help you reach more people beyond traditional marketing or advertising channels.
- It helps you keep your finger on the pulse of your audience, providing your business with an engaged testing ground, a place for feedback, and a sounding board for new ideas or products.
- It will add value to your business, because you will constantly crafting custom content and sharing your knowledge with customers who are attracted to your vision.
Now that you have an idea of what an online community can do for your business, let’s look at what steps you can take to begin the process of building one of your own.
A Common Purpose
The first thing you need to know is that communities rarely happen by accident.
You can’t just collect a bunch of people, dump them on a platform and expect a successful community to grow. Beyond the two main technical requirements of a community (a shared value + a platform), a healthy community also requires:
Whether this role will be played by you, a community manager, your team or a trusted selection of established members, all communities need an approachable leader who will post and guide content, establish talking points and encourage other members.
Grooming and maintenance
A community can only thrive if its members are compelled to come back – often! And they’ll only want to come back if there’s something valuable to come back to. This means that every sustainable community needs a dedicated player to set the tone and consider things like conversation flow, customer service, dealing with conflict, technical maintenance and all the other small details that will help keep your community running at its best.
Create an example to follow. Whether you’re motivating through role modeling behavior, inspiring through idea sharing or creating examples to follow, every happy community needs a regular dose of inspiration to keep its members motivated.
It’s natural for your online community to grow and change. In order to keep your message on track, it will require guidance to keep its message focused around the mission of your business.
If you think that an online community would be an asset to your business, your first challenge is to discover the unifying purpose of your business.
This is not your brand name, marketing goal or even your product – as wonderful as it may be. Instead, you need to identify what single cause, value, or need applies to each and every one of your customers. This commonality is the foundation that your community is built on, and ensures that the customers that join your community as members hold a collective stake in your business’s success.
Case Study: Authority
Since 2006, Copyblogger has maintained a reputation as the online authority for content marketers and writers. What began as a one-man blog quickly expanded to multi-platform education resource for copywriters and digital marketers. It publishes new content weekly, and currently boasts more than 334,000 subscribing members.
Its crown jewel is its online learning community, Authority. It’s a paid platform for writers aiming to hone their content strategy and work more efficiently, effectively and productively. Inside the platform, its members have formed a thriving community; not only do they encourage one another, but they also collaborate on projects, share ideas and help solve problems that pop in individual work.
Members have access to exclusive coursework and training seminars, as well as opportunities to connect with the Copyblogger editorial team. Authority members’ success speaks for itself, and it’s become a resource of foundational knowledge for writers and marketers across a wide spectrum of industry.
Authority’s attraction, outside of being launched by one of the most successful content marketing companies online, lies in the value it provides its members. Anyone can build an e-learning platform, but not everyone can launch one that impacts its members lives, businesses and keeps them coming back for more – it’s a self-sustaining win for both its members and Copyblogger.
Ask yourself: what benefit does my community provide for its members? What positive impact can it have on their lives?
To build a successful online community for your members and your business, and to ensure its long-term survival, it’s important that your business never loses sight of the value that your community provides the people participating in it. At its core, it should offer a value for value relationship, not a buyer-seller transaction.
Along with your unifying purpose, brainstorm the value-add for your customer.
Frame it this way: if your community disappeared tomorrow, what would your customer genuinely miss out on?
In case you’re in need of any more reasoning or motivation to adopt a value-centric online community, take a look at Simon Sinek’s inspired TedTalk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”.
It’s the third most popular TED talk of all time, and with good reason – he presents undeniable evidence that businesses and leaders whose beliefs and values remain at the core of every business exchange are more likely to succeed than those who are focused solely on selling a product.
His message is this: your why is what people buy. Your customers and community members don’t show up solely because you’re the only one that can fill a need. They show up because they believe what you believe, because your community inspires them and provides them with value that they can’t get anywhere else. In your online community’s context, this means that your members want to be a part of your tribe because they resonate with the underlying value that they receive from being a part of your mission.
The Good, the Bad, and the Metrics