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5 Eye-Opening Online Community Trends for 2021

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2020 made it clear that a stable internet connection is a fundamental necessity for modern life. After all, the internet has allowed us to fulfill our basic need for human connection and a sense of community during different stages of lockdowns and social distancing all over the world. Whether via workplace Slack-channel, social media group, Zoom calls with parents, online forum, or organizational online hub, all our social interactions have suddenly migrated to virtual community spaces.

But now that we are always online, what will happen next? How are we going to improve our digitized social and work lives? How are we going to address some of the novel problems (such as ‘Zoom fatigue’) that increased reliance on online interactions created? To answer these questions, we have researched and identified some top trends that will shape our experiences of online communities in 2021:

Table of contents

1. Remote-work will definitely become more social

In 2020 many organizations had to quickly figure out how to transition in-person and on-location workflows and organizational processes to a digital context in which employees are working independently from home. While most of us have figured out how to do our jobs relatively successfully online by the year’s end, what we now lack are the non-essential, but nonetheless important, things that office interactions gave us. As Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales writes in the WIRED magazine trend briefing for 2021:

“Online work platforms will begin integrating extra social features in 2021, and harness the community aspects of working together […] The transition will allow us to collaborate more effectively while preserving interactions with our colleagues and maintaining the sense of communal belonging”

online communities trends - more social workspaces

We miss the office small talk and little moments of socialization that are as much a part of job satisfaction as anything else. Reflecting this, Open Social kicked-off 2021 with a new slogan #MadeToShare, emphasizing that our Member Engagement Platform allows organizations to connect their members in a space that is fundamentally social and communal. For example, our recently launched Real-time chat extension is designed to let organization members connect, communicate and share freely online without disrupting their workflow or taking them away from their current on-page activities.

online communities trends - real-time chat

2. Platform integration will be key

Last year we all had to download, install and learn to use a range of new tools, apps and platforms to replace our in-person or on-location ways of doing things. We became inundated with multiple Slack messages, Microsoft Teams notifications, emails, Zoom calls, live-stream webinars, Discord discussions,  productivity management apps, Google Doc folders, Calendar events, Dropbox downloads and so much more.

This was already a problem in the workplace of 2019, as research by the Nielsen Norman Group found:

“A surplus of digital workplace tools places a cognitive burden on employees, as it takes time for people to stop and think about where to find each tool.”

Today the overabundance of apps and tools is not only a workplace issue – but touches every aspect of our lives. The Apple App Store and Google Play saw a record-breaking 130 billion app downloads in 2020! Due to COVID-19, reports TechCrunch,  “consumers increasingly turned to apps as digital solutions for work, education, entertainment, shopping and more”. It is not surprising that experts are warning of an impending ‘App fatigue’ setting in as we are “forced to change focus from one platform, app or project to the next when a new notification comes through”.

online community trends - more integration

In 2021 we will be looking for opportunities to streamline our digital experiences and find ways to integrate different tools and apps more efficiently. This was likewise the thinking behind the design of Open Social’s new Zoom and BigBlueButton extensions. These extensions allow organizations using our online community platforms to seamlessly integrate webinars and conference calls with community events, online courses, or other content. Everything happens inside the online community space and members don’t have to follow external links to join a live webinar or video-call anymore.

3. Hosting events on virtual communities will replace stand-alone video-calls and webinars

We are all proficient Zoom-users by now! Every conference scheduled for 2020 turned into a webinar and every concert or cultural event into a live stream. Not to mention the unfortunate replacement of birthday parties with online conference calls!

In 2021 Zoom and other video-calls will cease to be stand-alone event replacements and will become more integrated into the social dynamics and surrounding content of our online communities. This doesn’t simply imply better software integration, as discussed in the previous point, but also re-thinking the purposes and formats of such live events.

Adam Masur, VP of Marketing at Credly, stated in a recent interview with Hubspot: “We’ve all seen the annual conference go virtual due to the impact of COVID-19. But I expect hosts to find that their audience’s appetite for the singular virtual gathering will wane, as well.”

In one of our latest blog posts, industry expert Mathijs Vleeming likewise writes that association conferences are going to change from 3-5 day virtual events into year-long virtual engagements with members via online community spaces. As Mathijs writes: “Why only focus on engaging your community virtually during or around live online events? Is that not still part of our old-school thinking? […] A big challenge for all associations, even more now, is how to engage with their members in a virtual world”.

Zoom calls, webinars and online conferences aren’t going away in 2021. But they are going to become part of larger and more hybrid online community events and modes of engagement. At Open Social we not only wanted Zoom video-call and BigBlueButton webinar to be technologically integrated with our platform. We also wanted to give organizations the chance to make their virtual live events part of the larger community groups, content and eLearning courses created for and by their online communities. This way, Zoom calls stop being discrete once-off events and instead take place in the same content- and media-rich space as everyday community engagement.

4. Community support will become increasingly crucial

Zendesk recently reported that across industries help centers’ usage rose up to 200% in 2020! This increasingly unsustainable caseload on businesses will be resolved with the improved use of online communities.

Online communities have become a unique way for businesses, organizations and brands to not only connect with their members and customers – but also create a new self-serving channel for support. SearchUnify writes in their own 2021 customer engagement trend analysis:

“Diminishing interest in traditional support channels also makes communities the go-to place for reliable information.”

There will be a rapid increase in 2021 in these kinds of support communities where customers, clients or community members help each other resolve frequently asked questions or answer queries with the help of community managers. This is not only something that we will see in the retail industry, however. Even educational institutions are experimenting with new and innovative ways to create communities where students can self-organize, teach one another and connect more easily with teachers and staff.

5. The day of reckoning is coming for toxic communities and problematic social media platforms

Last year the public and political disillusionment with Silicon Valley social media platforms like Facebook reached a tipping point. The CEOs of Facebook and Twitter were repeatedly dragged before the US Senate to answer tough questions about their opaque business practices, problematic content moderation and central role in spreading misinformation and fomenting extremism. The US election, and the chaos that surrounded it, also shun a bright light on the social problems caused by traditional social media. And then there is the growing concern amongst average users over how companies like Facebook are mining and monetizing user data!

In 2021 we will see more people #DeleteFacebook and abandon other major social media platforms. But what will fill the void? More ethical, transparent, secure and closed-community platforms. Remember when the recent outrage over WhatsApp’s changing data-policy caused a mass adoption of the secure messaging apps Signal and Telegram?

The Harvard Business Review writes:

“To understand what’s driving this shift, you need only talk to young people. They’re saying that after years spent constructing carefully curated online identities and accumulating heaps of online “friends,” they want to be themselves and make real friends based on shared interests. They’re also craving privacy, safety, and a respite from the throngs of people on social platforms.”

The strength of online communities created by organizations such as Pachamama Alliance or Policy Kitchen is that they offer a safe and secure space for people to interact and engage around shared interests. Moreover, both these communities use Open Social’s software which is built using open source technology. This means that the organizations own their platforms, they own their data and there are no third-parties siphoning user-data from their platforms. This translates into more trust from their members who are able to take ownership of the community without having to worry about invasive practices created by profit-driven tech companies.

online community trends - less facebook

So-called ‘digital campfires’, writes the Harvard Business Review, “offer a more intimate oasis where smaller groups of people are excited to gather around shared interests”. This, they argue, is the future of the social internet.

Any other trends that you think we will see in 2021? Feel free to start a discussion in the comments section! 

 

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