Online communities are among the best things on the internet. Every day we’re lost in a digital sea of information and conversations, and online communities can act as an anchor by personalizing and grouping content. In this article, we'll look at how online communities are evolving the way businesses and individuals connect online.
When we begin to consider everything that’s at our disposal online, it’s sometimes a miracle that we can take away anything useful (other than cat gifs, of course). And because of the clutter on the internet, our online behavioral patterns have resulted in the rise of online communities. And here’s why:
At the core of the internet, there are two central yearnings: the ability to navigate through information and the ability to connect with other people.
These two driving forces have delivered a universe of small-scale communities, ranging from mommy communities, self-help networks to MMORPG - and anything in between. And not to mention that they come in every shape and size, including open, closed, big, small, organizational, and personal communities. Here are some facts to consider about their growing online dominance:
- Forrester Research’s on the Customer Lifecycle Journey (2015) found that over 80% of organizations have community channels, which is a significant increase from the 67% in 2012.
- The social business market is mainly run on large communities and is expecting to become a $23 billion industry.
- IDC, a large advisory firm, has forecasted that the worth of online communities worldwide will reach $1.2 billion by 2019.
There’s a reason why people are rushing to build and interact in online communities. We will explore how communities have improved three major aspects of online life: communication, personal development, and business.
There are thousands of ways to have a conversation online, from social media to forums (and even some old school texting). However, is all this talk always efficient? More often than not, social media platforms, WhatsApp groups, emails, and online forums are deafening and distracting - and are maybe even in the way of creating meaningful connections. Online communities tackle some of these issues in the following ways:
- Real-time conversation. Communication on the internet is often defined as asynchronous, and it is in many cases. But platforms and UX designers understand that when we are in front of our screens, we are here to consume and engage now. Communities offer a space for people to speak through private messaging and discussions, away from the clutter and in real-time.
- Conversation as a center point. Conversations in a community usually happen within a specific conversational topic - through groups, discussions, or events. This phenomenon is unlike some other platforms (like Twitter) where users often resort to broadcasting thoughts and opinions. Keeping the conversation front and center prevents distractions and keeps users engaged.
- Reaching the right audience. Communities are often built around topics or characteristics that members have in common. The structure of a community has already set the stage for you to address a self-organized and interested audience. Rather than hoping the right people will hear you, a community is tailored for connecting you with the right people.
- Being in the right conversation. The best part of communities is that they bring the knowledge and conversation home to you, instead of searching for a place to contribute or converse. And there’s immense value in common and simultaneous knowledge. It allows you to extract meaning from a conversation in order to learn and develop quickly. And it provides a natural space for two-way conversation, which is at the core of every healthy relationship.
There is, however, a difference between the way we communicate via social media platforms like Facebook, and online community platforms like Open Social. While Facebook is built to increase the amount of interaction, it sacrifices the quality of those interactions. Quick likes, shares, and retweets often dilute the real connections we can make in online communities. Platforms like Open Social are built to deepen connection, stimulate engagement and facilitate meaningful communication between members online.
One of my first acts on Facebook back in 2008 was to join two groups. One was to declare my identity as an 8th-grade kid and the other to declare my new-found love in Harry Potter. These groups allowed me a degree of self-expression, which was great! Unfortunately, Facebook back then acted as a vacuum and none of us in the groups communicated or connected with each other.
Today, this isn’t the case anymore. People around the web are joining meaningful groups, and not only in communities. These spaces are allowing people to express themselves and be validated. Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, argued that humans have two distinct social needs: to be loved and accepted. Being able to express your identity among like-minded members, and receive real feedback, is one of the ways to satisfy these needs.
In the past, organizations thought that people needed to be pushed and steered towards ideas, products, and other content. The need for personalization has, however, triumphed because every online user has different wants, needs, and preferences. Communities are ideal for this because:
- Online communities are built around collective wants and needs. You’ve entered a space that is tailored to your specific desires or needs (whether that’s to share ideas, cooperate with employees, or talk about video games).
- Communities can often be adapted to individual needs and wants. For example, they have personalized streams that deliver relevant information, and users can create groups and events around preferred topics - meaning that the opportunity for genuine personalization is immense.
Enabling community members to self-actualize and cultivate personal experiences is perhaps one of the most important things a community can achieve. This results in loyalty, expression of identity, and more profound connections.
Social networks connect people everywhere around the world - through weak ties. A weak tie or starting point for connection is the first and easiest step in a relationship. Most online platforms allow for the formation of the weak relations through comments, likes, brief interactions, and more. But how do we transform a weak tie into a strong one?
The answer lies in online communities (surprise!). Communities offer a combination of time spent together in one place, frequent engagement, and more in-depth interactions that lead to the development of healthy relationships.
Why are strong relationships important? Although weak ties can be useful (a large number of weak ties allows us to crowdsource for help, for example), strong ties are irreplaceable. Think about it. Given the opportunity, would you trade any of your closest friends for five acquaintances you met online? How about 10 or 100? These strong relationships provide value, support, and comfort that can’t be found elsewhere.
Strong relationships lead to invaluable support. People that struggle with difficulties such as harassment, diseases, addiction (and many more) find it hard to open up. Online communities, due to their both private and close-knit characteristics, offer a space for people to receive support from others that are going through the same thing.
Consumers and Businesses Unite
Online communities have also made a name for themselves in the business world. In fact, companies are investing billions of dollars into online communities! There are two main driving forces behind their motivation. Let’s take a look:
Consumers at the forefront
Everyone has heard it before: we live in the age of the consumer. Consumers are can now set the business agenda, rather than the other way around because technology has given them the means to do so. Organizations need to provide consumers a seat at the table to keep up with the times - and what better way to do that than with online communities? This way, customers are part of the creative process, and organizations receive instantaneous feedback and insight. Read our blog post on the importance of feedback here.
Reduce cost and drive sales
Communities offer an array of possibilities to cut down on business costs. Some organizations open up communities to their customers so they can seek help through forums and discussions. This is clearly a win-win situation where customer service costs decrease, and customers are helped quickly! Even better are large branded communities (almost like a virtual marketplace) where you can promote directly to your customers and build stronger and healthier relationships with them. Discover some of our favorite cases, including ‘My Starbucks Idea’ (your own concocted coffee - yes please!).
Why wait? Start now!
The growth of online communities shows us that one, technology has and will continue to play a central role in mobilizing connection and social change. And two, communities are increasing the potential for organizations to increase their reach and understand their end users.
If you’re looking to become part of the community wave, then Open Social is the perfect opportunity! We create open source community software that connects organizations and their members. We're an excellent match for external, knowledge and ideation communities - and more!
Open Social has recognized the potential of online communities and we want to share this potential with you! Now is the time to become a community with Open Social.
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