What is an online community and how can it benefit your organisation? How is it different from an intranet and why should you be using online communities instead? What roles does your organisation need to adopt to run an online community? If you have ever asked yourself one of these questions, you’ve come to the right place. Find out everything you need to know about online communities!

What is an online community?

An online community is a closed website where community members can interact with each other online. It often requires membership to post topics, make comments, and in some cases organize events. If the online community is managed correctly, the community may begin to feel like an online home to your members and will be considered just as important as a real-life community of peers. There are four requirements needed to consider a platform as a virtual community: interactivity, a commonplace for members to interact, a sustained membership over a period of time, and a variety of active communicators. Does this sound familiar? Read on! 


An online community is a virtual community


Online communities exist on many platforms, from closed groups on social media platforms to independently run websites. Online communities can come into existence spontaneously, when people with shared interests get to know each other online and continue to remain in touch through a semi-public forum. Or they can be created by people, companies, and organisations with a specific purpose.

Companies and organisations have various reasons for running online communities, which can include:

  • Connecting with employees, fans, supporters, consumers or other relevant groups
  • Learning about groups of people to improve products or services
  • Innovate from the bottom-up, with input from a target audience 
  • Share information and offer support
  • Collaborate on various projects 

What is the difference between a traditional intranet and an online community?

You may be familiar with more old fashioned traditional intranets, in which a company can post important need-to-know information for their staff or to other relevant parties. Often, because these traditional intranets are broadcast-oriented (i.e. the company can share information but the users can not respond), these platforms tend to be poorly visited and messages remain unread unless a user is looking for specific information.

An online community, however, allows its members to respond to posts and even post their own messages. Opening up a discussion space for your employees, for example, can lead to effective discussions, the sharing of ideas and thoughts, and interaction. This means an organization can start to innovate from the bottom-up. 

Online communities are much more appealing to employees than an intranet. They will be motivated by the opportunity to see the thoughts and ideas of coworkers, and being able to contribute to the discussion. So, switching from a traditional top-down intranet to a bottom-up and open online community will positively affect internal communication, innovation, and will help an organization to blossom.

Three reasons why you should use an online community and not an intranet?

An online community has many benefits over a traditional intranet. The three common advantages of an online community are: 

  1. It allows users to engage with the content. This makes it more appealing to check back frequently and engage, which in turn ensures that company-wide messages are read.
  2. Organizations can use online communities to receive input on policies, ideas, concepts, and communications from their users. This is because users are able to respond to and engage content posted on an online community (and even post their own). The input stimulates innovation.
  3. It gives employees a space to interact with one another, exchange ideas and organize their own events, which can really help improve team spirit and team bonding. This will ultimately result in a thriving company atmosphere and better performance overall. 

Two great examples of thriving online communities

Within a healthy and well-established online community, up to 90% of its content is created and posted by the community members. Existing community members are also the key source for bringing in new members. Note: it can take up to 2 years to get to this level of engagement and user-generated content. In the initial stages of community building, it is more likely that anything from 0 to 50% of the content and new users will be generated by its users. 

The first great example of a thriving online community is Threadless. Since 2001, this online community for designers has allowed its online community to vote on 1.000 submitted designs each week. The Threadless team then picks 10 of the most voted-on designs and moves them into production. Originally, Threadless only produced t-shirts but it has expanded its range to everything from mugs to t-shirts, shower curtains, canvasses, and more. Just by focusing on its community, Threadless made an estimated $30 million in sales with a 30% profit margin in 2008. It is still one of the best examples of building a business for a community rather than the other way around.


Threadless is a great example of an online community

A second great example is Greenpeace Greenwire. This online community runs on software that is the precursor of the Open Social platform and brings together over 60.000 volunteers globally.  Since it’s launch at the end of 2016, Greenpeace saw a 600% increase in volunteering in the Netherlands alone! The community allows Greenpeace’s volunteers to contribute to making the world a greener and more sustainable place to live in by starting their own initiatives for protest, organisation, and information sharing.


Greenpeace Greenwire runs on the Open Social online community software

What are the most important community roles?

The people that make up an online community can take on a number of different roles:

  1. The Community Manager
    The community manager builds the community by sharing content, welcoming new users, and boosting engagement. They ensure that there are enough topics of discussion, that everyone treats each other with respect, and that everything is running smoothly overall. 
  2. The Site Manager
    The site manager ensures that all the technical aspects of the community are taken care of and are running as needed. They are the ones who help implement the design of the community and work together with the community manager to ensure that the online community has all the technical features it needs to keep users coming back and engaged. 
  3. The Members
    The users make up the community itself. These are the people that populate the platform, that read, respond to, or post their own content. Over time, some of the general population of an online community may be recruited into moderation roles to help the community manager run the community. Learn more about community members

Of course, different access levels and allowances can be implemented for each of these user roles to ensure that a community runs the way an organization needs it to. 

The three basics to starting an online community

There are a few steps to starting an online community:

  1. Research
    Check out the competition, see what similar communities are doing, how active they are, and mostly where they are lacking. 
  2. Test
    Run a community in Beta first to test ideas and get a feel for what will make your community tick before it goes live.
  3. Keep testing
    Once the online community is up and running, test everything to continue to optimize activities to get the most reach and engagement from the community.

Read more about the online community building basics.


Open Social is an open-source online community software


What is Open Social and what are its benefits

Looking to start an online community for an NGO or semi-governmental organization? Open Social is the perfect solution! This plug-and-play online community software solution is available through both a monthly subscription service or as a custom Enterprise solution. Open Social is built on Drupal 8, an open-source CMS. This means that the software is available to developers and other (other) open-source agencies to download and modify for free. Therefore, one of the key benefits of our community solution is that new features are continuously added and being thought of.  

Open Social has all the standard functionalities (and more) that you can expect from current online community software, including:

  • Newsfeed(s)
  • Groups
  • Events
  • User roles
  • Moderation tools
  • Analytics
  • User profiles
  • Comments 
  • Social log-in
  • Like functionality
  • Notifications 
  • And more… Check all features here