What are online communities?
An online or virtual group is a collection of people who primarily interact via a website, making individual contributions by knowledge sharing. There are many different types of online communities, including:
- Wikis - A website that can be edited by anyone through their browser.
- Blogs - A website where the 'blogger' can post informal thoughts, comments or philosophies, which are updated frequently and normally reflect the views of the blogger.
- Chat Rooms - An online area in which users can chat with each other in real-time.
- Internet Forums - Similar to a chat room, a forum allows users to participate in online discussions related to particular topics.
- Bookmarking Sites - A website whereby users can share websites of interest that they have bookmarked.
- Social Networking - Websites in which users can create profiles of themselves and connect with friends around the world.
Some of the biggest online communities include the following websites:
Within any online community, there are 5 different types of people. Knowing this is important as it will help you apply future strategies:
- Peripheral - An outside, unstructured participant. May observe and view content but does not add to the community.
- Inbound - Newcomer who is invested in the community and heading towards full participation. May start to provide content and tentatively interacts with others.
- Insider - Fully committed community participant. Consistently adds to community discussion and content and interacts with others regularly.
- Boundary - A leader. Sustains membership participation and brokers interactions. Community grants their opinion greater consideration. The type of person who would be likely to correct a user if their behaviour was deemed inappropriate by the rest of the community.
- Outbound - Process of leaving the community due to new relationships, new positions, new outlooks.
Join online communities
- Get others (Boundary and Insiders) within communities to talk about your product
Using this type of 'referral' system can generate a huge amount of traffic or sales. The reason for this is that once someone in a community starts to garner a positive reputation, people start to listen to what they have to say.
- Become an expert (Boundary)
If you are constantly involved in online communities, providing valuable comments regularly, you can gain status as a moderator or an expert (Boundary). This role positions you in a way whereby your recommendations are listened to by people in their thousands. This will require a lot of work.
- Provide a link to your website
If you do not have a lot of time, you can still participate in these communities. What you need to do is provide a link in your signature so that when other users want to learn more about you from reading your post, they will be taken to your website. This can also help with optimisation as you create more inbound links to your website.
Start your own online community
A great way to start an online community around your business or products is to write a blog on your website. The benefits of starting your own community can include:
- Position yourself as the leader
Use your blog to position yourself as a market leader for your particular product/service. To make this work, you will need to write consistently, construct content well and have an opinion.
- Develop your ecommerce business
According to online market research firm ComScore Networks, blog readers are 30% more likely to buy products or services online.
- Build a community
You can use your blog to build a customer community. You can post the latest news about products and customers can voice their opinions and have input into your product/service development.
- Build customer relationships
Build confidence in prospects and customers by sharing information in a transparent, open and honest way. Ask their opinions and make it easy for customers to put forward their comments and complaints.
- Link your brand to your values
Use your blog to educate consumers about your values. For example, Stoneyfell Farm, a producer of organic yogurt, has a blog to promote healthy kids and a healthy environment. This blog was launched in April 2004, and attracted national attention. This blog was so successful that the writer was profiled in the Wall Street Journal and was asked to speak all over America.
- Develop viral marketing
Use your blog as an interactive part of a viral marketing campaign. For example, Rent A Car wanted to do something viral to make their image a little 'cooler'. They set up a blog-based treasure hunt across 16 cities with cash prizes. The campaign was totally blog-based - no media ads, no PR, no other publicity. The website received more than 1 million unique visitors in just 4 weeks.
Starting your own online community can be quite slow to begin with - due in part to the fact that the strength of motivation for contributing is usually proportional to the size of the community. As the size of an audience increases so too does the attraction to contribute.
When starting a community, some things to keep in mind are:
- Trust the member's input.
- Make it easy to contribute.
- Allow members to get credit by measuring their contributions.
- Allow other members to measure and respond to contributions.