What is an Online Community, and How Do You Create One?

Sarah Wisbey

Sarah Wisbey

Content Contributor, HeySummit

Published on 9th May 2024

Life in big cities, alongside all-consuming work schedules, means that feeling a sense of community and belonging has never been more challenging. Gone are the days of knowing your whole town or feeling connected to your neighbors (unless you’re lucky!). 

The world is smaller than ever, yet we’ve never felt more alone. 

Digitalization is helping us solve this problem; with access to online communities, we have space to connect with others who share similar interests, hobbies, career paths, or values wherever we are on the planet. 

Approximately 84% of internet users say they are part of an online community. 

So, if you want to explore the world of online communities, learn what they mean, and understand how and why you should build one, stick around. 

You’ll finish reading this post inspired to join or create your own online community. 

What is an online community?

An online community is a group of people who interact with one another via the internet.

They may not know each other in person but are part of the community, thanks to a shared interest or common goal. The community is a space for sharing information, resources, or opinions on a topic, and discussions are held via online community platforms. 

What an online community is not 

Unfortunately, the term community is bandied around more than it should be, which may confuse what it means to be part of an online community.

Social media platforms may be the first thing that springs to mind when you think about online communities. While these platforms sell themselves as “community-driven,” they usually revolve around people you already know or the voice of one individual rather than organic conversations between peers.

Collecting thousands of Instagram followers is not an online community; neither is hosting a LinkedIn Livestream that gets thousands of attendees.

Online followers and social media feeds are not necessarily a community. They aren’t people who consistently engage with one another around a shared interest or goal. They are people who show up because they’re interested in what you, as an individual, have to share with them. 

Different types of online communities 

There are three main types of online community:

1. Communities built by a brand or online persona

Building a community around your brand is a non-negotiable part of an effective digital marketing strategy.

Connecting to the community of people who use your product or service can help you get closer to them and build a customer-centric, trusted brand.

Brands use community-building strategies for many reasons, such as maintaining customer loyalty and referrals, staying relevant, selling products, and helping their users connect with one another.

Some brands create a community around experts in their niche to help them promote their products. Take footwear brand Vivo Barefoot as an example; they created the “Vivo Health Pro Network” as a way to connect health professionals who want to share the message about barefoot shoes.

 1. Communities built by a brand or online persona

Influential individuals may build a digital community around their online persona. They want to connect with others who engage with their work and can use their communities to crowd-source information. 

2. Communities built by the members

If you can’t find the community you’re looking for online, why not search for like-minded people yourself? It’s increasingly common for individuals to start an online community around a specific niche or interest.

Examples of online communities started by individuals rather than a brand or online influencer include: 

  • Gaming communities - A community of people who play the same online game together and share tips and advice about their experiences playing that game.

  • Business communities - People sharing career tips and advice with one another about a specific career path.

  • Fitness communities - People with the same fitness interests who motivate one another to achieve their goals.

  • Educational communities - This could be people studying the same online course who use the community to crowdsource study tips and information.

  • Activism communities - People who use their online community to organize actions to achieve political goals.

  • Support groups - Online communities of people who help one another through a tough time when they’re going through similar challenges.

  • Fan clubs - Online communities of fans for sports teams or celebrities.

  • Book clubs - Online communities of people who read and discuss the same books. 

These are just a few examples, but as you can see, the possibilities are endless for the types of online communities you can create. 

3. Forum-based communities 

Discussion forums are a slightly different take on the online community format. They are an online community where people can ask questions and share knowledge on any topic imaginable.

One of the most well-known online community discussion forums is Reddit, which has 73.1 million active users per day. The platform describes itself as a “network for communities” where you can “dive into anything.” 

Other forum-based communities include websites or apps based around one thing the members have in common, such as a job or hobby. 

You may also find forum-based communities as part of educational institutions or online courses. 

What are the benefits of online communities?

Building an online community has limitless benefits, whether for a brand or an individual. 

Let's examine the online community benefits for brands vs. individuals. 

For brands

When you build a community around your brand, there are numerous benefits for the longevity of your business. Here are some more detailed reasons why growing your community can convert the power of community into revenue. 

1. Your customers think you read their minds

Building an engaged community around your brand can help you build trust, loyalty, and cheerleaders for your business.

An online community means you have people to turn to when you need feedback on a new product idea or inspiration about your customers' needs. 

A brand that actually talks to its customers is more likely to understand their pain points and deliver the solutions they genuinely need. And what do useful products your customers really want mean? A better bottom line. 

1. Your customers think you read their minds

Research suggests that 57% of consumers will spend more with a brand when they feel directly connected to it.

2. You increase customer LifeTime Value (LTV)

With an engaged online brand community, you’re more likely to retain lifelong, loyal customers, which means less time and money spent acquiring new ones. It typically costs much more to gain a new customer than to keep an existing one. 

3. Brand ambassadors

You can also use engaged customers as your brands’ biggest ambassadors to give you reviews and create user-generated content. Potential customers are much more likely to trust the feedback from those who use a product or service than the brand itself. 

4. Crowdsourcing information

When you have loyal customers who are strong brand advocates, they can help others with troubleshooting and product advice. 

This reduces your need to rely on customer support as it empowers your community to troubleshoot their own issues. 

5. Referrals

As a brand, your community can become an invaluable source of referral business. If you consistently provide your community with an exceptional experience, they are likelier to refer you to friends and family. 

With 83% of consumers saying they are happy to give referrals for great products, brands have a huge opportunity to capitalize on their communities. 

For individuals

When you start or participate in an online community as an individual, it gives you access to resources and knowledge you may not otherwise find online. Some other reasons people create communities online: 

1. Social support and connection

One of the main reasons people turn to online communities is to find a sense of belonging and meaning in an ever-polarising world. 

Finding others with common interests is much more accessible online than in real life, simply because you have access to so many more people. 

2. Knowledge exchange

Many online communities start as a way to share information and lessons about a specific topic or hobby. 

For example, an internet community could share information on gardening, photography, or high-protein cooking. The possibilities and niches are limitless. 

3. Networking and collaboration

Turning to online communities to find potential business partners or mentors is a common way people find professional opportunities. 

For example, freelancers may turn to their online network to find new work projects, or a startup founder may ask for recommendations within their online community for people to take on a new project. 

4. Opportunity to discuss shared struggles

Online communities can also help people looking for peer-to-peer support from others experiencing the same challenges. 

Whether that’s a community around a particular ailment or grief, online community space can provide the opportunity to make genuine friendships and connections.   

How to start an online community 

How to start an online community 

If all the benefits of starting an online community have inspired you to create a thriving community of your own, you’ll need to consider the following:

  • The purpose of your community — Why do you want to start an online community? Who is it for, and how will it serve them? What are their shared interests? Are you looking to forge genuine connections, or is the community solely for self-promotion?

  • The platform — Where will you host your community, and what will be the key drivers of communication? How will community members interact online?

  • Guidelines — What will guide your community? Who will monitor it? What are the criteria for joining and the rules for participation?

  • Content — What’s your online community's preferred content format? How will you create content and share it? Will people write on message boards? Will they share videos or images? Will you host online events?

  • Promotion — How will you market and promote your community and get the right people to join?

  • Engagement — How will you foster the sense of belonging that online communities need to offer? How will you encourage meaningful relationships to grow & members to interact with one another?

  • Assess and reiterate — Keeping track of what works in your online community is essential to its success. You’ll want to analyze wins and failures and decide what changes will keep driving the community forward. 

4 Top tips for creating your online community 

4 Top tips for creating your online community 

Once you’ve thought about your community using the questions above, you can use these four tips to build a thriving online community: 

1. Create a sense of purpose and identity

Starting your online community will be easier from the offset if you have a clear sense of purpose. If it’s obvious what people will learn or get back from the community, you’ll find it much easier to get members to join.  

2. Set clear guidelines and rules

Create clear community guidelines from the offset. That way, you won’t attract the wrong people, and it will save you a lot of moderation later! 

Here’s an example of community guidelines from the hiking app Komoot: 

2. Set clear guidelines and rules

What are the guidelines for sharing content in your community? What are the moderation policies? What happens if people don’t follow the rules? 

3. Engagement and participation

A lack of engagement and interaction between community members is the nail in the coffin for many online communities. 

Community engagement is essential to building a thriving, active community. 

You must dedicate time and energy to fostering those interactions and keeping members engaged with your message. This involves reaching out directly to members who ask questions, initiating discussions, and showing genuine interest in their thoughts. 

4. Provide value

If you want to drive engagement, you must provide your members with value. Why should they stay? What do you offer that resonates with their shared interests and needs? 

Do you share articles, research, or how-tos? Or are multimedia content, polls, and live events more your style? 

Online community management 

The best online community platforms dedicate time to community management, onboarding new members, and moderating the community. While some online communities use AI tools for moderation, the most authentic communities still involve humans in their management. 

The role of a community manager can be challenging, as it involves being creative, keeping engagement high, constantly collaborating with members, and handling challenges.  

Discover everything you need to know about community management in this post

Challenges and risks of managing an online community 

While we’ve discussed the numerous benefits of online communities, there are also some challenges involved: 

Privacy 

How will you protect the privacy of community members? Will there be different levels of privacy people can choose from when they join your community? How will you protect sensitive information shared by members? 

Data protection

What are your policies around data protection, and what are you doing to prevent data breaches or the community from getting hacked? How will you advise members on managing their online security?  

Harassment and spam

Unfortunately, some people join online communities to cause trouble. You need a clear policy regarding what happens to those who harass or spam other community members. 

Misinformation

When community members share information, you may want your community admins to source and fact-check it to ensure no damaging information is spread.  

Echo chambers

You want to encourage freedom of speech within your community and allow people to share their opinions so it doesn’t become an echo chamber. 

Reminding community members to share their views respectfully and kindly is a simple way to encourage healthy discussion and debate without ending up in arguments or abuse. 

Moderation

Community moderation can be a full-time job, especially for larger communities. Before you start an online community, you’ll want to consider if you have the time or resources to moderate the community to keep it a safe and pleasant space for other community members.  

Online community platforms

Choosing the right community platform to host your members can be overwhelming because you want to get it right. 

There’s a big difference between using LinkedIn or Facebook groups and a dedicated platform designed to host online communities. 

Hosting your community in closed social media groups can be suboptimal. They’re challenging to moderate and not the most collaborative spaces. When you use a social media platform to host your community, you don’t own the data, which could put your members at risk of data breaches. 

When deciding which platform to use, think about the type of content you want to share and select the platform that best hosts that type of content.

Here are some online community platform options divided by the type of community you may want to start:

Forum discussion-based communities

  • Reddit 

  • Quora 

  • Discord 

  • Slack 

  • Discourse

Online event-based communities

Online community platforms

 Knowledge sharing, collaborative communities

  • Substack

  • Mighty Networks

  • Circle

Online learning community platforms

  • Thinkific 

  • Coursera 

  • Udemy 

  • EdX

  • FutureLearn

Branded communities

  • Uscreen

  • MemberDev

  • Disciple 

Examples of successful online communities

If you’re looking for some online community examples, check these out: 

Shared goal community 

Shared goal community 

Move with Adell is a paid online community run by yoga teacher and movement expert Adell Bridges. 

She shares videos and tips, allowing her community to achieve the common goal of moving more. 

A custom-built platform and app with over 1k downloads host her online community. 

Adell actively manages the community by offering new challenges for members to participate in to keep them motivated. There are dozens of active members sharing their experiences, and she keeps them engaged through regular interactions like this: 

Shared goal community 

Branded online community 

Safetywing, the insurance company for digital nomads, has built an active online community around its brand. 

Branded online community 

They host live events and have an active Discord channel where members can discuss topics and issues related to the digital nomad lifestyle. They call it a “virtual town square” where members can share ideas, debate, and socialize. 

The community is even working together on the ambitious goal of creating an internet country of the future. 

By creating an engaged community around a niche group of people, SafteyWing's brand experienced rapid growth, reaching $20.3 million in revenue in 2023. 

Business online community

Growth Mentor is a vibrant online community of startup experts and enthusiasts.

While a paid, member-only community, this community is an invaluable resource for finding expert mentors to help you grow your business.

Business online community

This online community platform also includes a Slack channel with over 3k active members who share their startup struggles, business opportunities, jobs, tips, advice, and more. 

Peer-to-peer support community

A forum-based community founded in 2020, the parenting website Mumsnet has over 8 million monthly users.

This is an online community that has turned into a big business. The UK-based website has an estimated worth of £8.6 million. 

The platform has become a go-to online community for many parents seeking advice and support from other parents in their shoes. 

The range of topics discussed in this community is diverse, and you can find answers to questions about everything related to parenting and beyond. 

Strict moderation of the forum keeps the community safe and enjoyable for everyone. 

The future of online communities 

Thanks to the success of online communities for both brands and individuals, digital communities are here to stay and will continue to evolve. Let’s look at some trend forecasts: 

  • As AI tools become more mainstream, many communities will rely on automation and AI for community management and offer community members round-the-clock support. 

  • We may see an increase in virtual reality communities as the technology becomes more popular and allows people to meet in an alternate reality. 

  • The future of online communities will likely become more niche, with groups personalized to even more specific interests forming. 

Online communities can bridge the gap between the offline and online worlds by providing a platform for hybrid events and meetups that bring people together in real life.

Growth in online communities merging into real-world ones may help solve some of the loneliness issues we discussed at the start of this post. 

Closing thoughts   

The people behind the community make it a success; without a clear intention and strong community management, you’ll set yourself up for failure.

If you want to create an online community around your brand, hosting online events is a great way to keep members engaged and excited about your product.

A platform like HeySummit is ideal for hosting community events, regardless of size. You can organize, promote, host, and analyze your events from one dashboard. You never knew growing an online community could be this easy!

See for yourself with a 14-day free trial

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