Online communities exist across every field and in countless forms, from niche forums to fanpages on Facebook. Regardless of mission or message, all online communities have one thing in common: a shared dedication to products, services, or personalities.
With the right approach, you can cultivate a community that's committed to your brand, too.
An online community can be the deciding factor that sets your ecommerce store apart from the hundreds, or even thousands, of others operating in your vertical. With a base of dedicated shoppers and a reputation that cultivates loyalty, your fans and followers will stand by you and empower you to get ahead.
Instead of hoping that a community will find you, it's up to you to be the kind of brand that customers love. With numerous benefits that give you a competitive edge, the more time you invest in building a community, the more opportunity you'll see for the growth of your business.
What is an Online Community?
An online community is any group or organization in which interaction takes place primarily online. On social media sites, branded forums, and even private-hosted platforms launched by brands, these groups are powerful.
Some communities come together organically on sites like Reddit, while others are established to share personal or corporate missions.
Online communities reside in countless forums, including chat rooms, social media group pages, Discord channels, and even blog comment sections. With an online community available for virtually every conceivable topic or joint interest, there's a place in these web-based groups for just about anyone.
These communities can be a source of socialization, but they can also be a critical business tool when used properly — or a detriment, if left neglected or unmanaged. A great community can result in a marketing investment return as high as 33%.
Advantages of Starting a Branded Online Community
Online communities create brand loyalty that's both unique and marketable. However, the advantages go beyond just fostering a group of adoring fans. These perks can help you make the most of your community by leveraging available information and cultivating customer relationships to benefit your business.
1. Drive product innovation.
Consumers have strong opinions, for better or worse. Some businesses see customer input as little more than background noise, but savvy operators know customer ideas can be the foundation for innovation. Knowing what products customers need and want can provide great insights as you scale.
In your community you’ll have access to real-time input about potential ways to take your offerings to the next level. As community members chat about your brand and industry as a whole, these discussions can be a valuable source of inspiration for future product launches. Rather than simply relying on your research or your gut feelings, you can tap into your network to make sure your innovations hit the mark instead of fall flat upon launch.
Bringing your community into the research and development process can lead to monetary savings, too. Sports network ESPN has been able to leverage an online community to bring its market research operations in-house, saving $650,000 in costs in a single year.
2. Get to know your customers.
There's a lot to be said for getting to know more about your customer base than just names, invoice numbers and emails in a computer. That’s one of the biggest benefits of an online community. Instead of seeing dollar signs, you can see who buys your products and believes in your services. In time, you'll get to know individual people, identify valuable contributors — and potential brand ambassadors— and put faces to your shoppers.
Many businesses have a target demographic that guides everything from product development to marketing. Interacting with the people who invest in you can be valuable for clarifying your audience.
Rather than assuming who likes your product, you can see it for yourself. Then you can refine buyer personas and fine-tune product offerings to align with what shoppers want, not just what you think they need. Within the bounds of a community, you can even identify new markets that can expand your reach.
Roughly 79% of customers are more loyal to a brand that understands them, and there's no better way to get to know your base than by creating a community.
3. Product and design feedback.
As to the good, bad, ugly, and everything in between, customers aren't afraid to speak their minds. Some approach things thoughtfully, while others vent anger — but either way, you can benefit. Let your community tell you which of your products work and which don't. It's great feedback for what you already have on the market, and you can apply those insights into the products you work on next.
Only 1 in 26 customers voices complaints directly to a company; the others will simply choose another brand or limit criticisms to friends and family. An online community is a great way to hear from the other 25 who aren't as likely to speak up without prompting.
You can also get early feedback, too. If you're not ready to go live with a product, you can source beta testers through your online community.
Your community members have already demonstrated loyalty and commitment to your brand. They're the ideal people to show you where you're going right and where you may need to pivot. (Involving customers in this way can also increase the affinity they feel for your brand even more, because the relationship will feel even more personal.)
Steps for Building an Online Community
So, you want an online community. Great! But now what?
Getting started requires some substantial effort on your part. A valuable online community must be designed with your purpose in mind, ticking every box so you can offer the most to your customers — and they can do the same for you.
1. Define the purpose and goal.
Creating an online community just because you think you should, or because your competitors are doing it, isn't very beneficial. You need to approach setting up your community with your users’ goals and purpose in mind.
While you likely have your motivations behind launching a community, you also need to create a mission that will unite your customers. To determine what will resonate the most with your audience, take a second to ask yourself the following questions:
- Why do you want a community?
- What can your community offer your customer base?
- What will your community provide to customers that others can't?
- What kind of experiences do you want your customers to have in the community?
- How will participating in your community add value for customers?
A community has to exist for the right reasons, and you need to know what those reasons are before pulling the trigger.
2. Select a community platform.
There's no one right answer to the question of where to host your online community. Different concepts will work for different groups, and there's no right or wrong option. While Facebook works for many companies, Discord may be a better option for others.
Some companies will be better off using their own platform or charging a membership to join a VIP program, depending on the caliber of products or services offered.
Let your purpose and community goals guide this process; a pay-to-play platform may sound like a great idea from a financial standpoint, but depending on what you're trying to achieve and why, you may not get where you want to go.
3. Build a member profile.
Who do you see engaging with your company the most? It may be your key demographic, the fringe customers who don't exactly fit your target but are more active online, or maybe a combination of both. You’ll need to decide whether you want to keep your community limited to only dedicated fans, or if you're willing to open the virtual doors to those who are still learning about what you have to offer.
A member profile essentially outlines who you're serving and the mutual gains to be enjoyed. In many cases, this will align with your target audience, with some potential adjustments for the nature of online interaction. For example, if your products are aimed at young children, your online community will likely comprise parents, nannies, and early childhood educators rather than children themselves.
4. Develop rules and norms.
A great community is a welcoming, supportive, and inclusive place, but that doesn't mean it has to be a democracy. Look to foster the dynamic you want instead of risking your community veering too far away from your vision. You can stick to some of the basic norms of establishing policies in an online group or branch off in your own direction, but the last thing you want is a community that's effectively a rudderless ship.
5. Promote your community.
A great online community needs one vital thing to succeed: participants. The best platform with the greatest mission in the world is worth nothing without an audience.
There are a lot of ways to promote your community, but a strong strategy is essential to building the momentum necessary to get it off the ground. Some of the best possible ways to drive participation and see numbers grow include:
- Involving employees to start and continue conversations.
- Inviting top customers to join.
- Advertising on social media to fans and followers.
- Creating a referral program to spread the word.
- Partnering with key influencers to align your brand with a public figure.
2 Examples of a Successful Online Community
What success looks like in your online community can vary based on your goals, missions, and personal preferences. But there's no denying the great results some companies have managed to achieve. These two online communities have made their mark and helped elevate their brands above the competition.
1. Passion Planner community.
The Passion Planner is part planner, part journal, part life coach. It creates a way to organize short- and long-term goals to make the most of your time. Making it easier to set goals, remember appointments, memorialize moments of gratitude, stay on top of personal and professional to-do lists, and journal about thoughts and feelings, the Passion Planner is intended to be the ultimate companion.
This sort of goal-motivated organization is excellent for people who like to dream big, and that's what #PashFam is all about. The Passion Planner community highlights stories from regular users as well as celebrity fans, from Olympic Gold Medalist Natasha Hastings to LA Galaxy soccer player Gyasi Zardes. #PashFam relies on social media, blog posts, and inspirational emails to keep its dedicated legion of fans connected.
2. Skullcandy community.
Skullcandy is renowned for its headphones, and a big part of that has to do with its vocal online community. Skullcandy fans are passionate about the products, touting them as elite in headphones. Their site clearly outlines what makes Skullcandy stand out from the competition, taking customers inside the brand and communicating product impacts and benefits.
With 2.1 million fans on Facebook, over 600,000 followers on Instagram, and 122,000 followers on Twitter, Skullcandy makes it easy to stay connected, share thoughts, provide feedback, and remain engaged with the products and company objectives.
There's a reason why 74% of large companies maintain an online community: they work. Offering amazing insight into the customer experience, providing feedback otherwise unavailable, inspiring innovation, and encouraging brand loyalty, online communities are central to creating a competitive advantage. A well planned and properly executed online community may be the secret to success for your ecommerce business, giving you the support you need to get ahead — and stay there.