The average smartphone user spends over three hours a day on their phones, according to recent research. And while statistics such as this prove that digital activity is in no way in decline, other indicators prove that the way in which we’re interacting while we’re online and using social media is changing.
“To understand what’s driving this shift, you need only talk to young people,” explains digital strategist Sara Wilson on Harvard Business Review. “They’re saying that after years spent constructing carefully curated online identities and accumulating heaps of online “friends,” they want to be themselves and make real friends based on shared interests. They’re also craving privacy, safety, and a respite from the throngs of people on social platforms — throngs that now usually include their parents.”
Indeed, adds Wilson, there’s a greater need for privacy and intimacy, even if online. Users are keen to return to connections that are more authentic and equal in their value exchange, which, for many years, has not exactly included the ubiquitous social media platforms.
“To reach these younger audiences on social, marketers are going to have to rethink their approach. The first step is to understand the distinct characteristics of these more closed, and often more private and interactive online spaces.”
This is exactly why online communities have exploded in popularity of late and why you should be building one for your brand.
What is an online community?
Online communities mimic offline communities in the same principal way—they facilitate the coming together of people based on common interests as a place for discussion, advice exchange and to build relationships. They exist in a wide variety of formats, including forums, comment sections of social media pages, or as part of email subscription lists; anywhere that facilities a safe, inclusive environment where thoughts and feelings can be shared freely.
And although they use the very places that digital media have facilitated for connection, they don’t necessarily use them in the way the channels were originally intended. For example, social media as a place of the sharing of original, personal information between connections has declined in recent years, according to research. Authentic connections, whether through ‘traditional’ social media sources or IRL, are generally in decline and it’s in this gap that online communities have begun to thrive: last year, research showed that 76% of global internet users engaged with forums, vlogs or blogs on a monthly basis.
What are the benefits of creating an online community?
It puts your brand at the center
If you’ve spent time fostering it, your community becomes a go-to resource for your community when it comes to your niche. It’s a place where your members feel valued, included and as though their voice is heard and that’s as important to them as it is to your brand for the subsequent awareness and value it acquires for facilitating it.
Online game Fortnite: Battle Royale is the best example of how to create a great online community. Stats reveal that 40 percent of teenagers between 10 and 17 play Fortnite, and many of them do so in order to connect with friends.
“Our research deconstructs the Fortnite phenomenon,” NRG (the company that owns Fortnite) CEO Jon Penn explained to Forbes. “[It’s a universe full of interesting paradoxes: it’s a competitive game that fosters deep community; it’s an immersive experience centered around lasting social connection; it’s a playground to be anybody, yet it’s where we can be our true authentic selves.”
“With polarization and divisiveness seemingly defining our culture, Fortnite presents a more hopeful Metaverse where community, inclusivity, creativity, and authentic relationships can thrive.”
Fortnite has successfully fostered an incredible amount of loyalty from its players for its sense of community, quite apart from its offering as an online game. By extension, however, the brand has risen in popularity, generating more than $200 million in monthly revenue.
It provides you with endless insights
Brands pay a good amount of money to gain the kind of insights that you could pick up from an active and insightful community that you helm. Users often discuss their behaviors, customer needs, interests, and demographics freely in-depth within such communities and this knowledge is priceless in refining your value proposition: what could your business or industry do better? What refinement might your products need based on these discussions? All this qualitative data is there, at your fingertips.
It creates free promotion, retention, and loyalty
As we all know, word-of-mouth marketing is one of the most valuable marketing tools there is—and it’s notoriously difficult to create. Within a community of your own creation, you’re likely to have more than a few fans and because it’s a group of fans, they’ll talk together about their shared fandom, heightening their enthusiasm. If the community is well-managed, it will continue to create positivity around your brand and your followers are more likely to spread the word further than their community.
Similarly, even if the brand is the reason that the community exists, the community becomes the core of why a follower is attached to you. By extension, that customer becomes tied to you for more reasons than the product or service you offer, deepening the relationships, and ensuring future loyalty.
Tips and tricks for creating an online community
Find your niche
All of us are unique and have our own preferences, ideas, and opinions. The reason communities—both online or offline—are powerful are because they give us the opportunity to express our uniqueness in a forum that helps us feel valued. As humans, we want to celebrate our differences and to feel in step with others simultaneously; at the same time that we acknowledge our uniqueness, we also don’t want to feel alone. That’s why focussing your community on a niche subject captures that very human essence of authenticity and exclusivity; we feel like we’re a part of something with people who are like us, while also feeling as though what we’re a part of is special.
To capture this feeling in a community, you need to tap into a useful yet authentic niche. What do you as a business, brand, or personality offer that’s organically yours but relevant to many? What’s a popular concept or activity that’s lacking a private space to share thoughts about it? What can my community gain from being a part of these conversations? You need only to start the discussion and, if it’s relevant enough, sub-groups will split off organically.
Communities feel safe and shielded from marketing and external influence, which is part of their popularity. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can push tactics onto your community, especially when it offers your members nothing of true value. The best way to tap into the preferences of your audiences is to only contribute things that are relevant, authentic and of actual value. Before posting a comment or contributing content, ask yourself: what is this offering my community? In what ways is it valuable to them?
“Customization is key. Don’t simply replicate what you’re doing on other platforms — it will come across as ham-fisted,” echoes Wilson. “Instead, pay close attention to the behavior of the people in the campfire you want to reach, think about what value you can bring to them, then get creative about the products and messaging you’ll use to engage them.”
Like offline clubs, there’s some comfort (and excitement) to a certain amount of consistency. Eugene Tan’s hugely popular photography community of Aquabumps (now 139,000 Instagram followers strong) began as a simple email subscriber list to friends and expanded to include over 40,000 subscribers. The trick wasn’t just the stunning pictures of local beaches but the fact that it would land in inboxes every morning, creating a comfortable consistency that subscribers could look forward to.
Give your audience something they can look forward to: perhaps it’s a weekly newsletter, a content drop, or monthly product insight to keep the discussion going.
Facilitate, don’t control
Let’s take your community and turn it into an offline book club. Would you want to keep attending regular meetings if there was one person who wandered around the group, watching over you while you contributed ideas? Would you enjoy having them speak over you and tell you your contributions weren’t correct or weren’t of value? This is how communities where noticeably present moderation or control is in place. Your members should feel comfortable expressing their opinions and thoughts without fear of it being used against them. While you should introduce guidelines to your community for your users, you should also implement some for yourself as a facilitator.
Keep yourself open to feedback also—your community is a valuable asset and they deserve your ear.