With social media becoming so popular, you may not have heard much about private online communities. The huge audiences on social media demonstrates the benefits of harnessing the power of a targeted group of people with very specific interests in one place.
What’s an online community?
The best and simplest definition I found of online community comes from Jeremiah Owyang. He distilled it from his Twitter network in 2007: “An online community is where a group of people with similar goals or interests connect and exchange information using Web tools.”
Not much has changed since then. In fact, online communities have existed for a while as listservs and forums. Now they are social media groups and fan pages. But the basic human need to interact with people who are like-minded and who share an interest in a specific topic is eternal. Only the tools have changed and the methods we use to carry out this exchange.
The difference between online communities and social media
It’s semantics. And there are profound differences between online communities and social networks. It helps to remember that online communities have been around longer than social media. Groups of people on an e-mail list have been e-mailing questions and answers to each other for years. If you weren’t part of the list, you didn’t see the conversation.
Social media networks were originally started as just that—social sites. Friendster, MySpace and Facebook were ways that students and younger people shared what they were up to. LinkedIn entered the arena, but it was more of an online Rolodex where you kept track of the people you knew who knew you.
Inherently, the listserv group or method is too restricting and the social media sphere is too expansive. That’s where online communities come in.
Include online communities in your social media strategy
Small business owners can completely understand the benefit that social media has to offer. But most industrial, B2B or niche businesses and associations don’t see the value because their audience isn’t participating on social media during their work hours. And if they are, they certainly aren’t tracking the latest trends on widgets.
The beauty of today’s online-community technology is that it uses social media's benefits to reach your targeted and often private audience. Social media can be part of your marketing strategy for the outside world and you can use the technology to exchange information on your business that may not be for public consumption within your online community.
5 ways to use online communities in your business
1. Create a way for customers to talk to each other. If your professional association or business serves a specific and targeted market, an online community where customers can share ideas, strategies and best practices is a real differentiator for your business.
2. Provide sponsorship opportunities. Your online community can pay for itself and become a revenue generator if you offer sponsorship or advertising opportunities to suppliers and vendors who can benefit your customers. Customers will appreciate you vetting providers and the providers will appreciate the targeted exposure.
3. Build loyalty. Creating and managing a thriving customer community increases customer engagement with your company and your product or service. According to the Gallup Organization, an engaged customer is a profitable customer.
4. Analyze community feedback as research. Private online customer communities generate the most valuable research data. By simply reading posts from your online community you have a feedback goldmine. It’s a valuable opportunity to interact with your customers. You can also use text-analysis tools like DiscoverText to analyze large amounts of social data.
5. Integrate your suppliers and prospects. Your community doesn’t have to be limited to customers. You can include suppliers and prospects as well. Do that, and your online community turns into a sales force as prospects get a real feel and flavor for your organization.
Where to start your online community
Choosing an online site a lot like choosing a house. They all do pretty much the same thing. What’s best for you depends on which features you prefer and what trade-offs you’re willing to make.
Ning: Ning has been the online community of choice for a long time. Then, in 2010, it made massive cuts and started charging for features that were free. Ning has three paid plans. For $2.95 a month, you can have a community of 150 people. The next plan level is $24.95 and the highest is $59.95.
Spruz: When Ning changed its revenue model, lots of people fled the platform and their destination was Spruz. It features many of the same features as Ning and then some. What sets Spruz apart from Ning is that businesses can create and host a complete, functional website quickly and easily. And it's completely free.
Social Go: While the other sites are focused on building your online community, SocialGo helps build your website and social community. SocialGo seems to promote a more cohesive and full experience.
BuddyPress: If you already have a WordPress blog, then you might consider BuddyPress. This is a WordPress plugin that easily integrates into your existing WordPress website. This only works with self-hosted WordPress installations and may require some technical tweaking.
What are you waiting for?
Social media has many benefits. But private online communities can offer you a different competitive advantage. As you plan your marketing for the next year, consider creating, strengthening or reviving your online community. You’ll save money and time, increase customer loyalty and have a lot of fun along the way.