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What Is An Online Community? Ultimate Guide To Get Up & Running

An online community is the crux of any business or person looking to expand their internet presence. Read on to find a deep dive into what is an online community.

Since before humanity developed language or technology, community has been at the forefront. Gathering together and sharing information is part of what makes communication such an integral part of society. Today, an online community is often where we get together to communicate and engage with one another. 

For businesses and people alike, online communities are integral to building up success and growth. In the modern day, you need to foster an online community if you want to expand your online presence. Of course, it is easier said than done since there are so many niches and dedicated communities out there. 

I hope to take my experience dealing with online communities and fandoms and simplify and explain their benefits for you. 

I’ll cover:

What Is An Online Community?

Online communities are the heart of the internet. An online community is a social gathering that happens entirely digitally and is typically focused around a singular topic or common interest. Online communities can take many forms. 

There are some online communities that center around a particular business. For instance, there might be an online community of people who work for McDonald’s or some other restaurant, and they share their experiences with one another. This could be to help them grow and become better cooks, servers, etc. 

Other times, an online community might form around a particular startup. Perhaps a group of fans of a new tech startup come together to celebrate a new Web3 venture. This type of community may be there to share their favorite NFTs and engage with fellow Web3 fans. 

There are many more types of online communities that you can come across, as you will see below. The general idea is that an online community is a gathering of more than one person digitally through the internet as the medium. 

These can take shape in various places, including social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitch, message groups, Discord, and others. Many times, online communities form naturally, but forward-thinking businesses can help initiate and even foster these communities using online community software.

In doing so, they can promote their products, grow their fan base, and find success through interactions with their consumers. I strongly believe that the community that you have can make or break your business.

Other names for online communities

Online communities come in many shapes and sizes, and go by a variety of other names, including fandoms, groups, channels, gatherings, and fan bases. 

Sometimes the naming conventions will depend on the platform that the online community typically uses. For instance, communities on Facebook are called Facebook groups. 

There are also Discord channels, Slack groups (you might see this phrased as “join our Slack”), and more, and in some cases, the community will use that business’ actual name interchangeably with “community”. 

What Is Online Community Management?

When it comes to businesses, managing your online community can contribute massively to your success. Online community management involves internally overseeing the group of people who follow you or your business. 

Online community management keeps its community members in check, ensuring that it doesn’t get out of hand or go off the rails. This allows you to moderate what is said and shared in the community. Otherwise, the members will make it happen themselves, which may go against your plans or guidelines. 

Online community management generally requires a dedicated team member or group of staff, such as a social media manager. This person or people moderates the online communities across various social media platforms and is in charge of managing the information, tone, and conversations that are happening in the community. 

With this type of management, you can ensure that the members of the virtual community follow your lead. For more on online community management, check out our in-depth look here

What is an online community manager?

An online community manager is a person in charge of directing your gathering of fans or customers. Their art is interactions with the community while their canvas is the internet itself. They take the lead in all of the conversations and engagements that are happening online regarding your business. 

This person will have full command of your official social channels, such as Twitter and Instagram. It is their job to use those platforms to provide information and monitor interactions with the members of your community. 

In addition, they are the face of your brand and sometimes customer support. When someone has an issue or concern, the online community manager should be the person that everyone looks to online. If you have something like an official Discord channel, they should be the admin who keeps the conversation on track.

The online community manager is the master of the comments section, replying to questions and addressing any problems that may come up there. They are also the conflict mediator, as there are likely to be issues when people with strong opinions interact with one another online. 

Above all else, the online community manager is your go-to communicator for everything that is happening with your community. It is a challenging and nonstop job, which is why an online community manager should be supported by other staff to ensure the best customer experience. 

Types Of Online Communities

There are many types of online communities, each with its own quirks, styles, and interactions. Understanding each one is imperative to know what best fits you and your business. Here are the main online community types you need to know about. 

Brand community

For a standard business, your brand community is what you need to worry about. The brand is the image of your business that you craft and share online. A brand community is a gathering of consumers who are centered on your particular business image. 

Branded online communities are generally focused on the standard retail or services-style of business. These communities foster both brand loyalty and brand awareness, and many times these customer communities can produce brand advocates who will speak about the brand or its products outside of the community to the wider public.

For instance, there could be a Starbucks brand community on Facebook. Who doesn’t love a good Pumpkin Spice Latte when it comes out ahead of the autumn season? These consumers will interact with one another, share photos, and share excitement for anything and everything that Starbucks is doing. 

Learning community

For the most part, learning communities are ones where everyone has a shared purpose in learning something specific, which might specific job- or hobby-related skills. In some cases, the learning community is made up of people in the same career position or stage. A group of people come together to share knowledge about a hobby or skill and grow together in that particular shared interest.

For example, you might have a learning community about learning a new language. These members could come together and practice speaking the language with one another or testing each other’s knowledge. 

Learning communities can be horizontally-focused with a group of like-minded people all on the same page. But it can also be structured as a teacher leading a group of students who wish to learn in a vertical-style relationship. 

Learning communities can center on many different activities and skills, such as music, video editing, programming, cooking, and other hobbies

Gaming community

A large portion of the internet today is dedicated to online video games. The gaming community is quite extensive, each with its own subset of communities. There are people who are fans of a particular video game developer and follow everything that they create, such as Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite

Fandom community

Fandoms are similar to gaming communities, but are generally broader, as they include a group of fans of a particular property or person. This is usually the most passionate community that you’ll find. 

Examples of online communities here include communities centered around specific TV shows, movies, comics, video games, technology, the Metaverse, Web3, and so on. You would be hard-pressed to find a group of people who are more involved and obsessed with elements of pop culture and various forms of media. 

This particular type of community is useful to businesses since they are the cornerstone of your fan base. They are the most diehard community members who will stick by you through thick and thin. They will usually be the most supportive, too, picking up merchandise and other items that you sell. 

Support community

One of my favorite forms of online communities is support groups. These are ones where people come together to support one another through hard times or specific issues that they are dealing with. 

One of the most popular examples of a support community is addiction support groups. People help one another on the road to recovery and sobriety, and provide support with the challenges of fighting this disease. 

There are some support communities online that center around mental health. There are also Facebook groups for people in similar circumstances, such as single parents. 

Where To Set Up Your Online Community?

Here are just some of the formats and places where online communities engage. Keep these locations in mind since they are likely the places where you should tackle starting your own community. 

Forums

While forums might sound boring and outdated, there are some elements of this community-style that are still going strong. There are forums for dedicated businesses and properties, which you can create, too, for your company. However, the most important place will always be Reddit. 

Reddit is the home of forums and is an underrated community location. Many people find Reddit daunting or not worth bothering with due to the need for moderators, but that shouldn’t stop you. Reddit community members are some of the most passionate. 

Create a subreddit page that is dedicated to your company and promote it. Your most dedicated consumers will find their way there and you can use it as one of the most efficient places for announcements, FAQs, AMAs (Ask Me Anything), and general engagement. 

Social media

The broadest form of community is on social media. While Reddit and places like it are for hardcore fans, social media has the most potential for reach. Social networks are where most businesses are able to amass more followers and fans. 

Social media includes a wide range of sites and platforms, such as:

  • Twitter
  • TikTok
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Snapchat
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn

And many more! Use social media to spread your net as wide as you possibly can and bring in new fans while catering to your existing customers, too. This can be done through basic announcements, short-form videos, neat images, and more. Social networks will also likely be your largest community areas. 

Slack (or other messaging apps)

Communication is at the forefront of building out your community and many communities live in messaging apps like Slack. In general, these are mostly used for staff members within a business but they are and should be part of your community, too

I have even seen some businesses include key investors, third-party collaborators, and some of the special consumers/fans (such as those who have subscribed at a certain Patreon tier) in Slack as well. This creates a sense of exclusivity to boost engagement. Even your business partners and collaborators should be considered part of your community. 

I would also throw in some other message boards and planning apps like Trello, Asana, and others here. They are more for the nitty-gritty of planning your content and ideas, but they can be a welcome community place, too. 

Discord

When it comes to messaging apps, there is one particular channel that I would like to highlight: Discord. This is single-handedly the most important community place in the modern age of the internet. It is highly underrated and ignored by so many businesses, which is a shame. 

Discord is still associated with certain subcultures like video game culture, but it has branched out to cover anything and everything. Discord is the home and future of online communities, and you would be remiss to ignore this place. 

This is where you show some love to your most dedicated fans and consumers. There are even some businesses that make Discord exclusive to only certain members of the community. 

It is where you can be the most human and personal with your customers, which ingrains them deeper in your culture and community. In fact, you can even tap into your most loyal members by making them moderators. 

Membership community platforms

Lastly, we have one of the more burgeoning online community formats, and that is membership places. There are locations like Patreon, and are often smaller communities. 

Most of the time, Patreon and similar sites are essentially “gated” communities where you have to subscribe and spend a certain amount of money to get in. It is a business transaction, though, as these community members get exclusive content and perks that you won’t find elsewhere. 

The members who are willing to find you in these places and offer up funds to be part of this walled-off community will literally be the backbone of your business. 

There’s lots of software out there to help you set up your own membership community if something like Patreon doesn’t work for your needs. Find a list of the best online community platforms here.

How To Create An Online Community?

Sometimes a community creates itself through your fans and your job is solely to take the reins, but oftentimes, it is up to you to start the venture. 

In these cases, there are five main steps you need to know about when it comes to creating an online community:

  1. Figuring out your goal
  2. Picking what platforms you’re going to use
  3. Deciding how the community will work and any guidelines you’ll have
  4. Creating the branding and image that consumers associate with you and your business
  5. Taking that established community and promoting it elsewhere

Read more in-depth about each of these steps in creating an online community here. It is imperative that you start off on the right foot. Doing so will lay the necessary foundation from which your business can start to truly benefit from online communities. 

Benefits Of Online Communities

Online communities may sound like an added cost that some businesses might find unnecessary. I believe that this is contrary to belief, though. The businesses that eschew creating and managing their online communities are actually hurting themselves in the long run. 

The benefits of online communities include immense growth and possible extra revenue. If you take control of your online communities and foster them, they will return the investment with more passion and expansion. 

Fans and consumers will share the word and bring in new customers. This will, of course, make your community grow larger and more successful over time. The simplest example of this is seen in someone like a YouTuber who naturally grows through word of mouth. 

In addition to growth and revenue, there is even the possibility of online communities reducing the costs of running your business. After all, the fans will share the word themselves and this can reduce some of the need—but not completely—for traditional marketing techniques. 

I have even seen some businesses and content creators fund projects entirely through their most dedicated fans on Patreon. They didn’t have to worry about funding or investments since the fans themselves were doing the investing through the strong, successful online community they created. 

Negative Aspects Of Online Communities

Unfortunately, online communities aren’t always happy-go-lucky adventures. In fact, more often than not, they can be troublesome, stressful, and tiring. This isn’t just because of the immense effort required to manage communities, but the fans and consumers themselves. 

Toxicity is the name of the game, sadly, when it comes to the internet. You can try all you want to promote a diverse and supportive environment, but sometimes the fans you have won’t even pay attention to that. They will fight amongst each other, spread toxic messages, and be exclusive to new members in all the wrong ways. 

It is our job as businesses to fight back against the toxic nature of online communities and create a positive culture, but it is a grueling battle to do so. 

The manpower required is also intense, requiring so many resources just to get started. Worse still, online communities sometimes take quite a long time of consistent effort in order to see progress. Many don’t see growth in the time frame they would like to, tempting them to give up. 

Your Community Is Worth Fighting for

At the end of the day, though, I implore you to not give up on your online communities. They empower you to continue and are the support pillars of your business in the current digital age. Without them, you are fighting against countless other businesses that are also competing with the bare minimum.

But with a dedicated and passionate community that you moderate to the utmost extent, you can stand out among the crowd. People desire personality and uniqueness, even from businesses, and managing your online community can lead to that

Part of doing this is by increasing your overall community engagement and retention. Read our case study about increasing engagement in one of our communities by 400%, and learn how this was possible. For more pieces like this, be sure to subscribe to the Indie Media Club newsletter. m

By Cody Perez

Cody Perez is a contributor to Indie Media Club and has been involved in expanding online communities for a variety of brands such as GameRevolution and Digital Trends.

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