The word “community” gets thrown around a lot. But for all the bloat the term sees, most of the things people call “online community” aren’t really online communities. A Twitter following is not an online community. Neither are the people who show up for your livestream.
In this article, we’ll introduce you to the idea of an online community, showing what a community is and isn’t. Whether you’re a sole creator with an idea or a business looking to add a thriving brand community, we’ll show you how the business of community works and why it can change your life.
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What is an online community?
An online community is a group of members brought together in an online space by the shared desire to belong. Online communities experience member-led growth, driven by super-members who show up to spend time on what matters to them. Communities tap into our common humanity and benefit from the network effect and user-generated content.
Online communities exist on online community platforms; these are member-first platforms that allow for the full range of human expression and creativity. Basically, the best online community platforms give you a whole set of tools to make rich human connections happen effortlessly and seamlessly.
An online community can exist for many different reasons. It could be brought together by a shared interest group, a brand or company (a brand community), a creator, or any leader(s) interested in building a focal point for sharing and transformation.
An online community is…
The word “community” gets thrown around a lot. But in most cases, it’s used as a marketing tool–not to describe a real online community. Contrary to popular belief, your Twitter following is not a community.
Here’s what a real online community needs:
- Belonging: Most social media is driven by consumption, not connection. A real online community builds multi-faceted networks and hosts conversations that help members feel like they belong.
- Shared purpose: Online communities have some type of shared niche or purpose.
- Organic conversations: The heart of an online community is organic, user-generated conversations members join (not just content from a host).
- Organization: A community platform should organize your content and so people can find what they need and offer community management tools for Hosts.
- Host(s): Online communities have a host or hosts who are community leaders, who help shepherd the community towards a common goal and shape the experience members have.
- Unique content: Online communities aren't just regurgitated social media. They host conversations you won't find anywhere else.
- Real engagement: Not likes or even surface comments, but conversations that move forward because you’re in them.
What an online community is not
We mentioned the word “community” gets thrown around a lot. Here are some of the things a community IS NOT – no matter what someone tells you:
- A social media following: Influencers might use the word "community, "but if there ain't a network of social connections, it ain't a community.
- The voice of one person: Often there's a clear leader(s) that brings the community together, but true community is what happens between members. A community isn’t just member-to-host conversations.
- One type of content: Online communities should offer a bunch of ways for users to express themselves.
- An addiction: People don’t show up because an algorithm has fed them another dopamine hit. A community is an apple pie, not cocaine.
- Anger or negativity: Social media thrives on negative emotions and outrage. Communities are psychologically healthy, safe, and overall positive.
Why build an online community?
An online community is the best way to bring people together to master a topic that’s important or interesting to them. An online community is the single most effective format for members of that community to build new skills, reinforce habits, and achieve results and transformation that would be otherwise difficult to achieve on their own.
For small- to medium-sized businesses, online communities are also the best way for them to learn about what their customers want and are motivated by.
Why brands should build online communities
We’re seeing a huge shift in online business models that are bringing online communities front and center. Brands that are able to build powerhouse, member-led growth businesses create community flywheels that make connection real and selling effortless–McKinsey even identified community flywheels as the business model for the 2020s.
There will only be one kind of successful brand in the future: brands that can transform their customers into members. Brands that don't seize this relationship transformation will die.
The next generation of high-growth companies are going to be the ones that can convert customers, users, and subscribers into members.
It’s a new era of selling and marketing, when you can take people out of the transaction mindset and help them belong.
Benefits of online communities
- Global connections: Online communities aren’t bound by real-world restrictions like geography or timezone—and because of this, there’s often a greater diversity of participants who come together to master something interesting or important together.
- Focused conversations: You can connect to people who care about what you do, no matter how niche or unique.
- Achieve transformation: The support of an online community also helps empower and inspire members to learn a new skill, build a new habit, or learn a topic they haven’t been able to master on their own. Members also find themselves progressing more quickly and making meaningful, lasting connections along the way.
- Combat loneliness: If there’s a loneliness epidemic, finding real connections online can help fight it.
- Member-led growth: Online communities experience member-led growth, meaning Hosts can get off the content treadmill and generate a flywheel of user-generated conversations.
- Thriving businesses: Online communities become thriving businesses, leading to profitable member-led businesses that make more per-member than any other business model.
What kills an online community
If you’re building an online community, there are some things that can kill the momentum quickly. Here are the top things to watch out for.
- Community Silos: When your community is spread out over different platforms. If you have a course on one platform, a community on the other, and host your events on a third, you’re risking community silos.
- Lack of shared focus: Communities should be built around Ideal Members who share a passion for talking about something they care about together.
- One-directional leadership: A Host’s job isn’t to throw out endless content and keep the members entertained. A Host needs to bring members into deeper conversation and connection–facilitating instead of directing.
- Lack of commitment: An online community is a powerful thing by itself. If you’re going to start a community, go all in. It’s worth it.
What is online community building?
Online community building is how an online community builds relationships, contributions, and sharing between members. An online community is more than its members, it’s also about the space. A community space should be a place that excites members and makes them feel valued.
Roles in an online community
- Host(s): The facilitator who brings a community together and helps prompt the conversations that matter.
- Moderators: Trusted community members empowered by the host to help maintain order and make sure the environment is positive.
- Super-members: The unofficial term for your most dedicated members who are all-in. You can’t have a thriving community without some super-members.
- Members: The people who belong to your community, who are along for the transformation.
Types of online communities
There are a ton of different types of online communities, but here are some types of online communities that thrive!:
- Mastermind Groups: Mastermind members come together to share expert knowledge and transform their businesses or lives.
- Group Coaching: Communities hosted by a coach who brings members together for transformation (e.g. fitness coaching).
- Micro-Community: Would you believe that even the smallest communities can be powerhouse businesses? It only takes 30 people or less who are dedicated to mastering a special topic, interest, passion, or goal.
- Content Community: Members come together to create and/or to learn to create content and share conversations.
- Online Brand Community: A true online brand community experiences member-led growth by people who are excited to talk about a brand or product. An example is the Lego community, where people can share ideas and even submit their own builds.
- Community of Practice: This model of community is centered around shared practice and professional standards. Think of occupations that benefit from member connection to share ideas and learn from one another.
- Event Community: An event community comes together around… you guessed it, an event! There’s something so magical about keeping the energy and connections of an event going year-round.
These aren’t the only kinds of online communities there are, but this should give you an idea.
Online community examples
Boston While Black: One thing that Boston was missing? A safe space for Black students, professionals, and entrepreneurs to come together, activate change, and build relationships. That’s exactly what this paid membership site offers. They offer in-person and virtual programming, by serving members who are seeking access to culturally-relevant experiences, information, and resources to navigate Boston, along with personal and professional connections.
Barista Exchange: This online community platform for baristas has a public forum for baristas to vent and ask for advice. It also offers a classifieds section to buy and sell equipment, a job board, blog posts that act as resources for community members, and specific groups for members to come together and swap tips.
Oiselle Volée. A brand community launched by the women’s apparel brand, Oiselle. It’s 4,000 members strong and runners can connect and share their journeys.
Find What Feels Good (FWFG) Kula Community- Two online communities launched by YouTube’s top Yoga instructor, Adriene Mishler. 200,000 members can connect, take challenges and classes, and learn more about yoga.
History of online communities
To understand how we got to online communities with a ton of features, it's important to understand the history of how they developed. Here are some of the new technologies that led to online communities!
1. Chat rooms
Way back in the '71, a basic chatroom was created by the U.S. government so regional offices could talk in real-time. This led to an online public chat system–especially a system called Talkomatic. A chat room became a way to have conversations with total strangers.
In the 1990s, chat rooms went mainstream as places where you could drop into a room and have group or one-on-one conversations. Chat rooms also created the idea of chatting with people who share common interests–people realized that organic chat worked better when people wanted to talk about the same stuff.
Early websites gave a way to create pages, and these evolved into content platforms we affectionately refer to as blogs. Weblogs were–well–an open, online diary… early bloggers could share stories about their life and people could read it.
But still, it was content and for many of us the first exposure to user-generated content online.
Blogging platforms meant sharing ideas with text and images. But in 1998, Open Diary developed the radical idea of having comments on a blog.
And poof we had content that people responded to.
Oh yeah. Bloggers were also part of the revolution towards gating content.
AND bloggers also came up with the idea of gated or premium content, which led to monetization.
3. Email Chains
A small but notable blip in the evolution of an online community… remember those email chains? The ones you were supposed to forward to 10 of your friends?
Email made the idea of sending messages at scale mainstream. And it also meant the invention of the newsletter, blasting email subscribers with premium content on a regular basis.
4. Web Forums
Chat rooms evolved into forums. Forums created ways to organize content and conversation, usually with shared interests. The WITproject from the W3 Consortium are credited with the first web forum, building on the idea of a bulletin board.
Unlike a chat room, which thrives on real-time (synchronous) conversations, forums made the conversations asynchronous. It meant you could have a thriving discussion, whether or not people were all there at the same time.
5. Online course platforms
Having gated blog content didn't just mean premium blog posts. It also created a way to monetize education–by having lessons people could pay for.
The first online course was offered by the University of Toronto in 1984. As the tech evolved, the LMS emerged: a teaching platform that could handle multiple lessons and sections.
Later this would mean video courses too.
6. Social networks
SixDegrees is considered the first social network, which let users create profiles and add friends.
This would lead to other social networking platforms like Myspace and Facebook. Different social media platforms experimented with different features. For example, Myspace had an embedded media player that would let you share music. But over time, profiles, posting, and collowing/connecting became mainstays.
The tech for livestreaming has been around since way back in 1995, when RealNetworks developed a platform to stream a baseball game.
But live streaming wasn't really a thing until YouTube did the first one in 2008. The tech was in place for live streaming, but it took the bandwidth a while to catch up.
Live streaming meant live video, but it also meant live events!
8. All-in-one community platforms & apps
Eventually, an online community platform would take all of these advances and put them in one place: a membership community that could be gated in part or in whole, and where you could host content, courses, community, and commerce–all in one place.
The intersection of social and tech, online community platforms take the human desire for connection and community that drove each of the inventions above, and packed it into a platform that basically let you create any type of content you can imagine.
The modern online community is just tech that enables human connection and creativity, and the very best community platforms get out of the way and let people create and belong.
The future of online communities
We don’t have a crystal ball, but here are a few things we’re seeing for the future of online communities.
- Thriving businesses will be built around communities: The next generation of high-growth companies are going to be the ones that can convert customers, users, and subscribers into members. The top brands will take people out of the transaction mindset and help them belong to something.
- People magic: AI tools like Mighty Co-Host™ will make it radically easier to create thriving communities with a click of a button, sort your members, and start conversations–it’s AI prompting human connection, and it’s magical.
- Web3 Integration: We’re already doing this with token-gating, but there will be more options for Web3 integration in the future.
The business of online community
As we talked about at the top, online communities can also be powerful businesses. We’re seeing more and more brands and companies unlocking member-led growth. Here are some of the ways communities interact with commerce:
- Memberships: Sometimes communities sell actual memberships. In this instance, the community becomes an awesome business. The average member fee on a Mighty Network is $27-33/mo ($240-$319 per member/year).
- Products: Sometimes online communities support a product or service business. We gave the example of Oiselle Volée; they use their brand community to share running knowledge, help people make new friends and build meaningful relationships, and they even get new product ideas and instant feedback.
- Courses: Online learning is still big business, and a lot of communities monetize with e-learning.
- Virtual and live events: Communities that are built around a virtual or live event can be a really powerful way to keep the conversation going. And some online communities earn their bread and butter from online events and conferences.
- Private groups and high-ticket products: Things like private group coaching and/or masterminds can be a great way to turn a community into a business.
Community is coveted by most brands, multi-million dollar online campaigns are dedicated to the elusive goal of getting engagement–sometimes on social media and sometimes in dedicated brand communities.
The greatest way to turn an online community into a thriving business is to go all in, build on your own platform, and begin the process of converting your subscribers, clients, customers, users, or whatever, into members. All those things are transactional, but members belong.
And ask the Hosts and brands that run online communities, it’s so much easier to launch a product and turn a profit when you have a group of supermembers who are standing by ready to buy your next thing.
Community will transform your business.