We’ve gone deep into what makes great online communities and what you need to know if you’re just getting started or if your existing online community needs a bit of help.
Our evaluation included doing an analysis into thriving communities with committed, lifelong members. We looked at what they offered, how they offered it, and the value provided to each individual member, as well as the benefits of the community to the brand itself.
Thriving online communities share traits and features that contribute to the overall success of their platform. In order to increase user retention, engagement, and ultimately loyalty, focus must be ruthless on features, structure, moderation, and functionality of the platform.
Established Platforms: Twin Peaks Reddit, Straight Talk with Ross Matthews Podcast Patreon, and The Canadian Modular/Synthesizer Gear Exchange Private Facebook group
Custom Platforms: NikeTalk, Horror.com, Discogs, Techmae, and Scribophile
Published June 14 2021
An online community is a group of people who participate in a computer-mediated network (virtual space) designed to facilitate the exchange of ideas and content between like-minded individuals in order to fulfill common needs, goals, and objectives. The main drivers of community formation are a shared common sense of identity, purpose, behaviors, objectives, and interests between members.
Successful online communities facilitate meaningful connections and quality interactions between users in safe, cohesive, and collaborative ways. This results in positive psychological and emotional influences for participants. This also opens up a direct communication channel between customers and the brand. Establishing and maintaining a highly engaged online community is valuable to both the customer and brand.
While situations like the COVID-19 pandemic threaten the shut down of physical spaces, online communities can remain open and thrive. A vibrant virtual network provides a place for customers to pivot to and gather, especially during times of increased isolation. Your business can still operate and remain relevant even if you and your customers are unable to meet in a physical space.
A brand community consists of the community members (users), partners and employees. Maintaining a successful brand community provides customer retention, brand loyalty, cost-effective feedback, and customer support. Brand communities can be hosted on the company website, platforms like Facebook or Reddit, or on their own custom community-specific platform (independent domain).
A highly usable and intuitive interface is vital to the success of online communities. It decreases frustration while using the platform and facilitates the completion of tasks and the achievement of goals.
The UX (user experience: how it feels to interact) and UI (user interface: what elements on the screen are used for engagement) of a platform need to directly align with the user’s needs, behaviors, and motivations.
They need to solve pain points and should feel cohesive with the purpose of the platform and most importantly the mission of the brand. Information architecture, navigation options, and visual hierarchy contribute to the usability of the platform, and should be extremely clear, organized – all aspects of the platform must be easy to scan, find, and consume content from.
Users should intuitively know what they can do, how to accomplish tasks and how to fully utilize the features of the platform. All functionality across the platform should be optimized and bug free – anything that’s on the platform needs to have a purpose and work as expected.
Common features that increase user engagement and retention include:
Having a clear and continuously maintained moderation strategy is vital to the success of an online community because it ensures your users feel safe and confident enough to contribute authentic content and take part in discussions in valuable and respectful ways.
Community moderation involves establishing and promoting a positive community climate, curating user content to ensure quality and alignment to the community’s purpose, and guaranteeing that positive member participation is enforced, valued, and recognized.
Strategy can range from full moderation (every user post or interaction needs moderation approval before going “public”), self-moderation (flexible moderation that involves users participating in moderation along with designated moderators), and no moderation (hands off moderation that gives community members freedom to post whatever they want with no review or moderation).
Moderation guidelines should define the purpose of the community and who it’s for, acceptable and unacceptable content, expected behaviors and actions, set terms to ban unacceptable behaviors, and provide a clear path for community members to report complaints. Consider moderation an ongoing process to be adjusted as the community evolves.
This ongoing effort will ensure safety for every individual that uses the platform. Having a clear moderation strategy aids in user retention and can ultimately contribute to the long-term success of the community.
Those might include responding to unanswered questions or concerns, curating community content by engaging seed questions and facilitating discussions, serving as moderators and doing tasks like greeting new members and participating in any “special” virtual events that the community may hold (ie. “ask the expert” session threads).
Activating your super users to assist in content creation and platform moderation lessens the workload of paid administration, decreasing cost.
This practice also amplifies member enthusiasm, reinforces the super user’s sense of purpose within the community motivating them to make meaningful contributions. It also motivates other members to be engaged to reach super user status. Contributing positively to the overall social culture of the community by having members involved in the maintenance and evolution of the community.
In order to launch a successful super user program, brands must provide a value exchange for super users to take on community tasks and responsibilities, and reward, acknowledge and promote them; being a super user should feel like a privilege that members aspire to.
The target audience of your community can be individuals who are already fans of your brand and those who could be converted to a customer. Increase the number of “Brand Ambassadors” that are active in your community – find the enthusiasts who are highly knowledgeable and passionate about your brand, and then empower them to promote your brand. People are more likely to follow through on a recommendation if it comes from a friend, someone they trust or admire.
Along with word of mouth, ambassador programs encourage community members to share special community content or invite friends to the platform. In return, they receive rewards like swag or other digital perks. This creates incentive for members to promote and grow the community. Online brand communities provide a space for brand fans to communicate with each other and share information and their passion about the brand. Which can provide invaluable insights into a brand’s target audience.
Implementing support forums that focus on solving questions, concerns, issues and feedback will encourage members to support each other. This can decrease or even eliminate support costs.
Online communities provide a direct platform to make brand announcements and relay important information directly to an engaged customer base. Brands obtain direct feedback on potential needs, wants, pain points, and motivations of community members. As well, brands can validate messaging efforts to see what lands or misses with their intended audience.
Related to customer feedback, absorbing the discussion forums and user to user communications can provide insight into knowledge gaps as well as opportunities. Insights that are harder to get using traditional channels.
The Hawthorne Effect can take place during participation in research methods like focus-groups and interviews – this is when research participants adjust or attempt to change their behavior purely because it is being evaluated. Online community-focused channels lessen this effect considerably.
Shared emotional connection between members is the definitive element for a true community and comes from quality interactions and bonds that are made between members. Emotional connection motivates people to be active and accountable and is grown when people are acknowledged for their contributions.
Facilitating valuable and meaningful connections between users means that engagement increases which provides more insight and opportunities for growth.
Top Benefit: Direct engagement with a target audience for pure insights
This is especially notable in times of increased social isolation like the COVID-19 pandemic – even if physical spaces are shut down, members can still engage.
Online communities can fulfill a variety of different types of participant needs, varying based on community type. Needs that can be met by online communities are social, emotional, psychological, academic, professional and interest-based.
They can include but are not limited to access to and the ability to share and discuss knowledge and information (professional or academic), the ability to facilitate actionable change, connect with geographically specific demographics, as well as to discuss and develop shared interests and passions.
Providing highly exclusive, interesting and relevant content in an online community provides great value for its members.
Brand communities provide an open and organic communication channel between members and the brand – participants can give feedback and feature requests directly to the individuals that have influence on the brand’s offerings.
Having a space for members to talk to the brand and vice versa increases the personalization of the brand and will create deeper emotional connections with customers.
Understanding the people who make up your membership is the key to building a successful community. Designing and developing the platform to meet needs and objectives ensures value in being an active member of the community which drives growth and retention.
The way members can interact with each other and with the platform’s features not only needs to align with user needs and goals, but also with the mission and purpose of the brand itself.
Leveraging an in-depth understanding of your intended audience makes all decisions easier. Features, moderation practices, paywall and notification strategies, membership tiers and benefits, and types of content to produce are all informed by this foundational knowledge.
Below are steps to take when launching an online community or key areas to re-visit when improving an existing community:
Community leaders must set goals and timelines for their organisation as well as success/failure metrics in order to measure the success of their community.
What makes a community successful depends on a combination of the business’s and the user’s needs, goals, and objectives. Success can be determined by defining the purpose of your community and what are tangible outcomes that can measure the evolution of the purpose.
For instance, a literary community of writers where authors can post their work and give and receive feedback could measure success by the number of new articles posted a day, the amount of and quality of feedback and answers, and the rate in which users are paying for premium features or subscriptions.
Other objectives to consider when establishing or improving your online communities include ensuring the platform is highly accessible, setting campaign and fundraising timelines, commerce incentives like subscriptions, cross-sales and advertising revenue, setting up feedback and support channels and systems, and ultimately, what outcomes equate to success for your business.
The costs associated with building and maintaining an online community will depend on multiple factors: the scope and size of the community, the technology involved, moderation strategy, what kind of platform the community is hosted on, the number of paid employees, marketing and advertising, how complex the features and functionality are, and the type of community.
Academic and professional knowledge-based communities may have a need for increased moderation to fact check and verify information sources, while massive fanatical forum-based communities will need to spend more money on server and database costs.
You have options. Communities that are hosted as private groups on websites like Reddit, Facebook, and Patreon are less expensive because there are low to no costs associated with them – all you need is an account and permissions to create a group.
The downside of hosting your community on websites like this is that you have less control to customize and tailor your platform – you have to work within the confines of what is offered. This can make implementing stand-out features for user engagement very difficult or impossible to execute.
Communities that have custom interfaces and domains but are hosted using Content Management Systems (CMS) such as Squarespace, Wix, and WordPress involve domain payments and payment for additional features (e-commerce, forums, etc.). These platforms also have to be set up and maintained by someone but are not as expensive as hosting and developing a custom website yourself.
Developing a custom, non-CMS website from scratch is a very complex process that involves the contribution of many different skill sets and can get expensive due to labour and overhead (server costs, etc.) You can hire your own employees to design, build, and maintain your website or outsource freelancers or agencies to do so.
The benefits of having a complete custom website are that you have total control over what your website looks and feels; what features and functionalities are present, and how it is built and by whom.
The first step to decide what the best paywall strategy and/or membership tier system to implement across your brand’s community is to gain a deep understanding of your target audience and user base. From this you’ll know what kind of content your members would find highly valuable and what they would be willing to do for access. This could be done by implementing a monetary subscription fee, or the use of other engagement tactics to reach higher membership tiers.
Fly-by users who are “passing through” and have viewed less than 3 different pages of content. Allowing these users to have free access to your content with a metered approach is a proven way to convert them into occasional or regular users.
Occasional users who know your brand but do not regularly consume community content or engage consistently. A way to keep better track of these users is to have them sign up for a free account to continue consuming content.
Regulars or Loyal Visitors are users who access content on a consistently frequent basis, and often already have an account and have engaged/participated with the community.
Tracking regular user data is useful as it can provide insights into how much content visitors consume, what type of content they consume.
A good way to introduce paywalls to this user group is to set up a “pay-per-article” or personalized paid sub offer (personalization is key)
Regardless of paywall or membership tier strategy, the content you provide for free must incentivise members to continuously engage with the community.
Highest Level Members – users who have control over everything that happens in the community. Admins oversee how the platform is designed and styled, how it functions, features and how they are organized, what information is needed from members and also when and who to promote to moderation.
Admins need to represent and stand by community values with actionable follow through and are usually stakeholders, founders, or company employees.
Usually oversee specific areas of the community, for example, specific forums. Moderators have special permissions within these areas such as the ability to edit/delete posts, move threads, enforce rules and guidelines and take actionable measures against offenders, assist in answering questions, troubleshooting member issues, and serve as ambassadors for your community.
Moderators carry out all the above while maintaining a high level of commitment to the community that aligns with defined goals, values, and guidelines.
Some super users can have moderation privileges and roles, while some do not but still serve as trusted members of the community and help facilitate discussion, welcome and mentor new members and lessen the overall workload of community moderation.
Super Users need to be acknowledged and rewarded for their efforts and status by moderators and admins.
Users that are highly engaged and have proven themselves to be valuable contributors by reaching a post or other goal. Senior users need to be rewarded for their contribution, and these rewards can be extra permissions, access to special/exclusive content, and/or being potentially promoted to moderator or super user.
Once a user has reached the goal of the new user, they should be presented with new features and permissions as well as the next goal to meet. For example, when a user reaches 1k posts they can post in classifieds.
New users have limited abilities and permissions until they reach a set goal. Example: having to post 500 times that are not spam to be able to post personal content/start threads. Another example is that they need to complete their profile before being able to post anything.
If the community calls for it, roles for technical support should be filled by patient, kind, and resilient members who enjoy helping people solve problems.
Horror.com uses this structure and has a highly successful moderation strategy and large numbers of highly active members.
Users with over one thousand posts are called “HDCians”, users with one to ten thousand posts are “Senior HDCians” and users with over ten thousand posts are “VIP HDCians”.
User engagement is the most important factor in the success of an online community. High rates of user activity and engagement generally represent upward user growth, resulting in your brand reaching more people in exciting and interactive ways. Your online presence will have the potential to reach wider demographics to boost your brand’s revenue.
There are many ways to facilitate and encourage user activity, but the features you decide to implement must provide value to the user by solving their needs, wants, goals and objectives.
Define and promote a clear purpose of the community – draw members in by promoting the purpose and mission of the community and how they can contribute and benefit from being a part of it.
In order for community members to feel recognized and rewarded for their participation and contributions, there needs to be clear ways of representing that participation.
Representing and rewarding participation can increase transparency and accountability, as well as serve as an incentive for other members to move up through the roles of the community and actively participate.
Extrinsic rewards are either physically tangible (swag, gifts) or digitally transferred (badges, points).
Intrinsic rewards include psychological benefits from meaningful work, contribution, and performance.
Examples of rewards
Sign up and onboarding should to be simple and quick enough to not deter members from completing the process
Collection of basic user info like name, email, location, agreement to terms of service, policies, as well as something to verify the user as an appropriate addition to the community to lessen trolls/spam
Canadian Modular Synthesizer Gear Exchange private group on Facebook specifically asks “What country are you a resident of?” as the group is only for Canadians
Techmae takes this a giant step further by implementing their patent-pending facial recognition technology in their sign-up process that verifies the identity of the user in a highly trustworthy way – the platform is strictly for women
This is the opportunity for the brand/company to introduce how valuable being a part of the community can be – include an “elevator pitch” style intro to clearly convey the purpose, mission, values and goals of the community, as well as touch on any focal features (forums, classifieds) and how to use them, and then end onboarding by pointing the user in the direction of what to do next – ie. “start by completing your profile in order to participate in the discussion forums”
Community moderation is the practice of ensuring any user interaction and communication aligns with the values set out by the brand. Including terms and conditions, code of conduct documentation, and the stated mission of the community.
Successful moderation finds a balance between controlling interactions to enforce community rules and giving participants enough freedom to express themselves.
Moderation is key in user retention because it helps ensure individuals feel safe and confident, and can create a highly collaborative and positive community.
Average pay for most online moderators is $15 per hour – but can go up to around $30 per hour depending on skills/experience required to qualify as experienced enough to be a moderator.
A work-around to this cost is to promote community members to be moderators and reward them in non-monetary ways like special permissions, capabilities on the platform, badges, recognition, and featuring them prominently as a moderator.
Moderation can be done through technology. AI or software programs that recognize and flag problem content through tech like image recognition technology that utilize algorithms.
Automated systems and integrated machine systems can help streamline moderation process and result in fewer human moderators. Which could be cost-efficient in the long term.
Large and established communities can better use automated moderation as the key point of moderation, backed by human moderation. Smaller communities can use human moderation and utilize stand-out users (super-users) as volunteer moderators to keep moderation cost-efficient.
Once you have set up and launched your online community, you must continuously track and assess your analytics. With this knowledge, adjust the way your community functions to keep up with changing user needs, market trends, and business requirements.
Thriving communities are living, breathing, entities with clear signs of brand leadership engagement for all members to see.
Updating your platform to directly align with changing user and business needs can include adjusting, removing or adding features and functionality, adjusting moderation and guidelines.
As well as providing up to date content that will continue to provide value to the user so they continue engaging with the community.
Prioritize development of highly engaged features – when user engagement signals that a feature or section is valuable, consider further developing that feature or section to bring even more value to the users.
Sunset Features – The features or sections that have very low/zero engagement need to be re-assed and potentially not invested in or removed completely.
Informed Split Tests or A/B testing – Split testing is the practice of releasing two different versions of a feature, CTA or variation of platform to different user groups.
Using split testing can help to identify which version to go with based on which version reaches goals better, eg. the version that converts visitors into customers.
What a user values is demonstrated by what they choose to spend their time on. Highly engaged users are more likely to buy, return, and share what they value with others. High user engagement leads to increased revenue.
The definition of user engagement differs from platform to platform, business to business, and different metrics are often used.
Hard metrics (Daily Active Users, Cost Per Acquisition, Return On Investment) are straight forward but the way a business uses these differs. High amounts of clicks or views will be useful for a news publishing site but not as relevant to an insurance company, who may focus on the increase in activity leading up to filing a claim.
It is paramount to track negative actions as well as positive. Negative metrics include unsubscribes, deletions, plan downgrades, decrease in activity, silenced notifications.
Use cohort analytics (Segmented Users Analytics) to break users into groups that share specifics such as demographic, behavioural, and/or technographic attributes.
Community metric tracking as well as moderation strategy are useful because they give detailed views into your different user groups and makes decisions for those groups.
Benefits include being able to identify where and when advanced users need more features, and where less advanced users need more guidance.