Virtual communities have blossomed in recent years.
Sometimes they are unaffiliated with an organization, but more often than not, they are established and nurtured by a company to support a specific business goal. The benefits of a vibrant community are so compelling that more companies are putting it on the top of their to-do list, or at least considering it.
A virtual community is a group of people who share a common interest or goal and use the internet to exchange words and ideas through digital communication networks.
Before diving any deeper, let’s address a common mistake - virtual communities and social networks are not the same. And while virtual communities share some similarities with social media platforms, such as connecting people online, there are extensive differences regarding experience, strategy, and behavior.
People join social media networks to build relationships, and these interpersonal relationships hold the network together. Social networks offer a more individualistic experience, where users seek “likes” or “views,” whereas virtual communities offer a culture of sharing and authentic exchanges.
Why consider virtual communities over social networks
The propagation of fake news and hate speech, privacy concerns, and ad fatigue are just some of the reasons that an increasing number of people are moving away from social networks like Facebook.
Savvy companies have observed this trend and created private communities where members can create deeper relationships and engage in a safe space. Many companies, including Levi’s and Hershey’s, have even pulled their advertising from Facebook, highlighting the shift away from social networks.
Indeed, ample evidence shows that virtual communities can give organizations a significant competitive advantage. The power tool company DEWALT saved $6 million in research costs by launching their community. And the University of Michigan found that customers spent 19% more after they became a member of a brand’s online community.
Industry giants such as Lego, Dell, and Adobe have all launched virtual communities to, among other things, strengthen their brands, generate buzz, and increase loyalty among customers.
So let’s take a closer look at some of the key benefits of a virtual community and how to get it right.
4 key benefits of a virtual community
Virtual communities enable user discussions and provide a dedicated space for businesses to interact with customers, elevate the customer's voice, and develop a centralized location for feedback and questions.
Let's discuss some of the core benefits of creating a virtual community for your business needs.
Increase the customer lifetime value
We are now in the age of customer-centric businesses where loyalty is key to an organization’s success.
Many businesses still think that loyalty is built through sending emails that talk to the customer and focus on upselling! When in fact, loyalty is about creating meaningful relationships based on trust.
Private virtual communities foster constructive customer-to-brand and peer interactions.
Customer communities enable customers to share insights and feedback on products and services and shape the direction of the business. This transforms the customer into an advocate and an integral part of your business – strengthening your relationship with them and enhancing their loyalty.
Understand user needs in a better way
Authentic feedback and conversations in virtual communities help organizations better understand their customers and needs. The great thing about this information is that organizations can get it quickly and easily. There is no need to wait for the annual customer conference or the feedback survey results!
Armed with this information, organizations can refine their marketing and sales strategies, as well as their roadmap for future products and services.
An example of this use case can be seen in Lumity's community support efforts. The company regularly surveys members about the community’s usefulness. It has also established a group of early adopters. This group gives feedback on how to meet members' needs best and deliver value.
The trends and challenges identified in the community, as well as feedback, help refine the overall marketing strategy of a business as well as drive product innovation. Virtual communities are important for companies to receive feedback that can improve their operations and further customer-led growth.
Lower customer acquisition costs
A happy customer is an incredibly powerful asset for your organization. It’s one thing to have a satisfied customer. It’s another to have a customer who will recommend you to others, and it is something else to have a customer that is a brand evangelist and loves your product or service so much that they indirectly indulge in advocacy marketing for your brand.
Engaging your customers on a human level through virtual communities is an excellent way to cultivate brand advocates and encourage word-of-mouth referrals. Virtual communities also offer a platform for customers to voice their opinions on your offer and answer any questions from a potential buyer.
Increase diversity and global reach
A virtual community can also be used to expand the global reach of your company. The Sabin Vaccine Institute created a community called Boost to better support immunization workers worldwide. The community has helped increase the organization’s global reach, particularly in Asia and Africa, and its diversity.
How to build a successful virtual community?
Creating a virtual community is one thing, but ensuring it doesn't fall flat and delivers the impact you thought it would bring to your business is a different ballgame.
Let's go through how to actually ensure success with a virtual community.
Align community with business needs
For a community to return maximum benefits, it must be designed as part of a high-level strategy supporting company-wide goals. To get the buy-in from your executive team, you need to focus on your organization's strategic goals and highlight how a community could help.
Some business goals that can be met by creating virtual communities:
The best approach is to start by identifying one business need your community can help with. Once you've addressed the problem you want to solve, start strategizing on ideas and plans to bring those solutions to life via a virtual community.
Create a mission statement
A mission statement is the most important part of an organization, and virtual communities are no different.
A community mission statement is a formal summary that outlines why your community exists and the goals you want to achieve. The mission statement is integral to your community’s strategy because it is used to define future goals as well as operational tactics.
By defining the purpose of your community, you can better understand the goals your community is committed to achieving. Once those goals are set, you can create a strategy. By establishing this stable foundation, you can build your community from the ground up and help ensure its stability.
The mission statement is also critical for your members. After all, if you don’t have a clear and specific understanding of the focus and value of your community, you can’t expect your members to (or you risk them defining this for you, which might not be ideal). Potential members can evaluate your community based on its mission statement to decide whether it suits its values and goals.
Set up a community onboarding process
Your community’s onboarding process plays an essential role in member engagement and retention. Onboarding allows you to integrate and excite new members, inspire them to actively participate in your community, and solidify your relationship with them.
When a new member signs up (and perhaps pays) to join your community, they are super receptive to your communication. Take advantage of this and provide the best onboarding experience possible.
A great onboarding experience goes beyond a classic welcome email and offers a series of emails for newcomers to steadily onboard. The emails should help members feel more proficient and autonomous using your community and more connected with the other members.
This email series allows you to surprise your newcomers by telling them something they didn’t know about your community. You can offer them unique opportunities to get them involved with your community and encourage them to take immediate action within the community.
Create resources to help members to get the most out of their membership. Put yourself in your members' shoes. What do they need more information on? You could create guides, video tutorials, an FAQ, and live and recorded webinars. Once you’ve created these resources, ensure all new members know they exist and are easily accessible on your platform.
New members can sometimes be hesitant to post for fear of looking silly. Consider creating a "newcomers" group where users can ask beginner questions and offer the possibility of posting anonymously. This group would allow new users to form early bonds with others in the same situation while getting comfortable with the community platform.
Best practices for engaged virtual communities
"How can I improve engagement in my community?” is one of the most common questions people ask. Although engagement can mean different things to different communities. However, there are some best practices to enhance engagement that can work for most types of communities.
Getting people to interact with each other and content in an online community isn’t straightforward. Engagement doesn’t happen automatically. You need to look at it as an experiment and use a test-and-learn approach and adapt based on what you learn.
As your community grows, so should your strategy. You need to regularly survey your members to ensure that the benefits your community brings are consistent with your members’ needs.
Make participation easy
Create multiple entry points into your community, such as your organization’s website, email, and newsletters. This way, members can easily log in, see what’s happening, and get involved.
Explore notification options through user feedback
You also need to remind members to return to your community and contribute.
Ask your members what kind of notifications they want to receive. Do they want to be alerted as soon as tickets for your latest event go on sale? Would they like to be notified when a job in their area of expertise is posted?
Perhaps they want to receive a notification each time there is a new blog article. By keeping members updated on the content that matters most to them, they are more likely to log into the community and engage. You can notify your community via email and newsletter. In-app push notifications for mobile apps can also be powerful.
Invest in user experience
Carefully consider the design and user experience of your community as well. Members need to understand how they can participate easily. Clear and easy-to-understand calls to action are essential.
Create reward mechanisms and implement gamification for engaged members. This is not just about motivating them to continue to contribute. It also demonstrates that they are recognized for having a key role within the community, which may indirectly increase their participation in the long term.
Badges and swag are great rewards, along with providing business-orientated rewards for your top contributors. For example, invite them to beta test products, give them early access to top content, offer discount event prices, and access to executives.
Improve user support processes
If a member asks a question, reply to them promptly. Boost the quality of your responses by soliciting the most expert person in your team to reply to them. Let your community know that you are listening and there for them. You could even ask members to share an answer if it solved their query.
Remember, Also, remember that most members don’t show major engagement initially. Most community members start observing and then become gradually more and more involved.
Define who you are talking to, what you should talk to them about (their challenges, interests), and how you should talk to them.
Are there any special dates for your community? Earth Day, Giving Tuesday, Pride Day? Harness the buzz around dates that matter to your community and plan and create a dedicated content campaign.
Create a calendar to ensure your content publication stays consistent and on track. A content calendar will also make it easy to spot gaps in your content creation. You can more easily see if you’re focusing too much on one topic while neglecting another. Plus, mapping out topics can also inspire other content ideas.
Measure success metrics regularly
Remember, success is not all about clicks and comments. You need to go beyond and look at business metrics directly related to your goal(s). For example, the impact of the community on the number of new customers, customer lifetime value, and customer support time saved.
What does a community manager do?
For your community to flourish, it must be nurtured with passion and coordinated with intentional, strategic actions.
A community itself can’t properly welcome a newcomer, moderate content, process feedback, reply to questions with empathy or encourage meaningful conversation. Sure, there have been some pretty exciting developments regarding communities and AI, but you still need a human (s) to run your community.
Community managers are responsible for managing, engaging, and growing the community. Think of the community as a flower; a community manager ensures it blooms. They make this happen as early as possible and ensure the community is a vibrant hub where people are excited to exchange ideas and thoughts. They ensure members get value and keep coming back.
Great community managers also ensure that the community sticks to the strategic roadmap and supports the organization’s goals. Bear in mind that one person may be able to run the community at the beginning. However, as your community grows, you will need to recruit others.
Skills to look for when hiring a community manager
Community managers need a strong set of soft skills. They must be good communicators as they need to be able to articulate messages and ideas in creative ways for multiple mediums. Community managers must be flexible as they wear many hats, including that of a marketer, a PR specialist, and a customer support agent.
Empathy. Community managers deal with a bunch of different people. If they cannot put themselves in those people's shoes, they won’t be able to communicate with them effectively.
Passion. You don’t want someone who is just going through the motions. You need someone excited about your community's mission and dedicated to its success.
Analytical skills. As the saying goes, what can’t be measured, can’t be managed. Your community manager needs to measure engagement metrics to see what is working and what is not to keep the community strategy on track.
Join in on the community culture
Communities, whether physical or virtual, are central to the human experience. They tap into our needs for closeness and connection and give us a sense of belonging.
The best virtual communities enable connections, meaningful exchanges, support, and sometimes friendships. The key is to create a safe, private environment and encourage members to interact with both you and other members.
When done right, a community can be an invaluable asset for any organization. By creating a vibrant virtual community, a brand can drive loyalty, and new business, increase repeat purchases and unlock priceless feedback.
Virtual communities enable businesses to get an insider look into what users really want. Read more on how brands can benefit from taking user feedback online and benefit from social listening for better brand advocacy.
This article was originally published in 2020. It has been updated according to new editorial guidelines and with new resources.
We're better together 💪
Build creative and productive user communities with online community management platforms.
How Virtual Communities Can Benefit Your OrganizationA virtual community So let’s take a closer look at some of the key benefits of a virtual community and how to get it right.
Jean HamonJean Hamon is the founder and CEO of Hivebrite, an all-in-one community management platform.https://learn.g2.com/author/jean-hamonhttps://learn.g2.com/hubfs/Jean%201.jpg
Never miss a post.
Subscribe to keep your fingers on the tech pulse.
By submitting this form, you are agreeing to receive marketing communications from G2.