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.
What is a virtual community?
In a nutshell, a virtual community is a group of people who share a common interest or goal and who use the internet to exchange with each other.
Before diving any deeper, let’s address a common mistake: newcomers to the virtual community industry often mix up virtual communities with social networks. And while virtual communities do share some similarities with social media platforms such as connecting people online, there are extensive differences regarding experience, strategy, and behavior.
For example, people join virtual communities for a shared purpose and a common goal holds people together. People tend to join social networks to build relationships and these interpersonal relationships hold the network together. Social networks offer an experience that is more individualistic where users seek “likes” or “views” whereas virtual communities offer a culture of sharing and authentic exchanges.
Creating value for businesses
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 their own private communities where members can create deeper relationships and engage with each other in a safe space. Many companies, including Levi’s and Hershey’s, have even pulled their advertising from Facebook, which further highlights the shift away from social networks.
Indeed, there is ample evidence to show that virtual communities can give organizations a significant competitive advantage. DEWALT, the power tool company, 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.
Benefits of a virtual community
Let's discuss some of the core benefits of creating a virtual community for your business needs.
Longer 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 at 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 customer-to-customer exchanges. They empower 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.
Serve your customers better
The authentic feedback and conversations in virtual communities help organizations to better understand their customers and their 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 results of the feedback survey! Armed with this information, organizations can refine their marketing and sales strategies, as well as their roadmap for future products and services.
Lumity is an end-to-end benefits solution that launched HR for HR, a community to support HR professionals Lumity regularly surveys members with regards to the community’s usefulness. It has also established a group of early adopters. This group gives feedback on how to best meet members' needs and deliver value.
The trends and challenges identified in the community, as well as feedback help refine Lumity’s overall marketing strategy, as well as drive product innovation. The company treats feedback as an iterative process that enables it to continually improve its community and offer as it grows.
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 will sing your praise at any opportunity.
Engaging your customers on a human level through virtual communities is an excellent way to cultivate brand evangelists 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 is a global health nonprofit dedicated to supporting immunization professionals worldwide. Its community, Boost, was created to better support immunization workers. The community has helped increase the organization’s global reach, particularly in Asia and Africa, as well as its diversity.
Ensuring your virtual community’s success
It's one thing to create a virtual community, but what does that mean if it falls flat? 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 needs to 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 the strategic goals of your organization and highlight how a community could help.
For example, could a community help user onboarding and adoption of your product? Or could a community help your organization reduce support costs? Perhaps an online community could help increase customer retention? The best approach is to start by identifying one business need your community can help with. Once you solve that issue, you can start to look at other business needs.
Create your community’s mission statement
Once you've decided on your community’s goal, you can create your community mission statement.
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 to achieve them. 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 their own values and goals or not.
Get your community onboarding right
Your community’s onboarding process plays an essential role in member engagement and retention. Onboarding is your opportunity to integrate and excite new members, to inspire them to take an active role in your community, and to 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. Make sure you 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 is an opportunity for 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, live and recorded webinars, anything. Once you’ve created these resources, make sure all new members know they exist and that they are easily accessible on your platform!
Try to nudge your newcomers to take action on the community platform from the moment they sign up.
New members can sometimes be hesitant to post for fear of looking silly. You could create a new member group where they could ask beginner questions and offer the possibility of posting anonymously. This group would be a place for new users to form early bonds with others in the same situation while getting comfortable with the community platform.
Community managers are key to success
For your community to flourish it needs to be nurtured with passion and coordinated with intentional, strategic actions.
A community itself can’t properly welcome a newcomer. Nor can it moderate content, properly 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. The community manager ensures it blooms. A community manager creates this activity as early as possible and ensures the community is a vibrant hub where people want to be. 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 overall 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.
How can you spot a good community manager?
Community managers need incredibly strong 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. They wear many hats including marketer, PR person, and support agent.
Empathy is crucial. Community managers deal with a bunch of different personalities. If they’re not able to put themselves in those people's shoes, they won’t be able to effectively communicate with them. Passion is also key – 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 are also a must. 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.
How to engage your virtual community
"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 community.
Make it super easy to participate in the community. 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 going on, and get involved.
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 as soon as 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. Mobile app push notifications can also be powerful.
Carefully consider the design and user experience of your community as well! Members need to easily understand how they can participate. Clear and easy-to-understand calls to action are essential.
Rewarding members for their contributions is also critical. 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 but you should also consider 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.
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, 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.
Also, bear in mind that most members don’t show major engagement in the beginning. Most community members start off observing and then become gradually more and more involved. The different stages of engagement are well demonstrated by the Pyramid of Engagement, illustrated just below. Savvy community managers update and adapt their strategies to keep relevant members moving up the engagement pyramid.
Define who exactly 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 content calendar to ensure that your content publication stays consistent and on track. A content calendar will also make it easy for you to spot gaps in your content creation. You will be able to 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!
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, customer support time saved.
An invaluable asset for an organization
Communities – be they physical or virtual – are central to 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 even friendship. 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, new business, repeat purchases, feedback, and more.