Back in the nineties, online communities organically grew around gaming, particularly around the gaming consoles from Sega, Nintendo and Sony. Users would spend hours discussing new games, hacks and tricks and gameplay for the most popular games of the day. Right from those days of Bulletin Board Services (BBS), Usenet newsgroups and IRC, consumer brands in general and Internet companies in particular have always thought of creating and nurturing online communities around their product or service as an exercise that drove significant business value. Sometimes, building a thriving online community was their raison d’être (the gaming companies were a prime example).

When explicitly building a community around a brand, the marketer seeks four key benefits:

  • Provide an owned brand-building platform to attract new customers, and retain existing ones (particularly earn reputation, trust and loyalty)
  • Help increase the value a customer gets from the product/service by meeting her information and social interaction needs
  • Create a self-sustaining platform for information and knowledge sharing among the customers, so that the brand’s role is kept to a minimum
  • Glean intelligence from community users for strategic marketing decisions (Xiaomi is a good example here)

The strongest online communities grow organically, started by users themselves. Artificially creating new communities, or scaling up an existing one is not exactly a walk in the park. Getting new users to sign-up is an uphill task. Even if that is taken care of by exploiting all the levers on disposal, getting those signed-up users to stay active and contribute to a community takes the real grind (just ask Google+).

We now therefore explain what can brands or Internet companies can do to build successful online communities. But first let us observe closely the all-important intersection of Internet, psychology and sociology, where online communities exist.

The Internet is social. A Pew Internet & American Life Project study in 2007 found that 91% Americans go online for communicating or keeping in touch with other people they already know in real world. Of course, many also go online to find new people, build new friendships and relationships, which may even morph into real world relationships. In other words, people use the Internet to create and/or nurture their offline and online relationships.

Many of these relationships also take the form of a group or community effort, where Internet establishes its clear superiority over offline communities, primarily because it allows asynchronous participation on the part of community members (meaning members don’t have to virtually congregate online all at the same time to have a discussion, they can go online whenever they want and start participating).

Internet communities can continue to exist for a long time. A few really old communities continue to survive and thrive, and on the other hands a great number of communities have been born, grown fast, then see user participation vanishing before they completely die (think of Orkut, MySpace, Hi5, Ryze and many others). What are the factors that make an online community successful, or bring it down from any stage of its lifecycle? Do online communities follow a predictable lifecycle? We’ll find this out as we progress.

Let’s first observe some characteristic traits of all thriving online communities (or networks for that matter): they have a large number of active members who collaborate on a daily basis. These communities also see a net-positive churn – the number of new users who sign up for the community in a given period always exceeds the number of users who stop using the community. And why do people sign-up and stay active in these communities? Because of the value they get out of doing so, and this value can be multilayered.

In a well-researched paper titled ‘A Life-Cycle Perspective on Online Community Success’, authors Alicia Iriberri and Gondy Leroy deconstructed the different layers of value that community members receive. Here, we call out the three primary drivers of member value as per them:

Information exchange: One of the strongest underpin of a thriving online community is the ability for information exchange among the members. This is the primary reason people sign-up on Apple or Microsoft Support forums (for help with using Apple or Microsoft products); on travel communities like or Tripadvisor (for help with travel planning); or on auto forums like (for help with car buying or ownership), or to a limited extent, even social networks like Facebook (to stay well informed with what their friends are doing). We must emphasize here that for a community to thrive via information exchange, the information being exchanged should be perceived hugely valuable by the users. Further, the cost of gathering this information from any alternative source must be extremely high for the users.

Social support: As the second critical value driver, social support refers to the opportunity for a community member to build and maintain social ties, to help and provide support to the group (for example: many senior users in online technology forums gain tremendous emotional fulfillment by playing this role), to offer and receive emotional support and finally to bond socially. The undercurrents of social support can be seen even in the most information transaction-oriented communities, say Microsoft support forums.

Social interaction: Finally, successful online communities provide their members with ample opportunities to build new friendships, maintain existing ones and perhaps even be entertained. Facebook and Twitter for example deliver huge value on this parameter.

For brands looking to start or ramp up their online community, network or platform, they need to create a value matrix on the above three pillars of value. Specifically, we recommend an honest self-administration of the following questions:

  • Is my community (network, or platform) adequately fulfilling the information-sharing role for its users, both existing and new?
  • Is the information available and accessible to the users via my community either exclusive, or at least far easier to gather compared to all other alternatives?
  • How valuable is the information accessible on my community to the users?
  • What can I do to enhance the value of the information to both old and new users of my community?
  • How successful is my community in helping its active users build new social ties (relevant for social networks or online match-making platforms) and maintain them (relevant for general social networks)?
  • Are active users in my community able to derive emotional fulfillment by virtue of their participation in the community?
  • How far does my community allow the users to build new friendships, or be entertained?
  • Does my community have permanency (the ability to store and retrieve information shared between the community members earlier)?

From the list above, it is easily observed that popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn do not pass the permanency test, and therefore remains a poor platform choice for building an online community. This is largely because of the fact that these social networks are not designed for information-sharing or social support; and their sole agenda is social interaction.

For all legitimate purposes, when enabling information-sharing is the marketer’s primary agenda, bulletin boards or forums get our vote as community-building platform of choice (just see how well Johnson and Johnson has based its Baby Center on a forum). Why do online forums work so well? Because they are searchable and have high archival value, they automatically encourage participation from new users (even if it is asking a question) and have intrinsic psychological reward systems built in for frequent participators.

Also, when searching for answers to the above questions, many brands will discover that building an online community is a natural extension of their marketing program (tip: look for an organically forming online community around your product or service, or ask your customers).

On the other hand, several brands will also discover that the costs and efforts involved in building an online community is going to far exceed the possible returns, and therefore it is an exercise not worth pursuing. They should not get disheartened; for there exist other channels of marketing communications that can fill in the gaps. Above all, brands need to realize that online communities are not for everyone.

Note: This is the second post in our ongoing series on building online communities. Please read the first post here, where we explain how start-up networks or young communities can overcome one of the biggest adoption barrier: the network effect.

Image credit: Ivan Bandura/Flickr

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