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Community is the Future of Business: Different Types of Online Communities and Driving Value for Brands and Customers

November 9, 2021

Omaralexis Ochoa

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In the business world, “community” has become somewhat of a buzzword lately. Depending on your industry, “community” might take on some different meanings. For companies selling products, a community might look like a Facebook group for skin care enthusiasts. For companies providing a service, a community might instead look like a group fitness forum, organizing monthly in-person events.

Although these are two largely different types of communities, more and more brands are realizing their power to build loyalty, expand word-of-mouth, and ultimately drive sales. But what are the different types of communities out there? And what does a successful one look like? Let’s talk about that and explore the power of community.

What is a community?

Ever since getting into NFTs this past summer, I’ve been increasingly curious about communities. But before going down that rabbit (which should probably be an episode in itself), let’s start with the basics. What is a community, and how are businesses implementing them?

In short -- a community is simply a group of people who share a particular interest or goal. But it’s how they come to life that really differentiates them across industries and mediums, and so there are many different types of communities when it comes to the business sense of the word.

Online communities are at the forefront of how brands are going to market in the world of community-based business. Although they may have an element of in-person interaction, much of how brands bring people together today involves online engagement and developing digital content as resources for their members to use as topics of conversation, or even inspiration for new contributions. Much of what I will focus on here will be regarding online communities specifically.

What are the different types of online communities?

So, what are the different types of online communities out there? Experts like Greg Isenberg -- who is the founder of Late Checkout and several other community-based businesses that have been acquired by companies like WeWork -- say that there are ultimately two main types of online communities: those on either owned or unowned platforms. He talks about this in an interview with David Spinks on the Masters of Community podcast.

Isenberg says that when it comes to communities which exist on unowned platforms like Facebook Groups, the opportunity for a business lies in “looking at these cookie cutter solutions... and thinking about what you can create for this particular [group] to make them feel at home.” This is essentially the foundation of his current business, Late Checkout, which is focused on “unbundling” internet communities that exist on unowned platforms like Reddit, and uncovering opportunities to design purpose-built platforms for them to live on instead.

However, Greg Isenberg tells David Spinks during this interview that he believes almost 75% of communities probably should live on existing platforms like Facebook. This is because the majority of online “communities” lack a distinct identity and are really more like audiences.

It is this element of shared identity that makes the remaining 25% of online communities a valuable prospect for what Greg Isenberg calls true community-building. These are groups of people who identify as mothers and share parenting tips, or people who identify as survivors and support each other’s struggles. Shared identity is what differentiates true communities -- it is what turns a passive lurker into an active contributor.

What’s the difference between an audience and a community?

So what’s the difference between an audience and a community? The lines tend to blur when talking about the 75% that Greg Isenberg alluded to. David Spinks puts things clearly for us in his article on Medium covering specifically the differences between the two. He sums it up as follows: an audience is “one to many relationships” whereas a community is “many to many relationships.”

He expands on this by saying that “an audience is all focused on one central person or brand.” I think many creators fall into this category -- they are trying to build influence on unowned platforms like Instagram and YouTube as either entertainment personalities or influencers, speaking to many people at once within their audience. As David puts it, members of an audience are “all listening to you, but they don’t necessarily feel a common sense of belonging and shared identity with others who are also listening to you.” Additionally, members of an audience are not often able to respond to what they are listening to -- it’s typically a one-way flow of brand communication. Brand-to-audience, full-stop.

This is while members of a community are not only listening, but building relationships with one another, and contributing new content to the community by way of two-way communication with not just the brand, but with each other. Online communities are not only about consumption, but creation. That is the key difference between an audience and a community -- in a community, brands may take a backseat to the communication going on amongst community members.

Communities are Greater than the Brands that Build Them

In this way, communities truly are greater than the sum of their parts. As a result, I think they are less about the actual brand they may surround, and are more about the interpersonal connections that arise from the identity a brand curates. Therefore, brands play the role of facilitators in a community -- not rulers.

In playing the role of facilitator, this enables members to gain a voice of their own; a following, and a sphere of influence in that community. This is scary for any brand because powerful community voices are a double-edged sword -- for large brands especially.

When a community gives rise to an influential voice, there’s no guarantee that this person will speak for your brand or against it. It’s a natural part of the transparency that comes with building a community that a brand should encourage instead of censor. Not only does this allow you to learn from customers in real time, but also helps you develop an image of authenticity which is sort of the point of building a community in the first place. When done right, this can earn your brand the title of “by the people, for the people.”

In my experience, however, I’ve found that large brands are afraid of their brand’s voice getting away from them. It’s why messaging is carefully curated and undergoes several levels of review before ever seeing the light of day, and it’s a huge part of what slows them down in a volatile business landscape and allows so-called “ankle-biters” to eat away at their market share. Not only are smaller, startup brands simply faster, but they are unafraid to fail and learn from their mistakes. As such, I find that larger brands are likely to stick to tried-and-true unowned platforms like Facebook Groups, as it allows them to dip their toes into community without fully committing to it.

Salesforce is a Great Example of All-in Community Engagement

So what are some examples of large brands that have gone all-in on community? More than simply dipping their toes? Take Salesforce and their Trailblazer community, for example. Not only has Salesforce wrapped their training modules with gameified Trailblazer marketing, but they have created a massive flock of loyal customers who contribute to their overall support ecosystem for the Salesforce platform, where we can see plain as day a real-time feed of user complaints and platform bugs, alongside an endless flow of user-generated how-to content.

And yet despite this seemingly ugly aspect of the Salesforce community that would make many brands run away, Salesforce sees a congregation of over 200,000 loyal customers each year at their annual Dreamforce conference; sharing, learning, and celebrating with each other. Part of what makes the Trailblazer community so powerful for Salesforce as an organization is the fact that it extends beyond the platform itself. By nature of Salesforce as a tool, it sees practical application across industries -- providing a networking point of commonality for Dreamforce attendees each year. This is an ancillary benefit to being a Salesforce loyalist that doesn’t immediately come with the subscription; it’s only made possible by the enthusiasm of its users.

Salesforce Wasn’t Always an Expert in Community

It wasn’t always obvious to the decision-makers at Salesforce that community was a ripe opportunity for growth, though. At the beginning, “community” was still an abstract and unproven investment for Salesforce and its returns were unclear. As Erica Kuhl, Vice President of Community at Salesforce, said in her 2019 keynote at the CMX community marketing summit, “being able to tie community value to business value is extremely difficult to do,” and this is a sentiment many businesses probably share.

During her keynote, Kuhl walks us through a phenomenal summary of client impact data that Salesforce compiled from its CRM metadata to understand the differences between clients that are engaged with the Trailblazer community, and those who are not. She found that engaged clients have 2.5x the number of deals than unengaged clients. That’s HUGE, because it reflects the amount of platform adoption that ultimately leads to a larger pipeline for Salesforce clients as a direct result of their involvement in the community.

But that’s not it -- Kuhl also shared that among engaged clients, they also saw 2x larger deals than unengaged clients. This truly underscores the impact that community has not only on its members, but on Salesforce as an organization, which will certainly see more renewed contracts, and increased referrals as a result of their clients’ success. In fact, Kuhl was also able to share that engaged clients are actually 3x less likely to leave Salesforce when they are engaged as Trailblazers.

Community is the Future of Business

Salesforce isn’t the only organization out there making waves in the world of community-based business. Every day, new and innovative businesses are cropping up and creating truly amazing experiences around their brands and earning the respect of enthusiastic customers and supporters around the world.

Developing a community around your brand may eventually become a strategic differentiator for your business that can payback manifold. Whether you are dipping your toes with unowned platforms like Facebook and Instagram, or seeking to become a mogul in unbundling opportunities for owned platforms like Greg Isenberg -- the results are clear. Community is the future of business, and will only continue to grow as innovative web technologies make communication and collaboration easier and more ownable. What opportunities are awaiting you? And how can you harness the power of community?

Omaralexis Ochoa

Data analyst, podcaster, pasta-lover... I'm many things, but above all, I'm a creator. I created The Gay Pro because I love sharing stories of queer success, with the intention of empowering and inspiring other queer leaders.