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HigherLogic and Socious

Online Community Blog

What is an Online Community? How Definitions Could be Hurting Your Strategy

Posted by Joshua Paul on Thu, Aug 29, 2013 @ 09:36 AM

Online Community vs. Online Community vs. Online Community

When you are getting buy-in for your online community strategy from your senior management team, what do they think you are talking about?

Do they think you are referring to the online community at large, the community of people that your organization interacts with online, or an online community where your customers, employees, or partners can engage one another and support your customers or members.

Clarity and Agreement Matter

This may seem like an obvious point, but before you begin planning your online customer or member community, it is important to make sure that people inside your organization are clear on what an online community is.

Most organizations assume that everyone knows what they are talking about when they say they are creating an online community. They skip to selling the benefits and describing the resources needed to implement and manage the community.

The reality is that the term, “online community,” is still one of the most misunderstood terms in business. This confusion makes is hard to get budget for online community management resources or technology. It also turns getting buy-in for your online community strategy into an exercise in herding cats.

Eventually, once the train has left the station, everyone ends up on the same page. However, you may not know how misunderstandings about online communities has slowed progress and created rework throughout the process.

There is a good reason for this confusion. Let’s look at a few examples that illustrate the differences in the definition of online community.

THE Online Community

The first example is from Sean Parker (of Facebook and Napster fame). He wrote a response to the reaction to his wedding where we detailed the mean-spiritedness of “the online community.” In his piece, just as is done by many tech writers and news outlets, he is referring to everyone online (especially those who express their opinion).  

What is an online community? - Used in the e"everyone online" sense.

Imagine the confusion on an executive’s face, when you set up a meeting to discuss hiring someone to manage your online community, if he or she thinks of online community as all who contribute to the collective web.

OUR Online Community

In this articles posted on The Moz Blog, one of the most respected digital marketing authorities, “online community” is discussed in a very common way. It is used to describe the ecosystem of people that surround a specific business or organization – from customers and employees to fans and partners.

What is an online community? - Used in the "everyone we interact with online or that follows us" sense.

It can really slow the progress of your online customer or member community project when half the people in the room think that you are investing in a platform to manage all of the people in your online ecosystem or that follow your brand.

AN Online Community

The most widely used definition of online community refers to a web-based destination where people can connect, find resources, and discuss issues around an industry, organization, product, or set of values. When you hear about online community software, online community management, or online community strategy, it is increasingly referring to these self-contained or branded online communities.

In this example from Social Media Today, top online community consultant, Vanessa DiMauro, assumes that this article’s readers think of an online community in this context.

What is an online community? - Used in the "private online community" sense.

Though these definitions mean very different things, all of them are technically accurate. It causes a problem for your online customer or member community plan when the project’s stakeholders each have a different understanding of the term, online community.

Community professionals find themselves in a unique situation. There are not many examples of a term that is so widely used and important to business growth that has so many diverse, agreed upon meanings. For instance, when an organization wants to grow engagement, the people they are talking to don’t pause to think about whether they are referring to engagement in the pre-marriage commitment sense of the word.

What can social business strategists, customer support executives, and community managers do about this?

How to Avoid Getting Tripped Up By the Definition of Online Community

The people who are most interested in seeing an organization's online community succeed are sometimes the only ones in the organization that fully get the concept of a private online customer communities or online member communities.

Don’t wait for the executive team to understand what an online community is and spread the word. It is up to you and your department to evangelize and solidify the definition of online community in your business.  

Here are three proven tips for championing your definition of online community within your company and throughout your customer base.

Tip #1) Ask Questions About Their Understanding of Online Communities

Start with learning where people are coming from. Ask about their definition of an online community. Find out if they have participated in a private online community in the past. This will help you identify who gets it and who needs more education.

Tip #2) Show Examples of Online Communities

Paint your colleagues a picture of online communities inside and outside of your industry. Walk them through how your customers or members will access your online community and the type of experiences they will have once they are inside.

It will quickly become clear to your audience that you are not talking about Twitter and Facebook followers or the ethereal online community.

Tip #3) Get Agreement from Influencers

It does you no good to champion a specific definition of online community inside your organization if the director of marketing or your social media manager continue to refer to your organization’s online community in the “everyone online” or “all relationships” sense.

Sit down with key influencers in your organization’s digital strategy and get their support for your initiative. They can help from the outset by using the term, “online community,” consistently.

Online Community Take Away

While we are seeing a consolidation around the definition of “online community,” many people who don’t work in customer relationship management or social business can’t conjure up a clear picture in their heads when you tell them that you are going to be implementing an online community for customer, partners, or members.

In a perfect world, when you tell somebody that you creating an online community or managing your organization’s online community, you wouldn’t receive as many blank stares. There wouldn’t be the few second of silence as the person you are speaking with uses all that they know about you and your organization to deceiver what exactly you mean by “online community.”

In the meantime, you must be an advocate for your online community and the strategy behind it, both inside and outside your company. It is the thoughtful education by people like you that accelerates the agreement on the definition of online community. By doing this, you are helping your online community strategy get and keep buy-in now and as staff turns over, as well as helping the business community at large.

Your Turn

This is a serious under-the-radar problem for many of the businesses and associations that Socious works with. Do you encounter confusion around the term, “online community?” How do you create clarity throughout the ranks of an organization?

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Tags: Social Business, Online Community, Social Business Management, Social Strategy

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