A virtual community – also referred to as an “online community” – is a group of people who come together through a digital “space” to share common interests, passions or beliefs. That space may be a website, or it may be an app that each person has downloaded and installed on their phone, tablet or laptop.
The online community is often (not always) led by a single individual who had the idea of bringing people together who share their interests. In addition to providing the impetus for the community, the leader, or host, may be the primary content creator. This is especially true if the community leader offers coaching or has their own line of clothing, accessories, furniture or other product.
Community members derive value both from proximity to the creative lead (the designer, instructor, musician or whatever) and from interactions with one another. It is this ability to build and nurture personal relationships with other members that separates an online community from, say, magazine subscribers or music fans who share common interests but never communicate with each other.
What are the benefits?
A virtual community provides a range of benefits for everyone involved including but not limited to:
Genuine connections: Although the space they meet in may be a purely digital creation, the connections made through an online community are real-world connections that often last for years.
Global reach: Membership in an online community is not limited by political or geographical boundaries. You can have members from anywhere in the world, which makes for a much livelier community.
Developing brand ambassadors: If you make bespoke furniture or clothing, an online community of fans and followers can in time become some of your most important brand ambassadors.
Mobility: Not only can you attract members from all over the world, your members can log in and catch up whether they’re out to lunch, at the beach, taking a break from shopping or lying in bed.
Enhanced revenue: The best community apps give you total control over monetization. You can offer freemium and premium memberships, in-app purchases, access to exclusive content and more.
Centralization: Depending on your type of business you may be able to bring all the different elements together under one virtual roof, including memberships, courses, live events and more.
What are the drawbacks?
Everything has a downside, including virtual communities. Fortunately, the downside of an online community is almost always outweighed by the benefits. Still, it’s important to be upfront about the possible drawbacks so here they are:
Start up costs: Whether your community will be built around a website or a mobile app there will be costs associated with getting started.
Technical proficiency required: The community host will need to be at least somewhat technically savvy in order to organise, promote and maintain their online community.
Possible loss of personal data: It’s possible hackers could make off with user data. This is especially true if you build your community using Facebook Groups or other free platforms.
Trolls: Some people don’t have anything better to do than join online communities and make other people’s lives miserable. This is one reason you need robust content moderation tools.
Different types of virtual communities
Virtual communities take many shapes and forms. Here are some of the most popular types of online communities:
Brand communities: This type of virtual community is created to support a particular brand. The goal is to foster a connection between the brand and the community members.
Learning communities: Learning communities take myriad forms and cover a plethora of subjects from furniture building to learning foreign languages.
Coaching communities: The number of online personal trainers, financial advisors and those providing various types of life coaching has exploded in recent years.
Support communities: Support groups exist to help individuals dealing with all manner of challenges including parenthood, chronic illness and disabilities.
Communities of action: This type of community is founded to promote a particular cause be it the environment, animal rights or anything else.
Fan communities: Many people are passionate about comic books, others are equally passionate about video games and still others can’t get enough of various TV series.
Hobby communities: Stamp collecting, photography, bird watching, quilting, gardening and countless other activities are fertile ground for creating and nurturing a community.
How businesses can use virtual communities
While learning and support groups are extremely popular and help many people better their lives in important ways, businesses large and small have also discovered the benefits of having a thriving online community.
Virtual communities provide businesses with the kind of authentic feedback they can’t get elsewhere. Many businesses use their online community as a sounding board. They preview new products exclusively to community members to get their feedback and then make changes based on that feedback before introducing the product to the wider marketplace. In that sense, the online community serves as a huge focus group.
Businesses also use virtual communities to lower customer acquisition costs. When community members are given access to exclusive previews and the like they tend to become vocal proponents of the brand and, consciously or unconsciously, champion the brand to others. This type of spontaneous brand advocacy can dramatically lower the cost of new customer acquisition.
As we mentioned earlier an online community also has global reach, meaning the business can expose people all over the world to the joys of their particular product. Whereas 50 years ago the customer footprint may have been limited to a city, region or nation, today it can potentially reach people half a world away and everyone in between.
Keys to launching your own online community
Launching an online community is not as difficult as you may think it is, but it will require hard work and a clear vision. We recommend you start by following these 4 steps:
1: Define your purpose
What is the reason for starting your virtual community; the bedrock notion that everything else will be built upon? Have that nailed down before you do anything else.
2: Define the ideal community member
Once you know why you are starting an online community it will become apparent who you want and need to attract. Create a profile of that ideal community member and bounce content ideas off of that.
3: Choose a community platform
The platform you choose will play a crucial role in determining whether you succeed or fail. Make sure your community platform software is dependable, versatile and provides all the tools you need. You can read our guide on the best community platforms in 2023, and how to make your choice, here.
4: Lean into the welcome experience
You want to make sure new members feel welcome from the get-go. Create an onboarding experience that acknowledges them and thanks them for the faith they’re showing in you.
What platforms can I use to create a virtual community?
You have a lot of choices when it comes to building an online community. Although, as with just about everything else in life, some options will be markedly better than others. Below are the most effective platforms currently available for building and nurturing a successful online community.
What separates a successful online community from an unsuccessful one has as much to do with the platform you use to build your membership community on as it does the products, ideas or causes behind the community. With a Disciple community app, you get everything you need to create the type of community that will power your brand or cause for years to come.
Powerful moderation tools, unlimited live streaming, a variety of ways to receive member feedback and state-of-the-art security are just the beginning. Disciple also offer a high degree of customization, push notifications, real-time chat, threaded comments, membership segmentation and a wide array of monetization options you won’t find with some other online community software.
If your goal is to establish an online community that will enhance your business, effectively promote your cause or provide a simple way for people from all over the world to take advantage of your expertise, a Disciple community app is the best way to do so.
- Everything you need to start and foster a healthy online community
- A wide variety of ways to connect with your members
- Complete control over user data
- Complete control over monetization
- A highly customizable user experience
- Disciple apps can be whitelabeled, putting your brand front and center
- Rock-solid dependability and glitch-free performance
- Fantastic infrastructure of support, including a dedicated customer success manager, technical support and exclusive access to Disciple’s customer community, The Collective.
- It’s not free
- It will take some time to get familiar with the software
Slack provides a sleek, modern interface, technical dependability and a free option, which in itself is going to attract a lot of community builders working with a limited budget. Slack, however, is primarily designed as a workplace tool and lacks many of the features needed for true community building.
Let’s talk about that free option first since that is undoubtedly one of the main attractions of Slack. The good news is that there are no hidden costs lurking behind the free option. It’s actually free. The not-so-good news is that the free option won’t work well for more than a few dozen members, you’ll quickly run into storage limits and all your conversations will be deleted after 14 days.
Still, if you’re willing to shell out for the premium option you’ll be able to handle as many community members as you can attract. You’ll also have access to a variety of add-ons that will allow you to enhance the user experience. But you still won’t have access to the type of feature set you’d get with Disciple.
- A bona fide free version is available
- A variety of useful add-ons
- Real-time sharing
- Technically solid and dependable
- Public, private and shared channel options
- Free trial period
- Premium version is expensive
- Limited storage space even with pay version
- The default setup can be overwhelming
- Designed for workplace communication rather than community-building
Facebook Groups have a few advantages over every other community building platform out there. The first is name recognition. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone alive today that has not heard of Facebook. The second is size. When you join Facebook you join anywhere from 1 to 2 billion other humans who are also members. And the third is price. Setting up a Facebook Group is free.
Those are all good things and for many leaders of social communities, they’re enough to justify launching their online community as a Facebook Group. But the fact is while Facebook has some undeniable upside it also comes with a fair amount of negative baggage.
First off, Facebook retains control over most of the juiciest monetization options. Second, the company reserves the right to ban your community members without asking your permission. And third, the personal data of your members belongs to Facebook, not you and they have an unfortunate habit of letting hackers walk away with it.
Facebook Group pros
- Can’t beat the price
- The largest social media network on earth
- The FB app comes pre-installed on most mobile devices
Facebook Group cons
- Facebook will probably make more off your community than you do
- Facebook can pull the plug on your best members at any time
- The company’s security is notoriously porous
Strategies to build your community’s popularity
1) Create a mission statement: The mission statement may or may not be something you’re going to share directly with your community members. Instead, it exists as something community leaders use as a blueprint that establishes goals and helps guide the development of virtual groups.
2) Make new members feel welcome: Make sure that the onboarding process is a memorable one for new members by sending them a personalized welcome email, offering them discounts in your online store and taking other steps that convince them they made the right choice.
3) Make it easy to participate: Don’t wait for members to decide to open your app or navigate to your website and sign in. Reach out to them with emails, newsletters, push notifications and other methods that promote engagement and put you in front of them when their minds may be elsewhere.
4) Move fast to deal with trolls and other problematic members: It only takes a few bad apples to undermine the integrity of an online community. Make sure your website forum or membership community app has powerful content moderation tools that allow you to stay on top of troublemakers.
5) Don’t forget member support: If community members have questions get back to them promptly with answers. If members of your team have different areas of expertise make sure the person responding to the query is the most qualified to do so.
6) Encourage feedback: People feel more connected to an online community if they believe their voice is being heard. So make it easy for members to ask questions, make suggestions and provide feedback. You could even schedule annual livestreaming Q&A events where members get to talk to you directly.
In summary, virtual communities, also known as online communities, are groups of individuals that come together through a digital space to share common interests or beliefs.
The benefits of virtual communities include genuine connections, global reach and enhanced revenue. Businesses can also use virtual communities as a way to receive authentic feedback, lower customer acquisition costs, and expand their customer base globally.
Launching an online community requires a clear vision and hard work. The key steps to get started include defining your niche, selecting the appropriate platform, developing your content, and promoting your community.