What actually is an Online Community?

4 Roads LTD

What actually is an Online Community?

And why most of your colleagues don’t care (right now) If you did a straw poll in your workplace, social channels or even amongst your family and peers asking what an “online community” was, you’d likely get a mixed bag of answers.

For some, the concept would be familiar, but the best way to define it might be tricky. For others, the misconception might be that it’s social media under another name.

In yet another group, the term might have been heard of but with no understanding of what it is. The last group might look at you blankly and have no idea, period.

For any of these groups (and there are others), the online community can be a relatively new concept to varying degrees and presents a knowledge gap challenge you need to fill.

Hooray! We’re “doing Online Community”

In the professional space, it’s not unusual for a company to approve an online community project without a deep understanding of what it is, what it can do and what the goals are.

Perhaps one or two senior stakeholders are on board, a member of the team is tasked with making it happen and some research is done into viable platforms and outlandish goals are set (“We want a million members by next Thursday!”).

Typically, from its very inception, the online community project is treated as a parallel operation to the main company’s “business as usual”.

Because no time has been taken to discuss the online community with the wider team, without realising it, a potential division has been subtly seeded from day one.

Many organisations fail to realise the fundamental value of community is not just an externally facing one to the customers or members, but to the team itself.

The Online Community crossword answer: it goes across not up

Whilst online community as an entity has some legacy, it’s still a fairly recent arrival on the scene as far as many departments and organisations are concerned.

Most people are familiar with the traditional company departments such as Legal, Marketing, HR, Operations, Design and so forth.

Social Media is one of the most recent additions to that group which people have a good grasp of but what of online community?

The secret of an online community that often gets missed is that it is most effectively used on a horizontal vector.

An online community can plug into the heart of your organisation and add value everywhere through knowledge management, relationship building, shared objectives and connecting team members directly to each other and the members.

It can solve problems, enhance customer service and drive product innovation if required.

When we misunderstand its value, it runs the danger of becoming a silo that the rest of the organisation lose interest in and the chances of success diminish over time.

The first step is involvement (so few do this effectively)

A colleague and I once gave a client presentation to a large, well-known energy company.

Standing in the main training room, we presented to 30+ of the most senior stakeholders from across all departments.

They had been invited to come and learn what an online community actually was. Some of the audience knew what the online community project was about, some had heard but were suspicious that it was time and money well spent, and some were fairly ambivalent to the entire concept.

We started with an explanation of online community and shared some examples of successful communities to get the ball rolling. Initially, the room was quiet.

We stopped and invited questions. And that’s when things came to life. For the people in the room, they didn’t just want to listen to us, they wanted to be heard.

They asked some tough questions around ROI and investment and why they should be doing this. Ultimately they were interested in what the online community could do for them personally, their departments and the wider company.

As the discussion moved forward, we were able to identify ways in which value could be gained for every single person who had questions.

We were also able to instal the message that without their support, the project could not hope to be the innovative digital change it could be.

The presentation ended on a high and afterwards many of the attendees were enthused to continue discussions about their needs with us directly.

They also thanked us for explaining and involving them.


Community Management and online communities aren’t a traditional vertical.

Take the time to explain to the whole team what a community is, what it can be, and how it can add value to an entire organisation.

By doing this, you’ll not only drive understanding, but you’ll also gain crucial buy-in and support to enable you to grow your community more effectively and give value across the organisation.