What Is An Online Community?

Elliot Volkman
Elliot Volkman Co-Founder and Community Manager, Digital District

Posted on August 24th 2011

What Is An Online Community?

What is an online community? For such a simple question one may assume there would also be a simple answer associated with it; however, as communication technology changes so do the words that define it.

This is the second article in a three part series about online community management. The final article in the series will highlight what motivates an online community, but before that happens I need a sufficient amount of data that I will also be using for my communications thesis. Please take a moment to take or share this survey, and I will report back with the data.

This image was adapted from images taken by Flickr users katerha and TheBigTouffe

In a previous article I helped define what an online community manager is, and in doing so many other questions were raised about the different types of online community managers. Each community managers differ based on their goals, the reason the community exists, and the type of members involved within the community. For that reason it is also important to define what exactly community managers, companies, and users commonly think online communities consist of.

Are communities closed or open? Can communication on other sites be considered part of your community? Should users be allowed to remain anonymous? Is there a difference between a community architect and a community manager? Are there differences in members associated with a community? These are just a few of the hundred or so questions you should be asking before attempting to create an online community, though at times communities develop on their own because of a common interest.

In Jenny Preece's book Online Communities she describes online communities as the following: People, who interact socially as they strive to satisfy their own needs or perform special roles, such as leading or moderating. A shared purpose, such as an interest, need, information exchange, or service that provides a reason for the community. Policies, in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws that guide people’s interactions. Computer systems, to support and mediate social interaction and facilitate a sense of togetherness. (Via Tharon Howard's Design to Thrive)

One of the more important aspects that both Preece and Tharon note is that a community doesn't necessarily consist of a single location on the Web. It can start in one community and be spread throughout various others, which is now easier to do based on the increased adoption of social media.

To reinfoce this community manager Jamie Favreau (@jfavreau) stated that empowering "brand advocates to be your employees so the more informed they are the happier they are." Further, Katie Felten (@katiefelten) stated that your online community is also affected by offline communication. Both users and community managers understand the importance of embracing your external community; however, there are other factors that are important to keep in mind.

Internal vs External

Back in the good ole days when AOL chatrooms were still among the most hip ways of communicating, communities were easily self-contained as social media was not quite the same factor as it is today. Forums could be dedicated to anything from the latest news trends, to video games, and even dating; however, it was not as easy to bring internal conversations to other communities in such a short amount of time. Fast forward to today and many of the most popular networks are either optimized to be shared on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, or specifically include buttons to post the content to them.

As a community manager I often receive requests to boost community discussions, and more often then not community architects are expecting the increase to occur within your designated space (the community and tools provided to you).  

In return this brings up two questions: Does an external community fall under your jurisdiction and count as your community? Additionally, why on earth would you want to constrain conversations to one specific location unless you wanted full control of what was being said? The latter is rhetorical, but as far as external communities go they are quite possibly the key to you building your own internal community.

For example you could be developing a new tool that would allow younger workers to learn about the career search process and you are generating content, but you have no traffic coming to your site. Unfortunately just because you build something, does not mean people will flock to it. You must go to them, and by them I am referring to your intended audience.

Find where your potential members are currently discussing related things to entering the work force, open some dialogues, and build credibility. From there people may come to respect your opinion, and that is where you can either pull them back to your community or simply begin tracking engagement externally.

Ideally you will already be tracking what people say about your brand on the various public social media sites anyways, so one more community shouldn't be a difficult addition. The only real dilemma is explaining to the community architects that external discussions are just as valid to furthering your goal and increasing related engagement.

Who is the community?

This model is not to scale, clearly.

This model is not to scale, clearly.

Online communities often consist of a few common types of members and managers, and several other factors can create additional types depending on the community's goals. By reading this article I'm actually forcing you to start from the bottom of the community totem pole as a passive lurker, but what you when you finish will dictate what type of user you might be.

The Community Architect - A community architect is the person or group of people who want to form an online community. They are the ones who set goals associated with the community, decide what the purpose will be, and what tools should initially be used. Community managers vary from architects, but they can also be the same person.

Example: If a company has a product that requires a lot of technical know-how they may create a designated location for users to communicate with each other, which would have the company acting as the community architect. However, if users do not like how the designated community is set up (perhaps due to paying a fee, tools being utilized, etc.) they may create their own community, and the members would likely act as the architects. In the later situation the company would be wise to monitor and have some presence in the community drive community, but not attempt to impose any rules of their own. Also please note that if you are a community architect, listen to your community manager that is why you hired them.

Online Community Manager - The person or group of people who manage their specific online community. This role can do anything from enforcing rules, encouraging social norms, assisting new members, spreading the word about the community, and quite a few other attributes. Because each community is different, the role each community manager plays will differ.

Example: You may have a professional network and want to ensure users keep discussions related to your topic. Ideally a community manager would keep things in order, and act as a role model to other members. On the other hand a public community might form around fans from the show Glee. In cases such as this communities are often regulated by users, but if Glee's network was hosting the communication tools they would have the right to impose other regulations.

Paid Member - These members are paid to contribute comments to the community so that there appears to be activity throughout it. Often this is based upon the idea that if outside members see an active community they may be more motivated to participate (bandwagon). In some cases paid members can also come from external communities and spread links or content from their own to draw new members back to their network. Example: If a well known community member (based upon their name or handle) speaks highly of a product and receives money or something in return this would label them as a paid user. Occasionally community terms of service (TOS) and policies forbid this type of activity, especially without being transparent about the situation. On a related note radio hosts used to do the very same thing, but of course there are now strict regulations associated with this.

Contributor - Contributors fall between free and paid members as content varies between communities. Most communities that accept exclusive content that relates to their audiences will offer some financial backing. However, a community that allows users to post their content in an aggregator format will often not pay them as the content can be published in several different locations (usually to reach many audiences instead of one). These types of members have to decide whether it is more important to get their name out in front of many eyes (positive in the long-term), or to a specific and smaller audience for financial gain (positive in the short-term).

Power User - Power users are a community manager's best friend. These are the people who push for new discussions, shout on roof tops about how much they enjoy the community, provide feedback to community managers, and often act as mini community managers themselves. These users make up only one percent of your overall users.

Free Member - Free members appear to do a majority of the grunt work for online communities, but that is only partially correct now that social media is being used throughout the world. Prior to the adoption of social media most communities were self-contained or vaguely spread through word-of-mouth and chat rooms. Now a large portion of communities integrate registration with Facebook and LinkedIn, which allows users to post their responses directly back to their social media profiles. On average only nine percent of your community will consist of free members. These are the ones actively commenting on articles, discussions, pictures of cats, and external mentions of it.

Active Lurker - Of the members in your community active lurkers will make up a vast portion of them. Based on Ben McConnell's (@benmcconnell) 1 percent rule or the 90-9-1 principle for every one post a power user makes in a community, 90 lurkers will have consumed the content and not contribute anything to the community in return. However, now that social media is integrated into open communities lurkers are segregated again into two distinct categories: active and passive. Active lurkers consume community content and also share the content to their own personal networks and external communities. Active lurkers can be detrimental to your community, and it's important to pay attention to their needs through external monitoring and studying onsite traffic.

Passive Lurker - These are members who return to a community to consume the content, discussions, and advice but do not contribute or share any of it.

All Together Now

Each type of member plays a role in an online community, and even though lurkers don't appear to engage directly with you or other members they can potentially be part of the silent majority advocating on your behalf. Online communities are about communication regardless of where the discussions originate. What you do with and how you keep track of the engagement is an entirely different story.

So are you a lurker or are you higher on the community totem pole? Help me identify what motivates you to contribute to online communities.

Questions?

Elliot Volkman

Elliot Volkman

Co-Founder and Community Manager, Digital District

By day I work with startups to help them build out their brand, by night I support my non-profit, Digital District, that focuses on improving digital literacy.

See Full Profile >

Comments

Posted on August 25th 2011 at 4:55AM

People do not know yet what i an online community and what benefit they can have from such community. The post explains well about it and also people will join in and contribute to the community.