With the growth of social media use for business and platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. being leveraged for brand recognition by businesses large and small, the various roles of online communities are becoming more prominent. Between external communities, like Facebook and internal communities (the much-evolved versions of the AOL chat-rooms of yesteryears), there are plenty of benefits that an online community can offer to your business.

What is an online community?

An online community is a broad term that can be defined, according to an article written by Elliot Volkman, as a community of people who interact socially with specific roles such as moderating or leading. Every community has a shared purpose and there are policies and behavioural rules, which may be tacit or strictly formulated.

With technology everywhere (even beyond personal computers, smartphones and other mobile devices), it has become fairly easy to participate in online communities. And there are many reasons for businesses to not just have a presence on public social networks where their customers and business partners are, but to also create internal communities for bringing employees together.

External communities for customer engagement

Most companies discourage the use of Facebook and Twitter during work hours, and have the tech guy block those sites on the internal server. But social media sites can be an integral part of your online community, and bring you closer to your consumers by keeping you at the top of their minds. You can use online forums to solve problems, gauge reactions to products and services, and offer some of the best, timely customer care possible. Moreover, you do all this in a very personal way, without the formal corporate “mask”, in a voice suited to your consumers.

Another interesting development today is that many businesses are using external communities as a launchpad for their private, in-house online chat tools, focus groups, discussion boards and other internal community channels.

Internal communities for team building

An internal community is a platform where your employees engage. This is more than a message board, and does not have to be limited to a single location. It can draw from external communities and coexist with them. For instance, if you want more of your employees to read your company blogs, you may first want to recruit your reading community from Facebook or LinkedIn accounts.

Internal online communities that you develop for certain common types of members can facilitate better communication between your employees and bring them together with a sense of belonging to the company. If you have something important to say, you can get your team to listen to you through these channels, and keep them motivated and engaged collectively.

In most communities, there will usually be a few defined or undefined roles: a community architect, a community manager, contributors (who share content), paid members (your brand ambassadors, paid to contribute content to keep apparent activity and engagement high), power users (those who are the vocal members driving discussions), free members who engage and post on their LinkedIn and Facebook profiles, and other passive non-contributors.

Overall, your external and internal communities can have a lot to offer market researchers. Where are all your consumers hanging out? What do your employees (and by extrapolation, your external consumers) think of your products? These are just some of the interesting brand research questions that can be answered with the help of your online communities.