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Beyond Facebook: 4 types of online communities and best practices on how to use them

Beyond Facebook: 4 types of online communities and best practices on how to use them

Online communities are now mainstream business tools. A 2014 report from the analyst firm Demand Metric shows that two-thirds of companies employ different types of online communities. Larger enterprises are more likely to have communities, with 74 percent indicating that they have one.

Given the ubiquity of online communities, the question many companies are asking is whether they have the right ones in place. Here’s a look at the four different types of communities, the main advantages of each and our recommendations on how to get the most out of them.

4 types of online communities and the top benefits of each

In The Enterprise Guide to Online Communities, Tyler Douglas, chief sales and marketing officer at Vision Critical, identifies four different types of communities:

1. Social communities include public social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Brands use social communities mostly for marketing purposes, broadcasting information, building brand awareness and reaching greater audiences for campaigns and messaging. Social communities are useful for tracking what your competitors are up to and identifying broad consumer trends. Ninety-three percent of large companies use Facebook, according to a 2015 Social Media Examiner report.

2. Support communities enable members to offer product tips to other customers, helping companies reduce customer support costs. Compared to social communities, this category provides a more structured way of gathering innovative ideas because support communities allow brands to track product- and service-related conversations. According to a 2015 Forrester Research report, 81 percent of companies have a support community of some kind.  

3. Advocate communities allow brands to mobilize their most passionate, loyal customers. Also known as advocate marketing software, this community type often rewards members for writing a testimonial, posting about the company on social media and doing other similar activities. According to Laura Ramos, principal analyst at Forrester Research, branded customer communities of this type can help boost positive word of mouth.

4. Insight communities are made up of carefully selected groups of customers who maintain a long-term relationship with brands. These communities allow companies to gather continuous, high-quality feedback from engaged stakeholders like customers, partners or employees. Already a mainstream market research tool, this category is quickly finding its way in marketing, customer experience and innovation.

RELATED: Check out The Enterprise Guide to Online Communities to learn how industry leaders like Wolverine and ESPN are reaching new heights of customer centricity, innovation and profitability with their online communities.

Best practices for selecting an online community type

Each kind of community offers a unique set of business benefits. When deciding which type best suits your business needs, consider the following three steps:

1. Determine your business goal.

To get the most out of online communities, business leaders need to understand the problems they’re trying to solve. As we discuss in The Enterprise Guide to Online Communities, consider the main purpose of your online community.   

  • Is it to provide an early-warning system about unhappy customers?
  • Does it offer a chance to improve brand recognition?
  • Do you need to test the viability of ideas and new products?
  • Do you want to build customer loyalty?

Some community types are better suited for certain business challenges. Start by determining the business needs you require before talking to community software vendors.

2. Consider the depth of customer feedback you need.

Online communities allow companies to engage customers and gain insight into people’s attitudes and behaviors. Depending on the type of insight you want to gain, however, some categories are more useful than others.

For instance, companies often know very little about the people who belong to social communities. That’s because social networks tend to be dominated by a small but loud minority. The data you get from social media analytics doesn’t provide a complete picture of customer preferences and attitudes.

On the other hand, because customers go to support communities to find solutions to product problems, this category is a potential source of innovation insight. But support communities aren’t optimized for two-way conversations between the company and its customers. And because of that, support communities don’t enable companies to dig deeper on business issues.

Similarly, advocate communities aren’t designed for customer insight; most communities in this category lack robust features for quantitative and qualitative data capture.

“The opt-in nature of insight communities means members are more likely to participate often.”

Insight communities, on the other hand, do allow brands to gather deep customer intelligence. Members agree to participate on an ongoing basis, so companies that use insight communities can get reliable feedback from a group of highly engaged customers. The opt-in nature of insight communities means members are more likely to participate often, allowing companies to build a detailed profile of each customer over time.

3. Choose the right, complementary mix of online communities.

Different online community types accomplish different business goals, so you may need more than one type. In fact, most companies do. This checklist is useful in determining what each type of community can and cannot deliver to your brand.

Types of online communities: social, advocate, support and insight communities

In general, enterprise companies need software in all categories of online communities to remain competitive in all aspects of the business. Ignoring one type of an community could result to gaps in your customer intelligence or marketing strategy.

Don’t put all online communities in one bucket

The online community space is growing because companies recognize the need to engage customers, employees and other stakeholders in ongoing, two-way conversations. Thinking of online communities as one monolithic category limits their effectiveness.

Map your business needs to the different types of communities available at your disposal in order to derive the ROI you’re looking for from these important business tools.

Enterprise Guide to Online Communities



  • What I like about Facebook communities is that once established, it becomes self-driven and becomes a very potent inlfuencer avenue.

  • thank you for sharing such a great thoughts

  • Scott Barnett

    I appreciate the structure you provide for thinking about online communities. I’m one of the Founders of https://meetaway.com and we manage numerous professional online communities. I’ve also found that the core purpose behind communities drives material differences.

    Additionally, we’ve found it’s really useful to understand communities through the lens of user motivations and, when possible, a more robust view of the lifecycle of members starting as novices and some them eventually becoming community elders.

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