As Yuval Noah Harari pointed out in his book “Sapiens”, among all the other advantages that human beings have enjoyed to emerge as the most dominant species on the planet, the power of uniting with strangers over common ideas is one of the biggest.
The ability to form communities has been a key factor for the growth of humanity. And this is exactly what is happening in the digital world too.
When Mark Zuckerberg laid the foundation of Facebook, the approach was centered around a profile-based platform for personalised interactions among users. But a few years down the line, Facebook soon realised how collective associations can unlock far wide-reaching impacts than singular pages or profiles.
The ability to form communities has been a key factor for the growth of humanity. And this is exactly what is happening in the digital world too
Over time, a bulk of content on the social media platform started emerging from groups. From something as generic as wrestling to something as niche as craft beer or memes – groups helped to attract similar-minded users and grow the platform organically, as much as they helped to increase the engagement time of each group member. These groups were nothing but early versions of online communities.
Even Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, which was started by Reid Hoffman to replicate the nitty-gritty of the offline professional world on an online canvas for employers and employees, couldn’t shake off the growing demand for incorporating a group structure in the otherwise profile dominated social media platform.
Early last year, LinkedIn revamped and relaunched a new version of its LinkedIn Groups, buoyed down by demand for professional online communities.
There is no denying that online communities are on the rise.
Rise of Online Communities
Right through the pandemic, digital connectivity played a prominent role in making life easy. When social distance started sinking in, digital closeness brought people together.
Remember all those WhatsApp family groups, Slack office groups, and SOS Volunteer groups?
Consequently, online communities became hugely popular last year and continue to rise in number to date.
Right through the pandemic, digital connectivity played a prominent role in making life easy. When social distance started sinking in, digital closeness brought people together
According to the State of Indian Community Management Report, 64% of Indian communities were born in the last three years. 59% Indian communities grew faster or at the same rate during the pandemic than before.
Communities are also integral to the brands. According to the report, 42% brand communities increased investment in community programs during the pandemic.
Communities are on the rise. And it is not surprising why.
- They foster a sense of belonging: Community sites as of now are considered more deep-rooted than peer-to-peer connections and are proven mediums of fostering authentic relationships. In fact, using tools like Meet and Zoom, online communities can be tweaked to create a personalised offline like experience.
- They help people find solace in anonymity: Staying anonymous is a common feature of online communities, because there’s less pressure to reveal their identities and maintain a positive image of themselves. It empowers them to freely express what they want to without being judged and this is what sets communities apart from other social media platforms.
- One stop spot to find help: Most members resort to their community for feedback, solutions, queries, business ideas, and even links to specific products. It is nothing less than an online encyclopaedia and a yellow pages book coupled into one.
Marketers and brands are beginning to see the relevance of applying an interest-based engagement approach to reach consumers at their points of passion. Communities have thus proven to be important touchpoints for brands and marketers alike either to promote a brand and finetune the product or service offering.
How Technology is Enabling Communities
Tools like Canva (for designing), HootSuite (for social media post scheduling), MailChimp/SendGrid (for newsletters), HubSpot (for digital marketing), WordPress (for blogging), and a plethora of customised features on social media platforms like Instagram are enabling more creators and influencers to explore the full potential of communities and transform into solopreneurs.
Technology allows everyone to participate irrespective of whether you are in the same room or not
While free platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, and Discord are still popular, entrepreneurs are increasingly using online community platforms to build their customer community, because they allow the consolidation of all member activities and tools required to manage the community.
Broadly, technology has been aiding communities in the following ways:
- Accessibility: Technology allows everyone to participate irrespective of whether you are in the same room or not. It also allows coordination asynchronously, enabling people to exchange ideas on the go at the time of their convenience. Tools like Kahoot, Gatheround, StarMaker, etc. are further used by communities to engage members using online events like networking sessions, quizzes, games, karaoke, etc.
- Longevity: Activities that take place in an online community are stored for a longer period of time. They act as a repository of knowledge and shared experiences that can be used to improve the skills and capabilities of members within a community at a later stage as well.
- Nudges: Technology allows community platforms to send notifications to their members to nudge them into participating in group activities. Further, channels like email, Whatsapp, SMS and In-app banners increase the flexibility to reach out to members with relevant information so as to bring them back to the community. This inculcates a habit of consistency among members and drives higher engagement in the community.
- Analytics: The world has evolved from being driven by hunches, to being driven by data. Communities harness technology to draw key inferences around member retention, engagement, conversions, etc. This allows communities to improve themselves based on past instances and historical data.
Future of Online Communities
While consumers may discard social media, they rarely shun digital interaction altogether. With an ever-evolving scheme of technological developments, communities are also on the rise.
Affected by the pandemic, hybrid communities are expected to be on the rise. They basically encompass a “live” in-person experience with a “virtual” online component.
According to the SOICM 2021 report, about 73% Indian community builders conduct at least one online event every month for their members. Also, 43% respondents stated that they are looking to invest equally in both offline and online community initiatives post the pandemic.
Affected by the pandemic, hybrid communities are expected to be on the rise. They basically encompass a “live” in-person experience with a “virtual” online component
With the rise of blockchain technology, many online communities have propped up where the system of hierarchy has been completely removed – a decentralized flow just like blockchain itself. Online communities are also at the forefront of emerging cryptocurrencies, with many communities actively mining or creating their own exchangeable tokens. Dogecoin, for instance, was a parody by members which is turning out to be a successful digital currency.
AI/and VR are now being used to give a 3D feel to community events. This is drastically increasing member retention by giving an immersive experience to community members. The dominant trend in the current scenario in UX is to present a seamless users’ experience and make it look as effortless as possible.
Going down the line, a key challenge for the online community space is developing technologies that are tailored to the demands and needs of the communities, especially around making members feel belonged like it has been the case in the offline world.
Understanding user behaviour and gauging its acceptance levels is highly important and most technology firms put a limited focus on the same. If technology-enabled communities have to advance in the true sense, then these challenges have to be solved in an innovative way and technology has to be harnessed to its fullest potential to reap the benefits.
Guest contributor Nipun Goyal, Founder and CEO of LikeMinds, a SaaS platform for community creators that enables them to create value for their members, avoid the hassle of juggling between many tools to manage their community besides being able to monetise. Any opinions expressed in this article are strictly that of the author.