Two Types of Online Communities: Which Type do you Have?

Also cross-posted at Trendline Interactive:

Communities is one of those buzz words that has made its way onto everyone’s webpage. Are we really talking about the same thing? The traditional definition of communities doesn’t fit too well in today’s context as the internet has made anonymous and physically separated communities possible. This post won’t deal with all the psychological aspects of communities.  This blog post will deal with the two major ways I group communities. There are small subgroups of communities beyond these two, but here’s a start. Communities can either be built on a platform OR communities can use platforms to communicate.

You might be thinking, “What’s the difference? Users are users. If they are on my Facebook page, they are MY community.” Not so fast, Brand. These users don’t necessarily belong to your community. In fact, many of your Facebook likes might be people who “liked” you to complain on your Facebook Fan page.

1. Communities built on a platform. A common example is (or was) Yelp. Yelp built their own community on their platform. People spend hours and hours conversing on Yelp. Then they met in real life. They hung out with each other. They identified themselves as Yelpers. They had their own independent community, away from other social networking sites. When Twitter and Facebook became popular, some of the members migrated to other channels to converse, but they were still Yelpers.

Another example of this is World of Warcraft (WOW). This multiplayer online role-playing game had a community of their own. The players would spend hours and hours on the platforms. Some of the players met in person. They would coordinate elaborate battles in the dead of the night. I’m sure many college classes were skipped due to WOW battles. WOW player, @trianat, says that though she played five years ago, she’s still friends with some of them. While player quit actually engaging in the game, they still kept ties to people they met in that community. That’s pretty awesome.

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One might also argue that Instagram is also building a community on their platform. Interestingly enough, the community isn’t being build by a brand or the service, it is being built by the users! User lead Instagram meetups are all the rage now (though I haven’t been to any personally). These people are behaving as if they are a community, not just people using a tool for communication with other people they already know. See the hashtag #igersaustin that is being used by the location based Instagram community. This is used to track conversations within local IG communities.

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2. Communities using a platform. You’ll see plenty of these. Facebook is one of these. Twitter is one of these. These tools let people from existing communities chat with each other. If a brand develops a following (the metric not necessarily the behavior) on one of these platforms, do they have a community? I would argue, no. There may be a larger community out there, and perhaps some of the members converse on Facebook fan pages or follow a brand on Twitter. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the brand “owns” those users as part of their community.

The majority of new tools and services provide the a platform. They provide a platform in which communities can share information or cross promote content. The approach for these communities is very different. The service doesn’t own the community nor does the brand. It is always awkward for me to hear social media managers say things like “our Facebook community.” I’m not necessarily a part of a brand’s community. I likely belong to a larger community and have no loyalty to the brand.

Brands don’t own the community. The community may actually exist outside of the scope of the platform. If Facebook were to disappear, would the community still exist and use other modes of communication? If yes, then community managers need to rethink how they frame their social media campaigns. If Facebook were to disappear and the following disappeared with it, that would be choppy waters for a brand that did not build their own following independent of someone else’s platform. Community managers might start thinking about how to build a following on tools they do own and control. The take away: Build your community on your brand. Grow your audience. Nurture your loyal fans. Whatever you do, don’t ONLY build a following on someone else’s tool.

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