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Online Community vs. Community Platform – What’s the Difference?

  • Blog
  • 27 April '22
  • 4 mins
  • Mark Eichler

Whether it’s in person, virtually or in a digital community, non-profits are continuing to find the best ways to ‘connect’ their stakeholders no matter where they are.

There have never been more ways to share ideas, network and meet your peers. Online forums, live chat, and social media groups. Online communities and platforms are everywhere, and you might not even realise you have one or how many you have!

So, what do we mean by a community platform? How is it different from just having a presence online? And what can it do for your organisation?

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The ‘Webvolution’

Let’s take it way back to the start of the web evolution. Back to the 90s, when the Spice Girls were topping the charts and a fun Friday night involved a game of Mario Kart on your N64. But what did the internet look like?

Well, Web 1.0 started off as the internet of blogs and message boards. It was a place of static content and web pages, with a little bit of online purchasing.

From 2005, there was an explosion of social environments and content collaboration with Web 2.0. The early days of the modern-day influencer. The internet became more interactive, largely in part to the launch of the iPhone, mobile browsers, and apps.

Nowadays, with Web 3.0, there are more technologies in place to address the needs of verification. For example, Blockchain is set to evolve the internet even further and really decentralise the web. You can read more about the web evolution here. (New York Times, The Latecomer’s Guide to Crypto, 2022)

What about in the Membership Sector?

In membership, organisations can often be a bit stuck in the 90s internet era. Websites are primarily used as marketing platforms for non-members, and organic digital engagement among members is limited. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for engagement and technologies aren’t widely adopted, despite this need for member interaction and thought leadership. This is where online community comes in.

What is a Community?

A community is a group of people with something in common who interact, share, and engage together. Community can be facilitated online via social media or dedicated digital environments, i.e., an online community platform.

Online community platforms are essentially a set of technologies together in one platform, with a common functional baseline and varying features – e.g., forums, messaging, user directory and more. You can go far with online community platforms, and scale them to millions of users if needed – even tools like Zoom or eBay use online community to support their customers.

Why should I use an online community platform?

Online community platforms can be oriented to specific business needs in the membership sector. They will give a fit for purpose, customised experience for your members and can integrate with your tech stack. They also won’t sacrifice your member data to large companies.

You’ll want to establish your online community environment, rather than trying to do everything all at once. Figure out which functions are most important for your organisation, and which will have the most uptake. Ensure your members are comfortable and most importantly, are recognising the benefits and values offered by the community.

Group collaborating on laptop

Online Community Strategy Keys:

  • Purpose: Community-oriented to goals and value centres.
  • Population: The people to benefit from connection and resources.
  • Platform: Fit for purpose and consistent with other tech and offerings.
  • Architecture: What structures are there? Distinct groups are meaningful and coordinated.
  • Leadership: Community management is applied adequately.
  • Tactics: Pre-populating content, marketing etc – ensuring tactics are well-defined before launching and once live.

Every membership organisation has its own unique culture, and your online community platform should reflect that culture.

Why do some online communities fail?

Ah, the big question! There’s no one main answer, and it could fall down to any of the following:

  • Leadership: Purpose was never established, people aren’t posting or using the platform – or worse yet, are using a competing platform, or a lack of community management.
  • Clarity: Users don’t know where they are or what they can do, over-segmentation, or unmet user expectations.
  • Friction: Lack of integration, bad use of technology, challenging to use or understand the platform.
  • Value: Not enough active users or no content being created or distributed.

It’s about employing and investing in those tactics and strategies to truly deliver the value your members anticipate.

In Conclusion…

Online communities aren’t like website projects – you can merge, change, manage conversations, drop in new content and more. Your platform will be highly flexible, and the technology can be fairly unlimited. Your options are really rather endless in terms of what your online community can do.

But don’t forget, there is no one size fits all when it comes to a membership online community platform – how you configure, deploy, and manage your community is up to you and is vital to your success.

Work with experts in building successful online communities. Whether you’re just getting started or looking to improve your existing community, talk to one of our community experts today.

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