An overview of private online communities
Everyone knows about the large public social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Google+, but smaller private online communities (such as customer, partner, or member communities) are less well-known despite their tremendous advantages.
The main difference between public and private online communities may be obvious — public communities are open to everyone. In contrast, private communities are exclusive to people with specific interests, occupations, and roles.
But there are many more differences between these two types of online communities, and if you want to maximize the value that you can offer to your audience, you’ll want to leverage the power of both.
What is a private online community?
As you might expect, a private online community is an online space dedicated to social networking exclusive to a specific group. Essentially, there are gatekeepers to a private online community — not just anyone can join.
A private online community might be fairly open — for example, consider a community on Facebook dedicated to finding apartments in a specific city or giving away free stuff to your neighbors. To join these, you simply need to indicate that you live in a certain area or are interested in the given topic.
Other online communities are much more exclusive. For a professional online community, you might be required to prove that you’re a high-level executive or work in a specific industry. For a private online community associated with a brand, members may need to make a purchase.
The differences between public and private online communities
Several key differences set private online communities apart from public social networks. These differences include:
- the cost of setting up and maintaining the community
- why members join and how they use the community
- the general structure of your online community
- the type of media that can be shared
Although private online communities don’t inherently incur added costs, many professional private online community hosts do charge fees. The software generally costs anywhere between $20,000 to more than $200,000 each year.
Although the up-front costs may seem high, it’s important to remember that private online communities can also generate profit.
Member usage and motivation
Another key difference between private and public online communities lies in the members of these communities.
Consider why people might join your community and what they want to get out of it — while this can vary between industries, private online communities typically have more motivated members with clear initiatives. They tend to be more driven towards a specific purpose than people who hang out in public online spaces simply to pass the time.
Because of this, private online communities are much easier to drive towards action as long as that action aligns with their values and goals.
Consider why people might join your community and what they want to get out of it — while this can vary between industries, private online communities typically have more motivated members with clear initiatives.
The structure of online communities varies between differing public social media networks (think of Facebook’s walls and timelines versus Reddit’s strings of conversations), but there is also one major structural difference between public and private online communities.
In public social media networks, everyone connects to everyone else the same way, regardless of whether you are a business or a consumer. The focus is on individuals connecting to other individuals.
In private online communities, social interaction is centered around groups rather than individuals. Instead of focusing on individual profiles, smaller communities centered around topics of conversation or particular groups help build the larger online community.
Another key distinction between public social media networks and private online communities is the type of media that can be shared and how that media can be engaged with.
Text, links, photos, and videos are commonly shared across social media platforms, but private online communities often add functionality by allowing users to share full discussions, documents, audio, presentations, and other types of professional files.
Private online communities may also give users greater collaboration capabilities, such as polls, surveys, file libraries, event registration, idea submission, member directories, blogs, and additional social networking opportunities.
Benefits to private online communities
Private online communities open a world of opportunities for businesses and organizations that want to connect people towards a common goal.
Private online communities have many benefits, including:
- higher quality engagement
- motivated members
- opportunities to increase revenue
- increased data and idea sourcing
- easier community management
- more control over the community
- data ownership and control
- an overall better experience for users
If you’re still unsure whether a private online community is right for you, consider what your online community would be centralized around and ask yourself if more meaningful and concentrated community engagement would significantly help your brand.
Conclusion: private online communities are different and (sometimes) better
Private online communities have many advantages over public social media networks, but you shouldn’t necessarily discount either option.
If you’re trying to decide which option is better for your business or brand, keep in mind that you don’t have to choose. Both public social networks and private online communities have unique advantages and different reaches that can benefit your company.