Online communities are one of the most effective ways for brands, consumers, employees, and individuals within specific industries to engage with each other.
An online community can be anything from a small Facebook group hosted by an independent yoga teacher, to a popular subreddit for companies using Zoom, or a troubleshooting forum for the new M1 Macbook Air.
Forums and groups are no longer just niche spaces for gaming nerds. 76% of internet users participated in an online community in 2020 according to the Global Web Index.
Here are just a few eye-popping online community stats:
- Reddit is home to more than 130,000 active communities (subreddits).
- More than 10 million Facebook groups are in existence.
- More than 1.8 billion Facebook users engage with these communities monthly.
- More than 50% of all Facebook users are members of five or more active groups.
These communities are online spaces where individuals can interact to learn more about products, answer questions, get to know one another, or any number of uses. In fact, online communities are one of the most effective ways for brands to grow customer loyalty, increase understanding of their product, or make their employees feel heard.
The benefits to creating an online community are endless, and they’re backed up by statistics. In this guide, learn all about online communities and the numbers that prove their importance, effectiveness, and lasting impact.
Why brands should create an online community
There are countless reasons for brands to create an online community. A space for users to interact — one that isn’t a public social media account — makes people feel more comfortable engaging with brands and each other.
Brands with online communities report high returns on investment, an increase in brand loyalty, more meaningful feedback from customers, and many more benefits. With over three-quarters of internet users engaging in at least one online community last year, any brand without an online community is missing out on a valuable opportunity to engage.
And the reality is, online communities aren’t going away, according to the numbers. 64% of visitors to online community sites said they were visiting community platforms more often than they did a few years ago, and 46% believed these communities had grown in importance to them over time.
The same study determined that
- 70% of internet users who have not visited community websites in recent times are at least familiar with them and
- 77% of millennials and Gen Z internet users who have not visited community websites in recent times are at least familiar with them.
Additionally, 75% of large companies had at least one online community in 2020, while only 40% of small businesses reported the same. This means that no matter the size or reach of your brand, you should create an online community if only to stay competitive.
In fact, 59% of organizations worldwide reportedly used online communities in their market research between 2014 and 2018 according to this 2019 report.
The mutual benefit to creating an online community
Online communities have distinct benefits both for consumers and brands. But those aren’t the only people in these communities.
The 2020 CMX Community Industry Trends Report details the general breakdown of the top five online community membership groups as follows.
- Customers make up 43% of participants in online communities.
- Developers make up 12%.
- Influencers and industry members make up 8%.
- Volunteers make up 6%.
- Employees make up 6%.
As such, it’s clear that online communities are an extremely valuable resource for everyone in the equation — brands, customers, developers, industry folks, volunteers, and employees of the brand. Each participant has the opportunity to learn about the other, deepening understanding and connection.
In addition to the benefits in comparison with social media, online communities have distinct positives in their own right. Customers like feeling like part of a community, and by being part of that community their experience is enhanced.
Especially in the uncertain world we now know, with the COVID-19 pandemic defining our new reality, people are in search of real, reliable connections.
Enter the online community. Higher Logic found that 81% of its customers received an uptick in online community engagement at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a COVID-19 study by Facebook and NYU’s The Governance Lab,
- most respondents in 11 out of 15 countries identified online communities as their most important groups and
- 77% of respondents identified online communities as their most important groups.
Even before the pandemic, true community has been a valuable use of online space. Especially as compared to social media, as discussed earlier, users are more likely to have honest, meaningful experiences in these communities.
According to the Community Roundtable 2020 Report, members of online communities feel empowered by their presence in the group:
- 57% feel they are seen,
- 63% feel they are being heard,
- 70% partake in providing solutions, and
- 78% tend to ask questions.
The same study shows that the dollar value of what members receive by being part of a thriving online community is significant, too. The average member in an advanced community contributes $67 worth of value yearly, but receives $614 in value over the same time period. That value can come in the form of deals, free webinars, information, and the like.
Communities also make it easier for consumers to make decisions. According to this study, 27.3% of customers said the use of online communities played a part in their buying decision process when contemplating the purchase of a product or service.
Even more shocking, 94% of community members said they have used communities to get more information about new topics. Knowing that most users are in communities to learn something new can help brands create communities that are valuable to their members.
For the brand
Of course, these stats show the clear benefit to the consumer — but these benefits lend to some awesome perks for the community hosts, too. When brands create an online community, they are signing up for amazing return on investment, unmatched marketing insights, and a genuine way to interact with customers.
Let’s start with what the consumer wants. According to this study, 86% of U.S. citizens agree that transparency from brands is more important than it ever was. When consumers are part of an online community, they have the chance to interact genuinely with brands. It won’t feel like they’re constantly having ads shoved down their throats, but rather that the brand actually cares about their patronage.
It also doesn’t hurt that 82% of community site visitors said they would be welcoming of brands who choose to participate in communities, according to Global Web Index and Reddit.
This is a huge benefit to brands because they can have some control over how people are talking about their product and what is being said. It’s easier to dispel negative talk and rumors, and community members can make their own decisions about what to believe, which makes them feel empowered.
Consumers actually want to interact with brands in these communities. Moreover, the community gives consumers a space to interact with each other, which is generally regarded with more trust than social media posts. Sprout Social found that 61% of consumers say they are more likely to trust recommendations from friends and family than celebrities and influencers.
A report by Vanilla Forums found tons of data showing that brands with online communities see distinct benefits. Here are the details
- 66% of branded communities believe that the community has had a significant impact on their ability to retain customers
- 72% say having a community has increased web traffic
- 88% believed that the community had a positive effect on improving customer experience
- 57% said it led to an increase in SEO
- 78% say the community has proved helpful for developing new and future products and services
- 90% agree that suggestions from members have been useful in improving products or services
- 58% of online communities believed there was an improvement in brand loyalty as a result of customers being part of their community
The 2020 CMS Community Industry Trends Report came up with similar findings supporting the importance and benefits of branded communities.
- 88% of online community professionals were in agreement that community was critical to their company’s mission
- 85% believed their community has positively impacted their business
Those benefits can come in the form of insights, but they also have a dollar value, just like for the consumer. The Community Roundtable 2020 reportfound that thriving online communities cost an average investment of $153 per member for the organization and generate a value of $682 per member annually.
The return on investment for the organization adds up to 4,530% ROI overall. Broken down, the average is 1,967% for internal communities and 6,130% for external communities.
So what does that mean? Well, scroll back up and look at the benefits to the consumer. They’re essentially the same — each time a consumer has the opportunity to share feedback on a new product, the brand receives that feedback. The experience is mutually beneficial. This can be applied to the wide range of uses for community spaces.
The top three benefits to branded online communities are
- customer loyalty (67%),
- reduction in support costs (48%), and
- and branding and awareness (47%).
As you can see, there are many soft benefits to online communities, like impacting company culture and understanding of a brand. The Community Roundtable study showed that 70% of communities have a positive effect on both company culture and brand.
The same goes for companies that create internal communities, like Slack channels.
Here are the top three benefits to internal communities.
- cultural and organizational change (54%)
- branding and awareness (43%)
- improving efficiency in communications (49%)
It can be challenging to measure the benefits of online communities. In this study, 92% of marketing professionals said they believe their online communities are making an impact on their businesses — but more than 35% said they don’t have the metrics to measure this success.
As such, it’s important for brands with online communities to stay active and gather any metrics they can. With tools like polls, suggestion posts, and basic metrics available, the hosts of these communities can begin to understand the positive impact they’re having.
Scaling an online community
So what happens when your online community becomes successful? As more and more members join your group or forum, your costs become lower and your opportunity for success becomes greater.
If you aren’t sure where to start, consider these stats from CMX Hub.
- Facebook Groups and Slack channels are the most common platforms people use for hosting online communities.
- 29% of survey respondents selected Facebook Groups.
- 23% selected Slack.
- 15% selected internally-hosted groups.
Each platform has different tools and limitations, so make sure to pick the one that makes the most sense for your organization.
For example, if you want the barrier to entry to be as low as possible, Facebook Groups is probably the right call. If you’d rather keep your membership limited to people who attend a certain university, for example, you might consider using Slack’s email domain tool.
Here are some of the basics on participation in groups that make it clear why scaling is important, from the Community Roundtable.
- 52% of members are generally inactive
- 11% share
- 25% provide validation
- 6% explore
- 7% perform actions and answer questions
As you can see, most members of an online community are not active. That’s why it’s more important than ever to scale your community up, so that you can get the most value out of the other 48% of your members.
The same study showed that as a community ages, the cost per member decreases, most noticeably so after year three. It’s also true that
- the average community ROI increases with age, reaching as high as 5,315% after 10 years and
- the overall average ROI for advanced communities is 7,071%.
In a more general sense, revenues from the online communities market was estimated to increase from $392.95 million in 2014 to $1.2 billion, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 24.3% according to this study.
Although scaling is important, it’s also apropos to identify some of the challenges of creating an online community, especially as it grows into something bigger. The reality is, running an online community costs time and money. Even with a great ROI, this is something to think about before creating a community.
Here are some challenges reported by CMX Hub.
- 55% of community professionals identified difficulty in consistently engaging members as one of their biggest frustrations with running online communities
- 44% said it was hard to put a quantity to the value of the community
- 25% said they did not have enough staff
Nonetheless, growing your community — and relegating a budget for it — is important not only to get better return on your investment, but also to compete with other brands. The same study showed that 65% of community professionals believed their organizations would be increasing their community budgets over the next 12 months.
If the idea of putting a budget toward an online community scares you, consider that your community may take place in person, too. The same study showed that 58% of organizations have both online and in-person communities while 38% have online communities only. Additionally, 59% of community professionals point to scaling their existing community as one of their main goals.
Much of the budget for an online community can also be repurposed for use in an in-person community, like creating materials that can be shown at a webinar as well as at a conference.
One aspect of scaling your community without a quick fix is quite simple: time. That report also showed that more and more organizations are recognizing the long-term value of communities, with 42% of communities having been in existence for five years or more as of 2019.
When these communities exist for longer and do well during that time, they yield more value per member than what that member contributes.
If the thought of creating a community that will last for years is daunting to you, take a look at these insights about the future of online communities. With the near-constant advent of new technologies, the ways brands can engage with their communities are ever-changing, leaving tons of room for creativity.
Here’s an example from this report about artificial intelligence.
- AI is expected to play a bigger role in improving the online community experience.
- Spending on AI technologies expected to grow to $97.9 billion by 2023.
- AI adoption in communities will help to steer user conversations, as well as community management automation.
- AI adoption in communities will help to steer user conversations, as well as community management automation.
- 25% said they did not have enough staff
This is just one example of the way new technologies are already changing online communities — but don’t fret, there’s still time yet to create your community and start growing. So get on those community spaces and start connecting with your customers.