Online Community Decision: Public, Private or Hybrid? by Vanessa DiMauro, Leader Networks

Public vs Private FollrYour organization has decided to develop an online community to serve your customers. Congratulations! This is an important step towards building a social business. As the team gathers in the conference room with whiteboards, markers and lots of coffee, you start by talking about other online community examples the organization might want to emulate, or those that have caught your fancy. Features, content, look and feel are usually a major part of this discussion.

But chances are you haven’t considered a fundamental but critical question: will the online community be public, gated or a hybrid (largely public with a private, members-only area)? This is one of the most important decisions you will have to make, one that shapes virtually every aspect of how your community will operate and, in most cases, determine its success.

The decision to make the community public, private or hybrid depends in large part on the characteristics of the audience you are trying to serve. At Leader Networks, we call this “The Engagement Model.” It states that “The who and why of your community will dictate the what and the how.” For example, if your organization seeks to reach a wide audience, such as a technical support community — chances are a public community is the right format. If your audience is small and focused, such as prospective customers of an airplane manufacturing company, a private, gated community is probably a better fit. Serving multiple audience types or needs may require a hybrid format. So what are the benefits, drawbacks, revenue models and other distinguishing factors for each type?

Public Online Communities

Public communities are open to anyone on the web who would like to join the community. While the community may — and probably should — require password-protected member registration to join or post a message, anyone with an email address and a web browser can have access. Organizations trying to engage a large audience of consumers or customers (B2C or B2B) with content and conversation online will usually choose a public community.


  • Anyone who is interested in the community, company or topics addressed


  • Ultimate size is determined by the potential audience universe
  • Usually (much) larger than private online communities
  • Need to scale quickly due to (typically) lower participation rates – more readers than posters


  • Goals are to educate and inform members about a product, service or issue
  • Activities includes content creation & distribution, discussions and member sharing
  • Topics include marketing info, education, product/service support

Common Features

  • Forums, blogs with comments, simple reviews (“like”), downloadable content, polls, webinars and multimedia

Revenue Models

  • Advertising, content sponsorships, lead generation, a la carte paid offerings such as webinars or reports, overall cost reductions for support communities, self-service sales


  • Broad reach, enables company to show market penetration, marketing, product or service evangelism

Sample Measures

  • Member acquisition growth over time, views or likes, content contributions, SEO page rank, PR value
  • With tech support communities, reduction in support costs (community vs. call center) is a primary measure.

Private Online Communities

Private online communities are gated, often invitation-only communities serving a highly targeted audience. Many B2B professional organizations have private communities. There are membership standards, which can include subscription fees, in-depth profiles, vetting or current member recommendations prior to member acceptance. A gated community can create greater sense of trust and intimacy among members with more information about individual members and shared acceptance criteria. This can lead to more open and substantive engagement and collaboration between members and the sponsoring organization. Content and member contributions are considered privileged and not shared outside the community.


  • Highly selective audience based on a clear criteria, including verification of credentials such as title, practice area, certifications and other attributes.


  • Absolute size of private communities is less important than achieving high levels of member satisfaction in conjunction with business objectives
  • Audience selection criteria are crucial to member acquisition, participation and collaboration
  • Achieving a critical mass of members is necessary to grow collaboration. Can be successful with hundreds to thousands of members.


  • Goals are to share knowledge and expertise on mission- and career-critical issues; collaboration for professional advantage
  • Activities include co-creation, idea-sharing, high-level consultation, expertise development, collaboration and thought leadership.
  • High level of service and benefits to members

Common Features

  • Member directory, member-generated content, research and in-depth polling, forums, thought leadership and expertise presentation

Revenue Model

  • Member subscriptions (may include additional benefits such as special access to content and experts), sponsorships, commissioned research, discount purchasing programs, events (online and offline), thought leadership access


  • Increase customer loyalty, increase in client penetration of product and service purchases, improve R&D and speed to market, gain high-level expertise from members, market foresight.


  • Private community members expect high levels of member service, poor execution risks alienating powerful customers and prospects
  • Audience selection criteria limits ultimate size, high quality content required, active community management.

Sample Measures

  • Membership revenue & renewals, NPS scores, customer retention, customer purchase increases, new audience targets acquired, PR, actionable expertise and ideas created within community

Hybrid Online Communities

Hybrid online communities have both a public and a gated or private area within the overall community infrastructure. They provide the features of both options at a single destination. Access is determined by the member’s role. For example, a hybrid community might have an open, public area for consumer visitors with private, gated areas for suppliers or executives.

Hybrid communities often evolve after an organization is successful with one of the two models (public or private) but then discovers a business need to serve a different audience or segment using the other engagement model. At Leader Networks, we discourage trying to launch both at once; the complexities of initial messaging to prospective members and operational difficulties make this choice very risky. Instead, determine the best model for launch, then evolve the community. Leverage the learning from the first successes to improve the next phase.


  • Bifurcated, with both a public (anyone) and a private (selective and targeted) membership


  • Aim for rapid growth of the public community. If the private side will be a subset of the public audience, base private audience growth estimates on public audience acquisition rates — but be prepared for significant variations.


  • The biggest challenge will be managing differing messaging and member engagement needs within a single community. Goals and activity expectations must be extremely clear and distinct for each side of a hybrid.

Common Features

  • A hybrid requires especially strong member management tools to maintain separation within the platform plus a robust, experience operations group to keep similar functions separate for each audience.

Revenue Model

  • Complex and multifaceted based on the business goals and organizational values. Which community type is the primary business driver?


  • If able to capture the value of both community types, synergies might include reaping the rewards of a private member-driven thought leadership community plus using very selective distribution of the private content to attract a larger audience to the public space.


  • Loss of focus, confusing brand identity, channel and message conflicts in audience acquisition, complex technical and operational structures

Sample Measures

  • Each aspect of the community (public or private) should be measured independently with different, contextual metrics based on the single models

[This work was originally published on Vanessa’s blog, Leader Networks, and is reposted here with her permission.]

Ever Thought About Adding a Personal Domain Name to Your Profile Website?

Google SEOYou should, it will seriously improve your SEO. Google “Stephen Fells” and take a look at what is top of the organic search results. That’s right – his Follr Website. It’s above LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, multiple blogs he contributes to, it’s even higher than Google+.

You can register any domain to use with your Follr digital identity Website! You can still use of course but you can also add, for example, Simply log into your Follr account to get started.

Available top level domains include::

  • .com
  • .info
  • .net
  • .biz
  • .org
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And as always please let us know if you have any questions!

Social Media Manager vs. Online Community Manager: Same or Different?

Source: Vanessa DiMauro

Slide1One recent morning I saw a post in one of my LinkedIN groups asking “what is the difference between a social media manager and an online community manager?” Easy, I thought, and offered a quick response on my mobile … “Social media managers bring the guests (clients, prospects) to the table and community managers welcome them in!”

Ahh, but wait. This may require more words than I can manage on that little screen. So, naturally, I turned to trusty Google to see what others have said on this topic. Among the first mentions I came across was a CMSWire which discussed the confusion between social media and online community management, and suggested the two roles have become blurred.

In my view, the confusion often begins with job descriptions, which are rarely written by actual practitioners. For larger organizations new to these rapidly evolving specialties, they strive to find and describe the commonalities rather than highlight the differences in the two roles.
Next, I sought out my trusted peers and colleagues to see and hear what they had to say. In a post by the very knowledgeable Blaise Grimes-Viort from the UK firm e-Moderation, he shared the following definitions of these two roles:

· Community Manager: Operates from deep within the company, managing customer relationships with a brand or product, and each other. Potentially she can be a fully Enterprise Community Manager, involved in facilitating efficient inter-team and staff communication and collaboration. She is focussed on the flow of information and knowledge, strengthening relationships and promoting productive collaboration, which may include moderation and hosting of both micro- and macro-events on the company’s community platform. Placement within the Organization chart is more likely to be connected to Editorial, Product development, Business development, and Marketing. In addition, I would add Customer Service/Support to the list of org chart nodes above.

· Social Media Manager: Operates from the edges of the company, managing brand recognition and reputation outside of the scope of the brand website. He is focused on listening and evaluating brand perception, planning campaigns and promotional material or initiatives to promote the company’s message, building and leveraging social networks on social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to facilitate depth of communication. He will usually be found within the Organisation chart connected to Marketing, PR, and Sales.

Another aspect of the blurring and overlap in roles is the type of organization doing the hiring — what is the business focus for the role? Business-to-business (B2B) and consumer companies have very different requirements. In consumer organizations, the community focus is individual consumers, and consumers generally frequent public social media channels with broad reach and large numbers. On the other hand, B2B organizations focus on building customer intimacy using channels such as online communities, customer councils and executive briefing centers along with offline outreach. For B2B, the desired relationship is deeper, just as the purchase cycle may be longer, revenue potential much greater and the depth of engagement (think suppliers and partners as well as customers) may be much greater and more complicated. In B2B organizations the social media manager is part of marketing and PR, facing outward for the most part. The B2B community manager has some outward responsibilities, but is connected to more core operations at the firm.

These distinctions are especially visible in the success measures for each role – the key performance indicators. Of course, both roles may share responsibility for a number success metrics and will need to partner effectively to deliver results. Here is a short tabulation of key B2B success measures, the role involved and the organizational accountability path.

B2B Success Measure Role Accountability
Drive leads Social Media Manager Marketing
Raise awareness of products or services Social Media Manager Marketing
Visibility of company, products, services or thought leaders Social Media Manager Marketing
Increase sales Social Media Manager Sales
Event attendance Social Media Manager on public channels, Community manager on community channels Marketing
Customer questions about how to use a product or service Community Manager Customer Service
Learn from customers (e.g. feedback into product development) Community Manager Product Management/R&D
Customer retention / satisfaction Community Manager Sales
Call center reduction/ Improve customers’ ability to get help from each other Community Manager Customer Service
Increase utilization of the products Community Manager Product Management

Note that in the B2B world, where customers tend to be other organizations purchasing complex and expensive products and services, the lines between the social media manager and the community manager roles can be more clearly defined than in consumer space. B2B and consumer prospects have very different information and relationship needs, and when the sale is made the customers require very different levels of ongoing engagement and support. The overlap between the B2B social media and online community manager roles is usually much less than for those roles at a B2C firm.