Types of Online Communities (and the importance of onions!) – From Our Friends at 4-Roads

onions (1)Please enjoy this post from Gina Narramore, 4 Roads Social Media & Community Manager. 

If taking steps towards becoming a social business is in your strategy, you are probably considering developing an online community.

One of the first aspects to be considered, and arguably the most important, is what type of online community will you create. This decision will largely affect how the community will shape up, and whether it will be a success.

As described in the 4 Roads ‘Social Business Cookbook’ your social presence should be a “complex menu of offerings to the audience. It is also layered like an onion.” 

Ideally, a true social business should be active in as many layers (of this onion) as possible. It will have an integrated presence in multiple layers, providing the audience a unified experience of your business.

Social networks 

The outer layers of the onion consist of social media spaces. This is the first layer of the different types of online community.

First there are ‘participating’ communities, which are formed on external social networks, such as LinkedIn, Facebook etc. usually set up by your customers, about your products or services. You can’t run these communities but you can participate, listen and monitor conversations taking place within them.

The next layer of this onion, within this social media space, is your ‘managed’ community for example, your own Facebook page or YouTube channel etc. This is where you are in control of conversations and messages, although you do not own the data being created. Social networks are great for building trust and relationships in your market, but this is only the first step in using online communities to acquire and retain customers.

Social networks and online communities do work together. Therefore, it may be wise to participate in these social networks, with an aim to attract some of that audience to engage more deeply, with your brand, on your own online community. Check out the differences between online communities and social networks.

Public online communities

The next layers of the onion are the spaces you own, create, manage, and control, and which can link to your CRM software. These ‘owned’ communities consist of public, private and internal communities.

Anyone can join a public online community and today, public, or external customer online communities are what most people think of when they think of online communities. Organisations such as Dell and Starbucks both have thriving customer communities, comprising of primarily customers that share common interests, product purchases, or support issues.

These communities refer to a company-owned online property, a branded community nestled in a company’s website or as part of the website. Within a customer community, you can talk securely with your customers and prospects and offer them a range of relevant content, products and messages to support the conversations taking place.

The focus of this type of online community is to help customers become more successful with a product and service and solve a customer or member’s most critical problems. A customer community can also address specific business challenges, such as the need for improved customer service, cutting down on service call outs, or making content more accessible.

Through a public community, the organisation is able to energise the market, position themselves as a trusted leader in its industry and reach out to brand advocates – in a way, which has never been possible before

Also within this layer is the extranet, a private space for developing your offerings and strengthening relationships with both suppliers and partners. Collaborating with these groups within an extranet, not only builds loyalty, but also strengthens relationships and increases satisfaction. Suppliers and partners are able to ‘self-serve’, which reduces sales, and support costs and creates more efficient supply chains.

Ultimately, an owned public online community increases the value of doing business with an organization.

Private online communities

In this type of community, which is at the heart of the onion, members must log in to the community to take part in most, if not all activities and social features available, which is subsequently integrated into the organisation’s CRM system or membership database. Members are either personally invited or screened in some way prior. Private online communities have a select target audience and members are often charged membership fees to join.

Often deployed by B2B or membership organisations, these ‘gated’ communities can create greater sense of trust and intimacy among members due to more in-depth profile requirements. This can lead to more open and focused engagement and collaboration between members and the organization.

This is a space where customers and companies can plan and build for the future. For instance, private online communities can be a part of an organisation’s product strategy or where trusted people gather and collaborate to steer innovation for the business. The topical agenda is highly managed and all member activity and dialogue within the community is considered confidential and protected, and not shared outside of community walls.

Internal communities

A form of private online communities are internal communities – a place where customers, employees, partners, and other stakeholders to come together to better serve customers and achieve business objectives. And because an organisation’s internal communications lies at the heart of the onion, they affect everything else the business is trying to achieve.

This is the place where employees communicate and collaborate within the business. These communities create a space for many-to-many communication and allow employees to share information, find experts within the business and collaborate on projects.

As the ‘Social Business Cookbook’ states “Unlike the layers above, which may be ‘new,’ every organisation naturally has some kind of channels for internal communication and places for storing and retrieving data and information – without them it would be impossible to function. Yet few organisations have truly effective platforms for internal communication even though these are particularly valuable if they want and expect to be using ‘social tools’ to engage with their audiences.”

Internal communities are more easily created after deploying internal collaboration tools and should involve all employees, from entry-level staff to CEO’s. Adoption of a social platform is often a challenge, as employees may be resistant to changing the way they work. Read more about the importance of business culture when starting any type of online community.


It is important to note that an online community doesn’t necessarily reside in a single location, it can exist in more than one place on the Web. For instance, it can start in a social network such as Facebook, and spread into others, such as your owned private community.

Accordingly, social media has been instrumental in the way online communities have evolved – it has provided a foundation on which to communicate, and a platform for organisations to have two-way conversations with their customers. However, the true sense of an online community takes social media to the next level, and opens up a world known as social business.

Becoming a social business, and choosing the right type of online community for your organisation is important, however, the key to success is to start small and think holistically. Each type of online community should be considered when starting a social community project. Every layer should integrate with each other: your main objective should be to gain membership and engagement in your owned (public and private) community, and both your participating and managed (social networks) communities should be used as channels to facilitate that.

As the Social Business Cookbook states “The most effective social businesses allow each layer of the onion to flavour the others.”

The Social Business Cookbook has been written to help businesses integrate social at the core of their activities – request your copy.

To Succeed With Social Media Don’t Forget This Key

Growing Social Business with Sue CockburnA true thought leader, Sue Cockburn has advised many successful small businesses in their growth and strategies.By Sue Cockburn, Follr Guest Contributor.

We’re honored to have Sue as a Follr Contributor. Sue is based in Mission, BC in Canada. She is well known for her insightful posts on Social Media Today, as well as being a leading thinker in social media for business development and growth. Sue’s business provides consulting, content creation and design services for small business in the areas of marketing, social media and websites. Visit her website and blog at GrowingSocialBiz.com. This post was originally published on Sue’s blog and can be found here

Many business owners (small and larger) start out with visions of grandeur when they launch into social media.

It’s not too late to pick up where you may have left off with social media! To begin again with new fervour, commitment, determination AND perseverance.

It’s not too late to pick up where you may have left off with social media! To begin again with new fervour,They’ve likely heard or been told that it is not a slam dunk, a piece of cake, but …

It’s understandable really. With all the talk of social media and its growth, importance, consumer appeal, yada, yada, yada; one would think it was just a matter of planting the seed and watching it grow. But, it ain’t so.

Real progress or growth, in fact any growth for most of us, is a slow, steady and often a painful process. It rarely yields immediate results. Seriously, it rarely yields immediate results.

Like most anything of value, social media requires time, attention and especially perseverance to produce results. And, in today’s world, not investing in social media is probably similar to not taking seriously the impact computers would have on business in the 1970s and 1980s, and the internet in the 1990s.

But, it’s not too late to pick up where you may have left off with social media! To begin again with new fervour, commitment, determination AND perseverance.

If you’ve dropped the ball (or feel like you have) here are a few tips to get you going again:

Tip #1: Make the commitment!

Get going – start again. Make the decision you’re going to suck it up, and endure the pain – like exercise the pain diminishes as you get in shape (or so I’ve been told).

Tip #2: Start with what you’ve got going and build from there.

If you have a Facebook Page set up, and if it makes sense for your business to be on that platform, begin to build on what you started. Make sure you have a profile picture (logo or photo) that represents and is consistent with your brand. Use a cover image that works well for your brand. Start posting and inviting people to connect with you.

And, plan to spend some money to promote posts and advertise. Investing some of your hard earned cash in reaching your target audience is becoming more and more important to growing your brand on social media. Check out my article on ‘Paying for Facebook‘ for more on the issue of paying for social media.

Tip #3: Establish a realistic schedule, and stick to it!

Rome wasn’t built in a day and thinking you’re going to build a social media empire fast is a recipe for failure. Establish a realistic schedule for posting content and checking in on your profiles to see if anything needs handling. Set manageable goals that may feel like a bit of stretch. Similar to exercise, no pain (work) no gain (progress).

If you’ve been been posting less than once every few weeks you have some work to do. An arbitrary number would be to start posting three times a week (on the platforms that make the most sense for your business) and build from there.

Each social network is different. They reach different groups of people, for different reasons, and at different times. You’ll need to get familiar with the network(s) you choose to invest in and tailor your strategy and schedule to fit.

Tip #4 – Be relational. Remember, social media is social.

Again, each network is somewhat different, and in some cases significantly different. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, LinkedIn may all be social networks but each one is unique. People are on these networks for different reasons. You need to have a basic understanding of each network and whose on it and why. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. For instance, LinkedIn has a business/professional focus and on Facebook most people are there to connect with family and friends.

Tip #5 – Remember it’s all about them!

It’s always about the customer or potential customer. And with social media too, it’s all about them: what they will find interesting, helpful, valuable, important. Social media is not like traditional media. Posting content that is continuously promoting your business, your products and services doesn’t cut it, as a general rule (unless you’re Victoria Secret or Martha Stewart).

Social media offers you an opportunity to build your brand but not in the traditional media sense. With social media when people/consumers decide to follow, like or connect with you they are giving you permission to market to them, but it is a fragile permission and easily withdrawn or ignored if the content they see coming from your business doesn’t measure up to their expectations.

The key to success is perseverance!

Ultimately, the key to success with social media is to persevere! To persevere in ‘doing’ social media and in learning, revising, evaluating, strategizing and improving what you are doing. Don’t quit, don’t give up, persevere. Because social media is here to stay, and while it may change and evolve, waiting will only leave you further behind.

Think of social media like planting a garden

When you plant a garden, you don’t plant seeds one day and expect to see the plants fully grown, or even peaking their heads out of the soil, the next day.

You know that in order for each seed to grow you have to plant it (usually) in the darkness of the dirt where it will develop a root system before it peaks its tiny head above the surface and begins to grow into a larger plant. In order for it to grow, you need to work and invest time and energy (watering, weeding, fertilizing, etc.) And all of this means you have to persevere while it grows into maturity and produces fruit … and even then, there is work to be done to reap the fruit and maintain the plants so they will continue to bear fruit.

Think of social media in a similar way!