Starting an online community can be a great way to gain a following and advertise your business. The type of online community you should choose depends on your business goals. Here’s what we mean:
- Insider industry communities for experts to network and discuss their fields
- Fan clubs where Star Trek aficionados practice Klingon language skills with friends
- Support groups where new moms can get practical advice from experienced ones
These communities are vastly different in their purpose, audience, and even platform. While all online communities provide a mix of support, engaging discussions, and learning, there are significant differences based on the needs of each type.
Let’s look at 12 popular types of online communities to see which one might be right for your audience’s needs.
- 1. Learning Communities
- 2. Membership Communities
- 3. Brand-Support Communities
- 4. Group Coaching Communities
- 5. Fan Communities
- 6. Social Communities
- 7. Support Groups
- 8. Networking Communities
- 9. Industry Communities
- 10. Socio-Political Communities
- 11. Faith-Based Communities
- 12. Gaming Communities
- Putting It All Together
- Frequently Asked Questions
1. Learning Communities
While all groups include some learning, a learning community focuses on a course, a course bundle, or an educational institution.
Members of a learning community can ask peers for help with content, homework, and practical application. They can also share what they learned and ask for feedback, like a well-written email, a programming sequence, or an excel spreadsheet.
Traditional schools use online learning communities to communicate with their students and allow them to communicate with each other. Here are two typical setups.
- Individual classes create an online space using messenger apps like Telegram so students can ask and answer questions between sessions.
- Student teams or cohorts coordinate their work and support each other.
Teachers and professors wanting to create an online community for their classes can reap many benefits because engaged students learn! Access to the right resources can help students better grasp new concepts.
With an online course, the content is packaged and ready to go. Having ready content makes this option scalable, making it easy to grow and manage a large community.
Many course creators have genuine concerns about how to support their students through and after their courses. Establishing a learning community is an easy way to do this.
Monitoring the group for common questions and learning struggles can help the course creator improve the course in its next iteration.
Angie Monson offers this digital photography course on Udemy and supports her students with private learning communities on Facebook. Her group is a place for family photographers to learn from each other and share their photos.
- These groups provide one location to answer questions that multiple students might have.
- Learning communities encourage students to participate in their learning.
- Online learning groups make content and answers available outside of the course or classroom.
- As students help each other, they learn more.
- They rely too much on group engagement, which is sometimes hard to inspire.
2. Membership Communities
Because membership groups generally have less access to the content creator, they are often a more affordable alternative to a group coaching option. Many entrepreneurs offer multiple communities to provide choices for different budgets.
For example, Melanie Ann Layer runs three communities.
- A free social group, Alpha Femme, for those interested in energetics
- A paid membership group, Membership E3, to access her evergreen content
- An exclusive community, Alpha Femme Experience, for group coaching
If you plan to build a membership community, consider using a community manager to escalate questions or issues, build engagement, and offer assistance. Establish a process to clarify the membership rules and how they benefit your community. Be sure to address problem behaviors as quickly as possible.
The Wood Whisperer runs an online maker community for his faithful YouTube subscribers using Patreon.
Though Patreon communities seem similar to fan clubs (see #5), they share more in common with membership communities. Check out the latest Patreon trends.
- Boosts membership site engagement and retention.
- When members help other members, it solidifies loyalty.
- Monitor members’ discussions and questions to gather rich information.
- Negativity in the group can hurt membership experience and revenue.
- As the group grows, the feeling of intimacy may be at risk.
3. Brand-Support Communities
Brand-support communities allow consumers of products and services to get the support and answers they need. Because consumers consult these groups when they have questions about a product or service, everyone in the group benefits.
- Owner’s manuals and guides
- How-to guides
- Instructional videos
- Links to compatible accessories
- Reliable repair facilities
These groups can be organized by the brand, like the Spotify example below, or by those who are loyal to a specific brand, like this Honda CR-V group.
If you have an established brand, there are plenty of benefits to reap here. In fact, 66% of businesses claim that having an online community has helped them increase customer retention.
Check out these best practices that thriving brand communities tend to use:
- Recruit competent and active customer service-minded individuals to monitor and engage the group.
- Provide searchable resources to answer members’ needs.
- Monitor the support group chat for issues that might come up.
- Reward brand loyalty and those who offer positive support.
- Consider how chat tools can improve the experience.
Spotify hosts a community group for its subscribers on its website. This website provides a place where community members can talk about the services, music, features, and podcasts.
It’s a brilliant way for Spotify to foster rich communication using more than the typical email or app message.
- A group like this can build greater brand loyalty.
- The brand can effortlessly gather valuable customer feedback.
- A group like this is more robust than a typical support page on a website.
- When owners answer the questions of other owners, it increases their loyalty.
- A negative experience in the group can erode brand loyalty.
4. Group Coaching Communities
Group coaching communities provide a supportive environment for clients to help each other as they gain skills or experience personal transformation. These groups tend to be smaller and more intimate, where people feel safe sharing information.
Group coaching programs include a variety of different topics.
Since group coaching makes everyone aware of each other’s challenges, every struggle and triumph feels shared. And being transparent in the community helps solidify commitment and foster encouragement.
Coaches use a variety of platforms. Many choose Facebook because it’s easy to use, and most people already have an account. Coaches that address sensitive topics, like health, mental health, abuse, and money, may opt for a private community platform for added security.
Read our write-up of the best online community platforms to compare the different options.
Suppose you’re considering running a community for your group coaching program. In that case, there are some best practices:
- Consider hiring a community manager who can escalate questions or issues, build engagement, and assist your clients.
- Talk about the community in your program’s onboarding process.
- Ensure that your potential clients share your same core values.
Some group coaches customize an app to meet their group’s needs. If this interests you, read this article for more information about how to build your own app.
Digital Trailblazer Coaching is a community of about 250 entrepreneurs who want to sell and create online courses. The coaches, Todd and Leah Rae Getts use Zoom for calls and conduct all of their messaging inside the Facebook platform.
- You provide one place to answer a question that several might have.
- As clients share, they create an environment for safety and sharing.
- You can use client wins and breakthroughs for case studies and testimonials.
- Building engagement can be challenging depending on the size, personalities, and topics.
- Identifying and addressing behaviors threatening the group’s cohesion and safety can be uncomfortable.
5. Fan Communities
Before the internet, you could write a letter to become a fan club member and receive specialty merchandise and a coveted fan club card. Online communities revolutionized fan clubs and added greater access to the franchise.
Fan communities generally celebrate a famous person, team, or series, including sports, books, movies, TV shows, actors, musicians, or authors.
Are you considering starting a fan club or community? Here are some best practices:
- Try to involve the franchise to add value to the group and a sense of validity to the members.
- Consider what resources will benefit all members, and recruit help in creating these.
- Recruit, vet, and train volunteers to help manage the group.
- Recognize member contributions by offering awards, titles, or positions in the group.
The Royal Manticoran Navy is a fan club based on a series of military sci-fi books by David Weber. This community is run by fans and for fans. The club includes a wiki, several Facebook groups, and events. Members earn rank by completing training and can join ships in their local area.
- You can create a space for your favorite entertainment series, like books, movies, music, or sports.
- You can plan meetups for members who attend the same concert, game, or convention.
- These groups are mostly free.
- Since volunteers often manage them, addressing inappropriate behaviors in a group where people feel a right to be there can be challenging.
6. Social Communities
Social groups let people connect with those who share their love of the same hobbies or may have shared the same experience.
They share many characteristics, even though what brings them together looks very different.
- Bird watching
- Sports teams
- School alumni
- Former employees of a company
Members swap information, tips, and best practices in the hobby- or topic-focused social groups. The learning that occurs is generally self-directed and peer-led. Experts may use a group like this to gain visibility and promote offers to their paid memberships, coaching, and courses.
Social groups organized around an experience often become a place to share memories using stories and pictures.
Managing an engaging group can take a lot of time. Anyone starting a group like this would benefit from seeking engaged and friendly members to help manage the group, as well as creating rules that protect the environment.
This Navy Nukes online community creates a safe space for those who’ve worked long shifts in the hot environment of a nuclear-powered naval ship. The only requirement for membership is that they’ve been qualified to work in a nuclear environment at some point.
- You can generate discussions to share experiences from the past or hobbies.
- These groups are mostly free.
- Since volunteers often manage these groups, addressing inappropriate behaviors can be challenging.
7. Support Groups
Support groups can feel like lifelines when people face difficulties like medical diagnoses, behavior issues, or financial hardships. In this supportive environment, they can discuss their challenges and get answers to sensitive and complex questions.
Some community founders start a support community to reach those who can benefit from their experience. Many of them felt like they lacked support when facing similar challenges.
Other groups are started by experts who use these support groups to share their expertise and reach those who would benefit from their group or private coaching.
Considering the mental and emotional cost of investing in these groups is critical. Depending on the topic, this investment can lead to burnout.
Consider these best practices:
- Ask for help from competent, empathic members to manage this group.
- Create and communicate rules that protect your members.
- Link to reliable sources of information that are accessible to members.
- Make it easy to search for and address misleading or false information.
- If your group would benefit from a secure platform, consider how to monetize the group or raise money to help offset costs.
Inspire hosts this pancreatic cancer support group. Their website provides a secure platform that protects sensitive information and allows for different levels of privacy.
- You can help others differentiate between good information and false information.
- Group members can get the emotional support they need.
- These groups are primarily free.
- Depending on the topic’s sensitivity, a secure, paid platform might be ideal.
- Burnout is possible.
8. Networking Communities
Networking groups are an expansion of in-person networking events. And like those networking events, some of these communities are temporary and centered around a specific event, like a conference, while others are ongoing.
Ongoing networking communities include the following groups:
- Small Business Networking for Busy People
- Speakers and Coaches Networking Society
- Coaches & Course Creators
Since the purpose of these communities is to expand your network, they are large. They are often set up by the event organizers or experts who use the group to build credibility and gain visibility.
Anyone looking to create a networking group tends to have an easier time with engagement because the audience proactively seeks connections. A community manager can help plan events, contests, and posts that support networking behaviors.
An event app could benefit members if this community group is part of an event.
Event organizers often use mobile apps like Whova to create a networking community among the attendees and presenters of the event. The platform rewards interactions and messaging with notifications, leaderboards, and prizes.
- Your group can support other business-minded people.
- It can position you as a connector and business coach.
- The benefit of this group seems obvious to potential members.
- The group can get noisy when most posts are people promoting themselves.
9. Industry Communities
Industry communities support and build industry-specific skills and knowledge of their profession. These groups often provide continuing education opportunities and collaboration with other professionals.
These groups are managed by an organization that sets the standard for their industry. Industry organizations include examples like these.
- Association for Talent Development (ATD)
- Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)
- Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA)
The communities sponsored by these groups foster collaborations and provide answers to industry-specific questions. Several of these groups require that their members maintain their certifications to be a member.
An organization seeking to support its members with a community group can learn much from borrowing the best practices from other leading industry groups. They can also promote networking events to introduce members to each other and allow members to teach classes and events.
- Membership offers prestige and access to industry-vetted content.
- You can charge premium fees for membership.
- Promote best practices and necessary change for your industry.
- The group’s success depends on its reputation.
10. Socio-Political Communities
Socio-political communities unify members to change our world. The political, social, and environmental movements they initiate result in making significant societal improvements or in raising awareness of important causes.
These causes can be as simple and actionable as planting more trees, the focus of the Arbor Day Foundation, or as complex as eliminating human trafficking or world hunger. There are a lot of different charities and causes that form these online communities.
Anyone wanting to create a socio-political community should consider how to keep their audience engaged through a steady stream of content. Different ways that people can contribute, such as with their time, money, or action, ensure everyone feels they have something to give.
Some groups address sensitive situations like domestic violence, child abuse, or human trafficking. Volunteers who work directly with survivors of these situations must be properly vetted and trained.
The Freedom Network is an example of a community that works directly with survivors of human trafficking. Their membership standards are stringent, and members receive professional development, support, and direct involvement opportunities.
- Membership or affiliation creates a feeling of action.
- You build an audience that wants to learn and spread awareness.
- Your group can provide a motivated and mobilized group for change.
- Not all who join are willing to do more.
- Not everyone passionate about your cause will agree with you.
11. Faith-Based Communities
While it can be challenging to have open discussions about religious beliefs, faith-based communities often create a safe place to chat. These groups vary in size and purpose.
Here are a few examples:
- Interfaith groups create a safe place to ask those of different religions about their beliefs to build a stronger appreciation for people who live differently.
- Denominational groups allow people to understand the organization’s beliefs and interpretation of scripture.
- Interdenominational groups can focus on specific topics, like raising children or the role of men and women.
- Faith deconstruction groups allow members grappling with their beliefs to explore, deconstruct, or resurrect their systems of beliefs.
In faith-based groups, where discussions have historically provoked arguments, it’s imperative to establish and communicate clear boundaries. A statement of beliefs can be instrumental in setting expectations.
Anyone wanting to create a faith-based group should consider the group’s purpose and be ready with resources to support that purpose. Resources could include a list of recommended books, videos, or courses. Members will often benefit from learning events.
An adequate number of qualified moderators to accommodate the group’s activity is essential to protecting the environment.
This private online group is a safe place for Christians of various denominations to talk about their beliefs about the roles of men and women. They use strict rules to keep conversations respectful and allow people to post anonymously.
- Members expect to learn and grow.
- As members help each other, their own experience grows.
- People can feel threatened or defensive when they feel something violates their interpretation of faith.
- Faith-based individuals tend to fall into black-and-white thinking.
- People can have varying levels of knowledge of their faith.
12. Gaming Communities
Any discussion of online communities needs to include online gaming. Gamification, the practice of incorporating gaming elements into other means, is a trend because the gaming world captures attention, making this type of community worth watching.
By studying what gaming communities do to encourage participation, we can incorporate many of these practices into other community types. This includes graphics, badging, scores, competition, collaboration, and more.
Gaming communities use two typical setups:
- A gaming platform, like Xbox or Playstation, that allows players to connect, chat, and talk
- A messaging app like Discord that was designed for RPG (role-playing games) and PC gamers
When creating a gaming community, consider that minors may be involved, so safeguarding their identities can be crucial. Organizers may also want to create or link to rules, wikis, and any coordination information.
- Members can coordinate strategy, equipment, and characters to improve results.
- These groups often contain minors, making it essential to gauge the appropriateness and safety of interactions.
- Inexperienced players can negatively affect the playing experience, and addressing these players can be sensitive.
- Toxic behaviors can ruin a good playing experience.
Putting It All Together
Selecting the right type of online community is the first step to creating an engaged group since this helps you determine your purpose and what resources you need to support your members.
Once you figure out the type of group, look at the others to see what you can borrow from them.
- Look at gaming groups to see how they interact and engage.
- Check out how successful faith-based groups create safe places to explore.
- Learn how activist groups unify and mobilize individuals for causes that matter.
The next step is to choose the platform and tools for connecting your members. When ready, check out this article on the best online community platforms.
If you’re thinking about building an app for your community, check out this article about creating a community app.
We can’t wait to see what you create! In the comments below, share what you’re working on or what you started.