Somewhere in the country, an executive is scratching his or her head over how to build a community of their customers or members. Their goals are clear, but with over 170 million tweets flying around each day, finding the right information to get started can be daunting. After acquiring a firm grasp on the impact they would like their online community to have on their organization and the critical problems that their customers would like solved, their first question should be:

What Type of Online Community Does My Business Need?

Understanding the 5 Very Different Types of Online Community for Business

In part 1 of this post, you learned about how all online communities are not created equal. The features and platforms, the goals and metrics, and the access and openness vary widely based on several factors.

Types of Online Community for Business

Your online community strategy is heavily dependent on your market, business model, and goals. Let’s look at the different types of online communities and how they are used:

#1 Public Blogs

Most people think of blogs as a publishing platform, but many businesses build successful online communities on their blog. Here is how:

By producing original, insightful content and promoting it across the web, your business will generate comments and questions that you and other readers can respond to in order to start a dialog around that topic. You can also extend the online community built on your blog to other blog by leaving quality comments on other relevant blogs or posting responses to other people’s blog posts on your blog.

Businesses of any size, ranging from individuals and consultants to large nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies, can use publicly viewable blogs to create an open community of prospects, customers, fans, and partners.

Example: Hubspot

#2 Public Social Network Online Communities

Public social networks, like Facebook and LinkedIn, are great for marketing businesses and organizations. Both B2B and B2C companies use them as marketing channels to “become one of us” and reach their markets where they already are.

B2B companies and associations use public social networks to build reach, awareness, and trust in their markets and industries. They build new, and participate in existing, online communities by sharing valuable information and insight on public social networks. They develop relationships by interacting with, responding to, and sharing content of value with their markets.

Example: Member Engagement – For Membership Professionals

However, B2B companies and membership organizations need more than brand awareness and reach to keep the lights on. Building trust and relationships in your market is only the first step in using online communities to acquire and retain customers. This leads us to our next level of online community.

#3 Public Owned Online Communities

Similar to online communities erected on public social networks, customers, prospects, fans, and foils can all join and participate in public owned, or branded, online communities. The difference lays in that the forums, file libraries, content, and other features live on a company’s domain, rather than or The major benefits to this type of online community are:

  • Ownership of the data and rules. You won’t run into problems like the ones that organizations that built online communities on the Facebook discussions app did.
  • Data and analytics. Organizations can collect more useful data during the registration process that can be piped directly into a company’s CRM or AMS (association management software) system.
  • SEO. All of the content and discussions in the pubic online community give SEO (search engine optimization) power to your company since it all resides on your domain.

The major challenge to starting a successful public owned online community is marketing and awareness. Most organizations use public social networks, such as Facebook or LinkedIn, for their public online communities since these communities are easy to join and you can maximize the spread of your community and content through the natural social channels of these open social networks.

A public owned online community is essentially a free services you are providing to your market. In return, your business can gather data from prospects and position your organization as a trusted leader in the industry. However, it can backfire if nobody joins and continues to participate in the community, so make sure you have both a large enough pool of contacts to grow the community and a feasible content plan to consistently feed the community.

Example: Intuit Community

#4 Private Online Communities

Private customer communities, where most of the content, discussions, and social features are behind a login and are tied to the organization’s CRM system or membership database, are mainly used by B2B and membership organizations.

Unlike public social networks, where anyone can participate and the goals are to build awareness and reach, private online communities are a part of an organization’s product strategy. They are coupled with the company or association’s core products and services to further solve a customer or member’s most critical problems and increase the value of doing business with an organization.

Example: The Higher Education User Group (an independent Oracle and PeopleSoft organization)

What About Internal Enterprise Online Communities?

This article does not include internal online communities separately sincw many of these communities are extensions of private online communities. Most enterprise online customer community platforms bring to customers, partners, and employees together for the success of the customer, while maintaining segmented communities where each group, including employees, can collaborate away from other audiences.

#5 Hybrid Online Communities

To capitalize on both the SEO and lead generation muscle of an owned public online community and the value proposition-boosting power of a private customer community, some B2B companies maintain hybrid online communities.

Hybrid online communities combine the benefits and challenges of publicly available social business tools (usually forums) on a company’s website with that of a private online customer community. Though this is not the right solution for all organizations, they are becoming more popular with B2B and membership organizations.

In addition, hybrid online communities can be built on a single platform so that customers can seamlessly move back and forth between your public and private social networks with a single login. This also simplifies the data transfer to your company’s back end customer or member database.

While this option give sales and marketing professionals deeper intelligence into a prospect’s interests and intent, customer care departments can also monitor and proactively address a customer’s activity both on the public forums and in the private online community.