What is an online community?
It seems like a simple question and I'm willing to bet the term is not entirely new to you. As technology expands to connect us to one another in new ways, online communities have become avenues to find information about a product, develop knowledge in your career, gather feedback from your market or collaborate with coworkers.
But still, what is it that transforms a group of people into a dynamic and connected community? The answer isn’t always simple.
I’ve had the good fortune of working in many online communities. I’ve been a boots-on-the ground community manager, a community strategy consultant, a college professor of online community at the University of Massachusetts and frankly, everything in between. I’ve worked inside communities for large financial firms like American Express and Wells Fargo, software businesses like Cienna, BMC and ESRI, and a number of nonprofit organizations. I’ve even worked in a community for other community managers.
Across my time exploring and thinking about online communities (and full transparency, I think about them a lot), I find that, at their core, online communities are about the people that fuel them and the shared interests that bring them there.
Online communities are spaces where people connect to share ideas, ask questions, swap insights, find peer-to-peer support, meet new connections and discuss the topics they all care deeply about. This “secret sauce” of human interaction turns a group of former strangers into a community that shares common experiences, goals and challenges.
And in the end, this is the same spirit as we find in physical communities in the traditional sense. The difference here is that online communities are (duh) online and most often created and supported by a particular brand or organization.
Organizations and brands offer their members online communities to create value for you in a number of different ways:
- Customer support communities can help you learn about a product and find ways to make that product work better for your needs.
- Ideation communities invite you to collaborate with brands you are passionate about to source and elevate ideas for a product or project.
- Internal communities might be set up by your employer to help you learn from co-workers regardless of the location or time zone in which those peers reside.
- Communities of practice are spaces for you to connect with individuals who share your same profession (but work across many organizations) to exchange lessons learned, innovations and insights in your field. (This is the type of community you will find inside the Pragmatic Alumni Community).
- And finally, special interest communities are largely focused on connecting you to other people who share your hobbies or personal pursuits.
No matter how an online community is being approached, they’re all about the same thing: They work to connect real people in an open forum that is educational, creative, meaningful and frankly, fun.
Online communities are multi-dimensional ecosystems and—just like the people who participate in and co-create them—they’re authentic, diverse, vibrant and rich.
In the Pragmatic Alumni Community (we call it The PAC for short), we’re the home to a wide array of product professionals who represent the spectrum of our industry. They come from small start-ups, nonprofits and Fortune 100 organizations. Some have recently graduated and want to connect with mentors to kick-start their career; some are ready to become one of those mentors as they hone their leadership skills. Others are amassing a vast skill set by working through challenges with peers like themselves.
You’ll even find industry legends (alongside Pragmatic instructors) offering coaching and feedback. This cornucopia of members simultaneously allows you to connect with those who are remarkably similar to you, while also offering a birds-eye-view of innovations across industry lines.
Members can learn, create and innovate with those that they might not have had access to otherwise. By breaking down the traditional one-way communication channels (emails, we’re looking at you) online communities unlock knowledge and make it accessible to all who participate in the space. They remove the need for you to learn lessons the hard way, start from scratch or feel like an island.
But online communities carry more than just opportunities to access knowledge—they offer emotional ties, personal commitments and camaraderie. Online communities co-develop their own cultures, mores, expectations and standards. They become places of refuge and stability in the wild west of the internet.
As Pragmatic alumni join PAC, we’ve watched them become dedicated participants and steadily build a deep sense of trust in the space. They trust that others will support them, and they trust that the information they're offered is reliable and valuable.
This is not-your-mama’s content stream, nor is it a slap-dash Slack channel. As a true online community it is an invitation to a partnership. It is a collaborative, living space built around, and adaptive to, member feedback and needs.
PAC members support others who are struggling, just starting out, or maybe just looking for some validation and cheerleading. It is a virtual extension of the most basic human drive: To connect and gather with others in a meaningful way. It is the sense of belonging we have all felt—on a sports team, a religious congregation or a neighborhood block. They’re the force by which we transform interactions into relationships.
If you want to come experience it for yourself, I warmly welcome you to join the Pragmatic Alumni Community. We practice these principles everyday and look forward to your additions.
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