​What is an online community?

Many of our publishing customers use Zapnito to create online communities, and all Zapnito sites, no matter their business model, have community features at their core. But what actually is an online community?
​What is an online community?

While Zapnito is not online community management software per se, our networks do have many of the characteristics of online communities, making use of numerous features that foster relationships between network members. These features help our publisher customers forge stronger relationships with and get new value from their real-world community of content-creators and customers.

Despite publishers typically having strong relationships with their audience, online communities are a new business model to many. Indeed, an 'audience' is different from a 'community'. As online community management experts FeverBee explain:

“Relationships are what turn an audience into a community.”

So, how are these relationships defined and established and, more importantly, what value can they deliver to a publisher’s business?

To answer these questions we must first understand what is meant by an online community.

A specific group

In answering this question, we go back to experts FeverBee, who define an online community as:

"A specific group of people that have developed relationships around a strong common interest."

The specifics of the group can be defined by any or all of the following criteria:

  • Who its members are (e.g. their gender, their location and other demographic criteria)
  • What they do (e.g. their profession, their hobbies etc.)
  • What they think (e.g. their likes, their beliefs etc.)

FeverBee point out that the strongest bonds between community members tend to occur in highly specific groups. To enable such bonds, they advise that communities should be defined by at least two criteria, e.g.: age and profession or location and religion.

A Zapnito example is Centaur Media and J.P. Morgan’s The UK Edge, a community for financial professionals operating in the UK investment market.

Niche - and therefore small - communities therefore tend to be more likely to thrive than broader, large communities. For publishers, who typically drive for the largest possible audience, this requires a new understanding of what success looks like. More is not necessarily more when it comes to online communities.

Developed relationships

FeverBee’s simple diagram shows that while personal similarities and a common interest may bring a group together, interactions between members, self disclosure and shared experiences are required to forge the emotional connections that ensure thriving communities.

How relationships are formed in online communities

How relationships are formed in online communities. Source: FeverBee

It is easy to see how Zapnito’s features help foster relationships, encouraging members to:

  • Engage with each other, by commenting on each others’ content or following each other, for example
  • Disclose information, by making it easy for them to create content in order to share their expertise
  • Have shared experiences, with video panels in which they have discussions and collaboratively create content

Of course, these features are also used by publishers in order to strengthen their relationship with their audience, to interact with their audience in a new way without necessarily building a ‘community’. In fact, one way in which you can determine whether you are looking to build a community is to consider who and what the interactions on your site will take place between.

If it is between your content creators (and their content) and your readers, for example, you are not perhaps building a community but simply a more engaged, loyal audience (in which there is of course huge value in terms of customer retention and understanding).

If you want your readers to create their own content, to collaborate to create new content and to ask each other questions, you probably are looking to create a community.

A true Zapnito community is the npj Biofilms and Microbiomes Community, in which scientists working in the multidisciplinary field of biofilms and microbiomes research collaborate in order to further science in this area. While the publisher, Springer Nature, is a key voice in this community, it is the collaboration, the relationships between scientists that make this site a community.

A strong common interest

The most important requirement for an online community is a strong common interest between members.

This is because members are only going to dedicate their time and effort to forging relationships around a subject in which they are really interested and which is central to their sense of self (for example, it is closely related to their job or hobby).

Luckily, this is an area in which publishers excel. Their business is to create and curate content that people want to spend their time consuming. It is usually highly specific, created for a clearly-defined group and taps into a professional or personal interest.

In this way, communities based around publishers’ content have a head-start on communities based around products. They start with a pre-established specific group with a common interest, not to mention content with which to attract members. This is one reason why we at Zapnito see such great potential for online community features in creating new opportunities for publishers.

Follow me for more advice and commentary. And check out community management experts FeverBee for dedicated expertise in online community management.


Go to the profile of Charles Thiede
over 5 years ago
Great article Jen.