5 Examples of Online Communities Keeping Us Connected in 2021

Online communities can be pretty hit or miss. In the best of times, they’re life-changing, deeply engaging, and, dare we say, even profound. But bad practices like poor engagement, no management, and no way to connect the right people mean that few live up to their potential.

The global pandemic has meant that online communities are more critical than ever, but many of us still feel adrift in a sea of mediocre spaces desperately looking for land. Online community managers are struggling with shifting how they do their jobs when the services they provide are more critical than ever before.

We know online communities can be great, even better than in-person networking at times. Our health and safety alongside the unique professional challenges of the day mean we need those great communities to be at their best.

Below, we’ve put together a list of 5 types of online communities with a successful approach to bringing people together that really hit the mark. More than that, they also show us how an online network can live up to its full potential when we need it most. Whether you’re a manager or participant in your own online communities, there’s plenty to learn from these compelling examples.

Customer communities that transform products we use daily

This is a type of community which brings together the users of a specific product to share everything from insights to struggles. For users, this translates into getting more out of a product, answering burning questions, learning effective hacks as well as professional networking and development, etc. If the community is built around a product you rely on every day, these communities can be incredibly empowering.

Customer communities are a win-win. For product owners, they offer fantastic benefits as well. When the community works, they get better customer engagement, lower churn, and higher retention. Of course, the trick is getting the community elements just right to unlock these benefits. So what makes the difference?

Let’s look at one of the best examples of a vibrant customer community that we’ve encountered: Spendesk.

Our favorite example: Spendesk’s CFO Connect

Spendesk has really internalized a basic fact about online communities: you need to engage new users quickly or you lose them. To address this, they’ve employed an expansive menu of events, content, networking opportunities, and more to quickly ensure new users can find something valuable and engaging.
Critically, this includes in person and online events. It also includes both group and 1:1 meetups. Because networking is one of the top reasons members join their community, giving them flexible options makes it easier for new members to find a way to engage that works for them. In addition, they understand the danger of simply adding members into a community and not consistently engaging with them. A good customer community should be a two way street with the product owner taking in information from the community and sharing/engaging with them. Otherwise it becomes more of a mailing list than a community. During the pandemic, CFO Connect has been experimenting with focusing more on setting up 1:1 conversations between their members. This started as a way to compensate for the inability to meet in-person, but has become a sustainable channel for creating high quality engagement between their users. That flexibility and willingness to put in the effort (even if the connections had to be done manually before being handed over to Orbiit’s AI) has allowed this community to shine in recent years. As a result, what began as a kind of stopgap measure has become an indispensable tool.

Women’s groups capable of transforming lives and careers

The prevalence of online harassment often means that women create their own online communities where they can feel safer to express themselves. When done right, they can be incredibly influential and have a powerful impact on their members.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a particularly heavy toll on women, which has pushed the creation of more online communities and the expansion of ones which already existed in this space. These communities offer places where women can share knowledge amongst one another, build confidence, gain new perspectives, and pay it forward.

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Pandemic or not, communities like these offer a powerful tool for chipping away at the gender pay gap and empowering women to succeed in business and life. This is critical for women, but also for business as a whole, as greater gender diversity correlates with success. But what does that look like in practice?

Our favorite example: TheBoardroom Africa

As the largest regional network of female executives in Africa, TBR represents over 1,000 executives in 62 countries. They connect their members with virtual conferences, webinars, trainings, and (at least until Covid) in-person meetups.

According to their team, “Peer-to-peer networking plays a key role in our work. Being a woman at the top can be a lonely experience, but we enable our members to realize they don’t have to go at it alone.” Except that this kind of networking became impossible during the pandemic, so they had to change how they connected their members. They ultimately came to Orbiit, using its powerful AI to enable fruitful pairings among members of their network.

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They went on to say that “Our partnership with Orbiit allows members to discuss everything from solutions to problems, new tools, and technologies. It also provides a forum to cultivate new, and sometimes life-long, friendships.”

This experiment of using Orbiit to create 1:1 connections has seen great success. The benefit here is that while women face unique challenges in executive positions, the challenges faced by women in Africa themselves are unique. Thus, these connections empower African women to share their experiences and tips for overcoming challenges that women outside the continent might not necessarily have encountered.

This specificity is key to any community’s success. Online communities always want to avoid the danger of new members worrying that the experiencences of existing members might not be relevant to them. TBR addresses this both by being more specific in its aims and by harnessing the power of 1:1 connections.

Venture Capital (VC) Networks that create real value

Being a founder and entrepreneur is just one of those experiences that’s hard to relate to if you haven’t done it yourself. That’s why founder communities are so valuable. They enable founders to share struggles, tips, network, etc. with the only people who can really appreciate their unique challenges. VC portfolios tend to be particularly close knit examples of such networks because they’re managed as a service towards the portfolio companies. It also means the stakes are quite high. Managers of these online communities know that making the right connection between two founders can be the difference between the success or failure of a substantial investment. These kinds of connections also show why the kind of peer-to-peer learning which happens in online communities is so powerful. If a founder is struggling to find the right board member, handle regulation in a specific country, or hire the perfect candidate for a critical role, it’s unlikely something like a basic Google search is going to find them the answers they need. Those challenges are best solved through communities and shared experiences. But making just the right connections at the right time is easier said than done.

Our favorite example: Anthemis

This VC firm is female-founded and dedicated to diversity, inclusivity, and driving virtuous cycle outcomes from its portfolio. Of course, beyond selecting the right companies to invest in, fostering a vibrant community is a critical element to their success. But while manually finding the right connections between founders was relatively simple early on, today they have over 100 companies in their portfolio. While the logistics may have become more complex as Anthemis grew, the needs of the founders in their portfolio stayed roughly the same. “Founders wanted to speak to their peers to make sense of the situations they found themselves in. There were no ‘experts’ with the ‘right’ answer,” says JeeYoon Hong, Anthemis’ Product Lead.
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This need became even more intense once the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Deprived of the serendipity of in-person meetups and with portfolio companies experiencing an onslaught of unique business challenges stemming from the new circumstances, Anthemis had to find a way to match them with the expertise they needed right away.

Their approach was to offer biweekly chances for founders to opt in to 1:1 conversations. The key was offering highly relevant topics, ensuring the matching was as easy as possible, and creating a sense of urgency to cut through the myriad other priorities vying for founders’ attention. Soon, the vast majority of the portfolio companies were taking advantage of these 1:1 conversations and reporting excellent NPS scores.

Professional Networks that drive industries forward

Professional networks face many of the same challenges that VC portfolios are dealing with, but usually on a far larger scale. Here, hundreds or even thousands of professionals face that same challenge of unlocking experience and information that can’t simply be found in a book or article.

Before the pandemic, professional conferences played a major role in enabling these connections. The kind of networking and sharing that happens at major conferences is invaluable and not easily replaced. But the ending of these kinds of large in-person gatherings combined with the unique business challenges the pandemic brought on meant that professionals needed the connections their networks could offer more than ever.

Now, to take one example, supply chain managers couldn’t afford to simply wait for someone to publish how they handled the unique global challenges facing that industry. They needed insights immediately. This same pattern repeated throughout the professional world. So what did the best professional networks out there do to respond?

Our favorite example: VC Platform

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Not to be confused with the VC portfolio example given above, VC Platform is a network of nearly 1,000 venture capital professionals themselves. They’re spread across 38 countries and over 550 individual organizations, presenting a serious challenge for effective community development without the possibility of in-person meetups.

In response to both the need to go fully digital due to Covid-19 and the challenge of arranging matches in their growing community, VC Platform sought an automated solution.

“We like to focus on shared best practices. We do this through our community forum, which has daily, hyper relevant conversations and questions posed by members. We’ll take these conversations to Zoom, with members sharing their best practices on a range of topics.” – Cory Bolotsky from VC Platform.

They found that interest was far higher than expected. It also came from unexpected places, with some of the network’s busiest professionals now also being their most active in 1:1 meetings. This was clear proof that the value they were gaining from digital 1:1 meetings was substantial even for members with precious little free time to potentially waste on a batch matchup.

The Takeaway: Virtual is just as good (if not better) as in-person

These examples make it clear that, pandemic or not, even the busiest professionals find 1:1 digital conversations to be extremely valuable when done right. That’s not to say that there’s no value in in-person meetups, but their digital counterparts have proven that they’re not simply a temporary byproduct of the pandemic but a valuable and lasting addition to all types of communities.

With the value of these digital connections clear, the real challenge for community managers is how to effectively arrange quality matches at scale. That’s where tools like Orbiit come in. Orbiit empowers community managers to maximize their impact and unlock the power of the right 1:1 matches at the right time.

This can now be done automatically, with AI-driven algorithms making curated matches and gathering data that ensures the next matching round is even better. These personalized connections show just how powerful virtual 1:1 meetings can be when they’re driven by data. So whether you’re a community manager who is eagerly awaiting the return of more in-person community meetups or you’re now a true digital convert, getting more out of your digital communities with less effort just makes sense.

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