blog icon

5 Emerging Online Community Platform Trends

April Peng, Analyst
#User Experience | Posted

Building an online community is not a new topic, but the market is refocused on its growing importance because these online communities can increase customer retention, decrease customer support expenses, and increase profits. For this reason, companies are revisiting the effectiveness of their community software platforms as an expressive space for members to develop brand mindshare.

By building an online community, companies provide a targeted yet open source knowledge network for their customers to share workflow and product interests and ultimately harbor trust within them.  

But knowing the value online communities have and creating an engaging one that breaks through the noise are two very different things. The struggle is real for businesses to establish customer loyalty in the saturated stream of the internet - so what’s been successful?

Leveraging subject matter experts

No one will know your product more than the customers who use it most. These users possess invaluable subject matter expertise!

Thriving online communities tap into this resource, converting passive practitioners into active voices in their industry as well as advocates for certain products. These community contributors keep content relevant and fresh - they regularly offer peer-to-peer support that can be more timely and effective than a customer support rep. Plus, it prevents burnout of your own community managers.

In order to leverage this content most effectively, companies need to recognize their valued contributors and invite more members to participate. Brands who do this well have created a myriad of incentive roll-outs to keep community members involved: promotional offers, exclusive access to prototypes/features, fun online competitions, badges for levels of contribution, and other forms of gamification.

If the importance of community generated content and user retention are still shaky to you, consider the stats.

  • Brand engagement increases over 30% with the combination of both user generated content and professionally generated content

  • Over 50% of people trust user generated content and reviews over brand-sponsored material

  • 62%  of respondents to a 2016 B2B survey rely on peer recommendation for purchases more than they did even in 2015

Out with disparate systems, long live integrated platforms

When you have a question about a product, especially a technical question - what do you do?

  1. Start at the FAQ

  2. Search specific product documentation on the company’s website

  3. Reach out to the community to see how other users use the product

  4. Call a representative

  5. Message a representative by initiating a chat box

The answer could be any of the above. In the Information Age, consumers are proactive in seeking solutions. Moreover, they expect to find answers to their questions when, where, and however they prefer.

In order to serve this need, you should consider looking at:

  • What pieces could be missing from your customer experience (CX) platform?

  • Does your online product helpdesk mesh well with your community forums?

  • Does product documentation live in your customer support platform integrations?

The goal of this, of course, is to reduce customer headache. But streamlining your platform will also reduce the customer support expense in removing answer redundancies, not to mention streamlining your brand experience. Additionally, unifying third-party integrations such as social media and help content syndications into one platform can transform your administrative workflow.

Design as a forethought

Brand is more than a cool logo paired with a clever slogan - brand is every feeling and interaction your customers have with your company. People expect software companies, especially, to understand the impact of well-crafted digital experiences.

Many companies have brand guidelines, but they can often miss the obvious application of a cohesive feel from their main site to their support site. Everything - from navigation, to look, to content relevancy, to support response - should be a consideration when designing powerful channels for your customers and should make the user feel as if they are always interacting with the same company.

Cohesion can be achieved through thoughtful content strategy and design on a unified platform. At Phase2, we also consider the powerful impact of a patterned application of these library elements. We do this through implementation of Atomic Design principles: the idea that a pattern library of UI design components gives users a consistent experience throughout web applications. The tool we use to facilitate this consistency is a system called Pattern Lab.

(For more Pattern Lab specifics, see our work with Urban Institute & Pinterest for Business!)

New solutions for two-way conversations

You’ll hear the voice of your customers whether you give them a platform or not. They’ll post on your Facebook wall, they’ll assign you hashtags on Instagram, and they’ll tweet at you. Without direct means to voice their questions, express concerns, and present suggestions, customers will take these conversations elsewhere on the internet.

Many online communities create forums for ideas, and savvy online community management responds quickly to these conversations so members know they’re heard. We’re seeing these ideas influence product decisions and engineering approaches in bar-setting companies that digest consumer suggestions effectively.

Several companies have live chat software embedded in their support sites, and some are even thinking further down-the-line to invest in chatbots. The concept would be to thread in AI advancements and the ability to leverage the vast amounts of data generated by a community to better serve your customers.

APIs can detect tones in threads as well as analyze the actual content within customer community platforms to determine the best resource for a user’s inquiry. Chatbots are being developed to learn natural speaking patterns of humans to keep users more engaged.

Mobile First?

How is designing for site responsiveness an emerging trend? Well, this internet no-brainer is not well-implemented in online community platforms. They were originally designed for desktop users with the idea that long forum threading made mobile design impractical.

However, 80% of internet users own a smartphone - it’s the easiest device for me to reach over and browse the internet after I’ve turned off my wakeup alarm. If there’s anything I need to get done that doesn’t have an easy mobile experience, it automatically gets put on the backburner.

Would you truly want to miss engaging with 80% of your customers?

We’ve seen a breakthrough on responsive design in a forum-heavy environment with our client, Reddit - arguably the world’s largest forum and threading site. See how they handle responsiveness both in their mobile app and mobile web interface at reddit.com!

If more companies embrace and apply these trends, they will set themselves apart from their competitors. As you open dialogue channels with your online community, you’ll instill the kind of trust that will pivot you through the market and provide real value to your customers.

April Peng

Analyst