Which types of virtual communities exist and is a virtual community the right approach?
Is a virtual community the approach for you? Well, it depends on your purpose. Before you begin building, creating, or working with a virtual community, you must have a clearly defined purpose. Sometimes, your impact can be greater when you leverage an existing virtual community rather than creating a brand new one. Other times, virtual communities will develop naturally through the shared connection of a group. In this type of virtual community, the purpose and mission must be defined as it emerges and evolves.

“In the five, seconds it takes you to read this sentence, it’s safe to assume at least one new community formed somewhere in the world. In fact, communities have been forming, evolving and dying consistently since the beginning of humanity. Building community is part of being human.”


Stand-alone or connected to an organisation?

There is a distinct difference between the community being a stand-alone group or being connected to an organisation. If the later is the case, is the community a central or peripheral part of the organisation?

To give you a perspective on the differences, we've included these two cases:

1.  The community connected to an organisation

Usually, these types of communities are built as a supporting structure for the core business/activity. In the case of the business sector, a community as a support forum to certain service or product is quite common, for example,  Apple support communities.

2. A stand-alone community   

A great example of this type of community is MUNPlanet, a knowledge network where members create, curate, and share their knowledge and experiences concerning issues of global importance. It is for people who are passionate about the world and share the values of the United Nations.

Understand your purpose

The first question you must ask before building a virtual community is: Why are you building this virtual community? Or, more specifically: What can you achieve by building a virtual community that you cannot achieve in other ways? Without a clearly defined purpose for your virtual community, you could be setting yourself up for failure. Be wary of expecting too much from your virtual community and make sure you are not creating a community that already exists.  

Typically, virtual communities are created to: 

In many cases, communities do not cover only one area. WWF, for example, has about 25 communities of practice that support people across the globe working issues including the reduction of food waste to come together virtually to learn from each other, support each other, and develop programs jointly.

If you are managing an existing virtual community, take some time to reflect on which of the above bullets best describes your community’s purpose. Remember, your virtual community needs a clearly defined, single-purpose and overarching goal. If your community’s purpose is, for example, to engage your organisation’s members, they may connect around issues they care about, or start offering each other support and advice. This is great! But remember, your purpose for building a community is to engage your members. This will become more important as you turn your focus to your community strategy, metrics, and content.

Who is this virtual community for? Why should they join? Always think of your virtual community from the members’ point of view. Now is the time to think about what your members will gain from being a part of your virtual community. Ask yourself:
  • Who am I building this virtual community with?
  • What can each of us contribute as members of that community?
  • How can we align our efforts to meet our common needs?

Why should people join your virtual community?

There are several studies that explain why people join virtual communities. Reasons include information exchange, professional topic discussions, social support, and friendship. 

Individual reasons for joining a virtual community vary but generally speaking, people get value from communities that provide: 

  • A sense of belonging and identity.
  • Friendship and connection.
  • Accountability and support. 
  • Knowledge and information.
  • Space to work towards a common objective or tangible goal.

It is important to understand what will motivate people to join (and stay in) your virtual community. Ensure you are consistently providing your community with what they value. Remember, building a virtual community means building relationships between people. The ongoing, key challenge is to decide how will you continue to create a space where members can build meaningful relationships and get value from participating in your community. You must help members identify with your community and to decide if this is a community that meets their needs. Common demographics and common bonds are two key components in creating this identity.

What makes a community? Learn the key ingredients needed to make a virtual community and learn what virtual communities for impact look like in real life.

Definitions: What is a virtual community?

It is important to define what you mean by an online or virtual community. This term is often used to mean different things and your definition may not be the same as that of a similar group or organisation. This can create confusion and miscommunication when working with team members, partners, or addressing the public. 

One definition of a virtual community is a group of people sharing common interests, ideas, and feelings online. The term virtual community was first used by Howard Rheingold in 1993 as the title of his book, The Virtual Community — although he thought a more accurate title would have been, “People who use computers to communicate, form friendships that sometimes form the basis of communities but you have to be careful to not mistake the tool for the task and think that just writing words on a screen is the same thing as a real community.” Keep this quote in mind and remember that simply having the platform does not mean you have a virtual community. 

Although it is difficult to identify a single, universal definition for virtual communities, we can list some of the key ingredients that all successful communities should (or could) have:

  • Exist as a virtual space.
  • Profile the people who join the conversation as real people representing themselves.
  • Self-manage (like OuiShare) or be managed by someone or multiple people paid by an organisation to carry out this role (like Impact Hub). 
  • Be aimed at a specific segment of people.
  • Have a shared identity among its members, whether that’s defined by workplace, interests, goals, etc.
  • Intentionally foster member-to-member relationships fostered by the community manager or by the platform itself.
  • Foster an environment of mutual trust and care.
  • Be built by the members themselves and sustained by their willingness to contribute something (communities are not a service members pay for or a product they consume). 

“When humans come together and build authentic relationships, magic happens. A community exists to allow more magic to happen. It is about working with real human beings, each with their own story, history, feelings, hopes and dreams. Ideally the community is as human as the people in it. We have no way of predicting which relationships will blossom and change the world. Serendipity creates many beautiful encounters in a community. The ideal community finds ways to create more serendipitous moments for its members.”

Fabian Pfortmüller, Community Canva
Is building a virtual community the right approach for me? It’s important to understand the planning, effort, and work required to build a virtual community. You must decide if you have the time and resources to make a virtual community happen. Are you willing to do what it takes to build a community? This is a key question to consider before you begin.

When is a building virtual community the right approach?

Building a virtual community takes time and work. Some would argue that the question is not whether the community is right for your organisation, but whether you have the time, resources, and desire to build community. 

“When two strangers meet at a conference and ask each other half-way into their conversation whether the other person also is a fellow from a particular program, you know that your approach must include a virtual community because it already exists naturally. This strong set of shared values, a shared vision for the world and a shared experience (even though disconnected through time and space) are a very strong foundation to build on”

Geraldine Hepp, Amani Institute Community Manager.

A virtual community is the right approach for your organisation if you are able to: 

  • Identify a clear, single purpose, and articulate what you want to achieve by creating a community.
  • Do most of the community building online–if this is not possible, build a community in the real world.
  • Dedicate resources to creating guidelines, content, a playbook detailing how to respond to common situations (conflict, FAQs, legal, privacy issues).
  • Dedicate resources (time, money, staff) to nurturing the community.
  • Receive support from other team members within your organisation.
  • Set and analyse clear metrics that monitor the community’s progress and health.  

Additional considerations:

  • Do not expect immediate results.
  • Consider if your digital tools help you reach your goals and if they are aligned with your values?
  • Is there is a need for your community to connect in the virtual world at all?
  • Are potential members are digitally literate?
  • Are members willing to invest enough energy to keep connections alive online?
What is the difference between communities and networks, and why is this important to distinguish? It is useful to understand how networks behave in comparison to communities in the context of designing the culture and what members expect from them. Whilst being aware that the words are often used interchangeably unintentionally.

Community vs. Network

Following Wheatley and Frieze’s Emergence theory, transformative action and large-scale change emerges through the growth of bottom-up, coordinated local efforts. Networks are a fluid set of relationships and linkages and tend to be transactional. Communities embody a shared identity, are committed to supporting the needs of their members and work together towards a common goal.

“Sense of community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together”

McMillan, 1976

For example, a university alumni network connects members who attended the same specific university. Alumni networks can be powerful because they create a de facto trust environment where everyone in the network has shared a geographically and academically-specific experience. Smaller interest groups often emerge out of alumni networks and organise meetups and gatherings for members interested in a field of work or career. Think of networks as a way of “filtering” larger pools of people, and communities as embodying added layers of self-definition and responsibility towards each other.

“Networks connect; communities care.”

Henry Mintzberg

Networks are the necessary foundation for communities to emerge. They provide the conditions for interdependence and self-organisation. Networks evolve into communities of practice and impact and these communities grow to form decentralised systems of influence. “Connecting the dots” among these decentralised communities is essential for leveraging their collective potential.

When communities openly share resources and what they’ve learned, social movements can grow across the globe. The 2019 #ClimateStrikes which mobilised 7.6 million people are a clear manifestation of emergent change.

Exploring the Edges - Ouishare

In its eight years of existence, Ouishare has gone from a community of bloggers interested in the Sharing Economy, to a worldwide network of passionate explorers of any topic that fosters and accelerates systemic change. 

One of the keys to such a shift and further flourishing of the community is its strong working culture and its minimal and clear governance structure that allows members to easily engage in action and make decisions in an agile way.

A community for impact - Amani Institute Changemaker Community

The reason for this community to start was a shared learning experience individuals went through. The bonds created lasted past the program and many people wanted to stay in touch. The community emerged naturally. Nevertheless, challenges emerged in the areas of trust, ownership, accountability or technology. The case describes how those challenges got tackled and what plans the community has to move to the next level in the future.