For an organization, an online community can provide a wide range of benefits that would be difficult or impossible to acquire through any other means.

Below is a (by no means definitive) selection of some of the benefits that can guide your thinking about a community.

1. Voice of the customer

Every day organizations make important decisions. Most of these decisions will be made through a combination of gut feeling and talking with team members. An online community improves this decision making process by allowing you to run choices past a group of interested and communicative customers.

It allows you to put your customers voice right at the heart of your organizations decision process. It also allows you to ask things that you wouldn’t normally have the budget to research.

2. Painting a rich picture

At the core of an online community is the regular member – someone who logs in regularly and contributes content over an extended period of time. This relationship allows a community owner to make regular measurements of a members opinions, behaviors and attitudes.

This longitudinal approach to understanding a member builds a deep profile and allows researchers to chart changes in perception over time. This depth of information can be complemented by linking profile information to survey responses and other social network activity.

3. Increasing Loyalty

Offering a community environment to your customers or supporters will increase their loyalty towards you. By providing them with the means to enter into a prolonged discussion that help shapes the company or organisation, they will feel valued and much more a part of your organisation.

There is every reason to expect the community team to become friends with loyal members – after all, meeting new friends is a key community motivator! These friendships mean that you can generate significant word of mouth benefits.

4. Building the face of your brand

By making sure that you build a community website that oozes style, sparkles with ideas and bursts with activity you will significantly improve the image of your brand.

You will be viewed as an organisation that listens, that cares about it’s customers and is more like a person and less a faceless

5. Crowd-sourcing

An often quoted anecdote relates the story of Francis Galton’s surprise when a crowd of people accurately predicted the weight of an ox at a county fair. The average of all their guesses was closer than any individual guess.

A well designed community can allow you to create the conditions necessary (diversity, independence, decentralization and aggregation) to tap into the collective intelligence of crowds to solve a range of problems.

6. Co-creation and inspiration

People want to help you build! Communities allow you to develop a system of collaborative engagement with stakeholders that can be used for any number of creative design projects. Find your customers that have special skills or unique personalities and use their differences to aid your creative process.

Alternatively, just observing a community having a conversation about something can be a rich field of inspiration. By encouraging members to open up and by moderating them with the correct techniques you could find the direction you need.

7. Rapid reaction and instant input

A community is available at a moments notice to either collect immediate reaction to news stories and events or to help out with the day to day grind of planning larger research studies.

The quick accessibility you have to your own community means that you can fire ideas off them, get the members to discuss something whilst you brainstorm and any other task that needs a quick response.

8. Gathering unique replies and unique respondents

Running your own community will enable you to communicate with people in a way that removes interviewer or audience bias. Members can hide behind an avatar and can express thoughts and feelings in a true and honest way that they might not be able to in other research surroundings.

Furthermore, you will find that many people that would not be happy taking part in many other types of research are more than happy to take part in online community activities.

9. Creating a cross section

Whilst you may think that a community should be made of your customers or campaign advocates, a community can equally be composed of a broad range of people. This can be a groups of people that would never want to be involved in your organisation or those that are using your competition.

Limiting your community membership can be detrimental if you wish to use the community  for competitor analysis or for tracking broader societal trends. Having an amalgamation of different members will let you see what is really going on in society and in the marketplace.

10. The undefined

One of the greatest benefits of having a community is just to see what happens! Not having too much of a set goal can give you the freedom and flexibility to let your members define what the community becomes.

All communities should facilitate serendipity and create a space for the unique parts of your community – the members – to inspire completely new ideas.