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Online Communities: What Makes Them Tick?
The Six Content Types of Community
At a dinner with a friend the other night, amidst the percussive rattle of spoons and porcelains that blur into the background of the best ramen spots, I struck up conversation with a couple sitting next to us.
Or, should I say, what I believed to be a couple based on the familiar and easy nature by which the man and woman spoke with each other. What I soon learned was that, in fact, this was the first time the two had ever met. He, a wispy gentleman from Montreal with the refined reservation of a Quebecois, and she, a true New Yorker, gregarious, inquisitive, prone to oversharing, were like frick and frack.
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While this was the first time they had met in person, they had been close friends for the past three years online. They met each other in a Goodreads Community — or Groups — over COVID and ever frequented that digital community to share book recommendations, but even more, to share friendship. In fact, they were preparing for a larger meetup for members of the community — 20 in total — who had descended on New York City for that weekend to get together.
I continue to be amazed by the sheer might by which people search out and form social connection online.
Sure, the places and mediums by which these social interactions occur online evolve and adapt. But what remains true is that as we spend more time online we also seek out connection with other individuals similar to us. These collective connections and interactions of individuals around a common interest form a community.
More and more of these communities are forming online.
Especially in the realm of commerce, the need for businesses to to invest, nurture and market their ‘community’ has never been more important.
Amidst the havoc of Apple’s ATT changes, brands and retailers alike are repositioning their digital strategies. “Community” is the new DTC.
This is true across innovative brands.
As well as acquisitive ones.
And lastly, retailers as well.
Indeed, for those who have spent time in these digital brand communities, the volume and intensity of information and emotional connections is quite astonishing. In peer to peer networks, engagement blows traditional social channels out of the water.
For emerging consumer brands, in an ever commoditizing value chain where the barriers to entry to strum up a supply chain, marketing engine and online storefront have decreased, community becomes an increasingly important, and differentiated, asset.
Indeed, many of the challenger brands that have managed to reach scale have benefitted from engaged communities.
At the same time, “community” has become one of those anti-words: a container that has been diluted with so many different elixirs of meaning that it has lost its punch. In fact, that just may be the point. There is much less fidelity in how one scales and monetizes a community and its correlation to the P&L is much murkier than, say, discussing social media strategy or your eCommerce channel. Community is part mysticism, part magic. When done right, community is the tangible manifestation of brand equity and allows capital intensive businesses like retail and consumer brands to generate operational leverage and create network effects.
Chris Paik calls this “off-balance sheet operating leverage.” Can a company enable an entire ecosystem to form on top of it? Companies that have off-balance sheet operating leverage are often the companies that rely on the long tail. In this circumstance, the long tail aggregate and to benefit from sharing information around a common interest, which allows retailers and brands to leverage user-generated content to support marketing, customer acquisition, customer service, product research, conversion optimization, etc.
But what does community look like in practice?
This essay seeks to understand the different use cases and value propositions that incentivize and reward users for posting and consuming content in brand communities. We will specifically explore the following questions:
What are the use cases by which people post and consume content in a brand community?
What interactions do people value most in these communities?
To do so, I analyzed and categorized content from a number of different brand communities. For this post, examples and analysis specifically extrapolate from Glossier’s 43,000 member Reddit Community.
The Six Use Cases of Community
There are a number of content types found in brand communities that vary based on their use case and value proposition to users (both the post creator and the community that consumes it).
In the most simplistic sense, these content types can be viewed on a spectrum that ranges from social-focused to commercial-focused.
Social-focused content types have longer, more delayed, feedback loops where user value is tied to the production of the content. Since users gain status from sharing — the act of production — within the social context of the community, the value exchange from the community can be more delayed. Simply, value is derived from production of content that has product-market fit within a community of likeminded people that share a similar interest.
Conversely, commercial-focused content types require more immediate feedback loops. Users value is tied to consumption of content that they request, and since users gain value from information that they can consume to better inform a buying decision, the value exchange from the community is more urgent.
These content types can be categorized into six distinct schemas.
Type A content types
On the social-focused end of the spectrum, users posts Type A content types, which are photos and content that are completely unrelated to the brand or shopping journey. Instead, users receive a combination of status and belonging from the social context of individuals within the community, and gain value from people consuming and rewarding them (via an upvote or comment) for producing this content.
Type B Content Types
Type B content types are posts that employs the brand/product as the subject of a post that provides users with status within the social context of the community. Users gain value from people consuming and rewarding the creator (via an upvote, like or comment) for producing this content.
The community offers the optimal distribution of this content as it provides the post creator with the most potential status given the shared interests of all community members. For example, sharing UGC of a Glossier haul provides the creator the most status when posted in Glossier’s Reddit, as opposed to Instagram or TikTok, because of all users within this context (or feed) share a common connection based on their interest in Glossier and skincare, making the content and its use case fundamentally more legible. Within this context, for the same reasons, the community enjoys and is entertained by consuming this content.
Type C Content Types
Type C content types are posts that provide users with status by sharing information or their opinion relating to a brand or product. Users gain value from sharing relevant information that the community may find valuable, as well as opining on issues relating to the brand/product/community as it allows them to feel important (within a place that they belong), which inherently provides them with status.
Type D Content Types
Type D content types are posts that are meant to provide belonging amongst a specific use case/buying experience. Users gain value through finding connection and seeking advice from other users going through a specific experience, which helps them be better informed for future buying decisions or the pain points that instigate a buying decision in the first place.
Type E Content Types
Type E content types are posts that directly inform a buying decision, but also provide users with status and/or belonging. These posts seek feedback from other users but also provide hints of social utility because users gain status and confidence from the feedback itself.
Type F Content Types
Type F content types are posts that seek information that inform a user’s buying decision. These posts seek feedback and/or recommendations from other users, and are the most commercial in nature as user receive commercial utility from both the (1) social proofing of the space and the (2) quality of information. Users do not receive social status from other users feedback.
What use cases create the most value?
To understand the relative value creation of each use case, I categorized the 100 most recent posts from Glossier’s Reddit community by the referenced content types. The distribution was as follows:
As you can see, the Glossier community produced and consumed a very equitable variety of content types across discrete value propositions and use cases. The most frequent content type (Type C) had 33% of distribution. But on a macro level, 74% of the community posts were highly social in nature (B-D), and served to provide community members with status and belonging in the social context, rather than feedback that directly leads to an immediate buying decision.
This dynamic becomes more profound when analyzing the difference in engagement (upvotes & comments) by content type.
Upvotes are Reddit’s intrinsic social capital currency. This feature allows community members to reward (upvote) or penalize (downvote) a post. As such, upvotes are an effective proxy for the value that community receives from the various content types.
As we can see, users receive the most value from posts that are social-focused. On median, Type B content types have a 9.7x higher upvote rate than Type F content types. In fact, there is a negative relationship between upvotes and the commercial nature of the content type.
This suggests that consumers enjoy consuming content that is unrelated to a purchase decision, and instead add to the sense of belonging, connection and entertainment of the community. Moreover, users value content that tie value to consumption (and easily reward the creator with an upvote) rather than commercial-focused content that necessitates the community to produce a response (information, feedback or recommendation) and expend more time and energy.
Moreover, social-focused posts had the largest delta between their average and median upvotes.
Another way to frame this is that these posts had the largest standard deviation. This is because they had the greatest propensity for virality. Again, standard deviation had a negative relationship between upvotes and the commercial nature of the content type.
Comments allow users to reply directly to a post. Compared to upvotes, comments act as less of a social capital currency and have less signal in regards to the value that community receives from the various different content types.
Type F content types had the highest median comments per post. Commercial-focused posts necessitate more comments as they seek to consume information produced by the community to inform a transaction. That information is produced in the form of a comment.
Nonetheless, the community also has a propensity to comment on social-focused content types that do not necessarily require comments to provide the post’s creator with value. However, these content types instigate a connection between community members, and since a comment requires more time and energy than an upvote, this action contain more value per unit for these post creators as a reward signal.
Similar to upvotes, social-focused posts had the largest delta between their average and median upvotes. These posts spark more virality and discussion, as social-focused posts do a better job at facilitating connection between community members, such as Type C posts that are often posts from a creator who gains value from sharing new information or opining about Glossier. This value proposition becomes particularly profound when it sparks tremendous discussion.
In conclusion, social-focused posts appear critical to the health of Glossier’s community. These posts provide the most value (as measured by upvotes) and are the most frequently produced. Additionally, these content types provide the creator with value tied to the act of production and allow for asynchronous consumption by the community. Commercial-focused content, on the other hand, provide the creator with value upon the consumption of responses requested from the community, which require more immediate feedback loops.
Indeed, every community is a bundle of use cases and content types that seek to facilitate such interactions. To properly invest, nurture and deploy a valuable community, it is imperative to understand this bundle and the relative distribution and value creation of each use case.
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