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People love to gather in groups. We're social animals, and interacting with others is our way of doing... well, everything.

Ever since AOL first launched, private online communities such as discussion boards and networking sites have existed. Recently, however, there's been an explosion in online B2B communities that are purpose-built by brands to engage their customers across the lifecycle of the relationship.

The development was partly a result of COVID and people's need to congregate somewhere outside of their work, and partly an attempt to provide a secure environment where people can help each other find solutions and grow.

Communities Create Links

The dictionary defines community as "a group of people...having a particular characteristic in common," or "a feeling of fellowship with others based on shared attitudes, interests, and goals."

When a company establishes an online community, it creates links between customers and people in the organization. Customers can ask questions, tag staff members in discussions, post comments, and get responses from members of the community. That gives brands direct access to their customers in an informal yet respectful environment and builds strong relationships with them.

What the Numbers Say

A full 66% of respondents to a study by GWI and Reddit said they appreciate belonging to online B2B communities because it allows them to connect with others who have relevant interests. Niche communities attract people with similar passions, who report that they trust the content provided in communities more than traditional social media.

Over the past few years, social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, have had high levels of baked-in mistrust develop as a consequence of spam, deep fakes, online bullying, and offensive language; and 45% of users say they are frustrated by all that. On the other hand, interacting within their niche allows people to feel safer, resulting in higher participation and greater reward.

Operational Aspects

Most B2B online communities run on Slack or Discord platforms. Paid community pricing ranges from a nominal to a substantial fee, whereas others are free. Some platforms, such as Pavilion and Peak, have existed for years.

Some B2B communities use sponsorships to fund virtual "happy hours" and other engagement activities for members. Premium memberships often provide deeper career growth opportunities and mentorships, which can be difficult to get otherwise.

Personal Advantages

People also enjoy the personal benefits of joining B2B communities. They can unlock rich opportunities to connect one-to-one with other people in their industry, find mentorship, get a chance to grow professionally, and develop relationships with influencers.

Members also get access to education. For example, Pavilion offers mentorship programs, local chapter membership, and the Pavilion University's 1-6-month programs, which include classes in a range of subjects.

Building a B2B Community

Online communities come in various shapes and sizes. From invitation-only, gated communities to open/public or hybrid communities, they offer unique experiences for members. B2B communities can take many forms, such as a community of practice, special-interest group, user group, networking community, or support group.

To create an effective, consumer-centric B2B brand community, marketers need to identify a group purpose that aligns with the company's goals. Decide how a community can support your efforts, and design it to serve that specific purpose.

For example, the DocuSign Community is a peer-to-peer and direct-support community where companies and people using DocuSign can collaborate on how to optimize their use of the product. The community was designed by DocuSign for its customers, partners, and employees, but anyone with an interest in e-signatures can participate in the public areas.

Allocate a budget to setting up and operating your online community. You'll need to either build your own platform or use an existing one (even Slack comes with nominal costs). Create a profile for your ideal member that identifies key characteristics of the people you'd like to include, and set a criteria for membership.

Benefits for Brands

Customer communities offer benefits for brands, such as the ability to engage with clients on a one-to-one basis for customer service or sales purposes. Marketers can use a "soft-sell" approach to develop customer interest in their offerings, sign people up for communications, and offer promotions to members.

Online communities also give brands a priceless opportunity to address customer problems and questions early. Doing so enhances brand differentiation, boosts transparency and accountability, grows customer loyalty, and improves the customer journey.

Brands with their own online communities get high returns on their investment through social listening at scale, research has shown. High-ticket-price brands can detect (and hopefully contain) potential losses sooner.

What's more, customers get to share opinions and creative ways to use products, which improves value for everyone in the community. Establishing personal connections between clients and employees could increase revenue over time.

The Bottom Line

Online B2B communities are likely to continue growing in value, and they offer marketers a unique opportunity to boost customer engagement and retention.

Increase product interactions, enhance customer success, and obtain feedback at scale directly from clients. How can you possibly beat that?

More Resources on B2B Community-Building

Building Communities and the Future of Event Marketing: Mia Masson on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

The Case for Community-Based Marketing in 2021

Building Community While Building a Global Brand: Heidi Clarke of The Sandals Foundation on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

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image of Justin Levy

Justin Levy is the director of social and influencer marketing at Demandbase, an ABM software and go-to-market company.

LinkedIn: Justin Levy

Twitter: @justinlevy