Virtual communities – the benefits

Paul Boag

Virtual communities can be a powerful tool in helping you do everything from increase brand loyalty to improving your website.

Virtual communities offer lots of exciting opportunities not only for companies with products to sell but also for charitable, voluntary and government sites who are looking to enthuse and excite people about their goals and vision.

I believe passionately in virtual communities. Back in 1994 when I was an art student working for IBM I wrote my dissertation on virtual communities and the benefits they offered. In those days online communities were new and exciting (like most things on the internet) and I had all kinds of idealistic visions of them breaking down social and racial barriers as well as allowing access to the disabled and immobile. Well pehaps I was somewhat naive (after all I was an art student!) but I do still believe they have a lot to offer. This article aims to define exactly what a virtual community is and then look at some of the benefits it brings:

What is a virtual community?

A virtual community is any place groups of people talk together on the Internet; in mailing lists, in newsgroups, in chat rooms, or on Web sites. Virtual community can also cover more specialized situations, such as long-distance education or shared project work spaces. And it can describe some communications that aren’t discussions, such as posting customer evaluations or answering opinion polls. Whenever people are aware of each other’s presence on the Internet, they’re likely to consider themselves part of a community.

Below I briefly cover the different kinds of virtual communities:

Mailing list

E-mail discussions within a group of subscribers are the simplest and most familiar form of virtual community. Anyone who can read and send e-mail can create a mailing list virtual community, although there are more elaborate tools for administering large lists.


A worldwide system of discussion groups, also called Usenet, are the most abundant source of communities. Whatever the topic, there is a newsgroup devoted to it. Like e-mail, you post a message to a newsgroup and come back later to see if you’ve received an answer. Newsgroups are simple to participate in (if you have a newsreader), but somewhat difficult to administer.


Discussions that take place “live” (in real time) in chat rooms are the quickest way to connect with people on the Internet. In addition to traditional chat rooms, there are chat rooms in which you can move through a graphical world and others in which you can build your own text-based world.

Web-based discussion groups

Discussion groups linked to a specific Web site are quickly becoming the standard for site-based virtual communities. Like e-mail and newsgroups, you post a message to a discussion group and read the response later. You can participate in Web-based discussion groups on any site that hosts one, and build your own either by hosting it yourself or by using one of the many free discussion group tools like World Crossing .

Why launch a virtual community?

Here are the three best reasons to launch an online community:

You have a vocal, enthusiastic, and involved group of users who could help each other in using your product or services.

Do you get lots of e-mail every day? Are your users constantly offering you suggestions about how to improve your product or service? Do you have customers at all different levels of expertise who could help each other? If so, you might benefit from building a place where your customers can ask each other questions and exchange ideas.

You’re interested in developing a new product or service and genuinely want input and knowledge from other people.

Does your company do original research, either developing new products and services or entering a new business area? Are you forever cornering friends and family members with your next great idea? Do you have a genuine passion that keeps you out and asking questions? If so, you might build an online study group where you can bring other passionate people together to discuss new areas of research.

You have a “natural” community of product or service users, associates, and suppliers and want to give them a place to talk to each other.

Is your product or service directed towards a naturally cohesive group of customers? Do these customers have a hard time finding each other? Are they underserved by existing online communities? If so, you might build an online community where your customers can find each other and talk about their mutual concerns. This is particularly relevent to charities or voluntary organisations who attract people who are passionate about a certain subject. This gives them a forum to share that passion and spur each other on.

So there you go, a basic introduction to virtual communities. Obviously there is a lot more that could be said. After all I wrote a whole dissertation on the subject. Virtual communities offer lots of exciting opportunities not only for companies with products to sell but also for charitable, voluntary and government sites who are looking to enthuse and excite people about their goals and vision.