The origins and evolution of online communities
When many people hear the phrase “online community” they immediately think of common social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. In actual fact, there are several different types of online communities and some of them have been around longer than the popular social networks used today. Forums and chat rooms are both examples of online communities that have been around for a very long time.
Crude online bulletin boards are commonly understood to be the original online communities where users could post notes to these online places designed to imitate the ‘real world’ bulletin boards and other users could see these notes and respond. As these ‘bulletin board’ communities increased in popularity many features were added to improve different aspects of them, eventually evolving into the more complex forums that are so popular today. Some of these features were intended to improve the quality of the information provided to the user such as links to related topics and some features were intended to improve the overall user experience and grow the social aspect of these communities such as search engines to help users find relevant content faster and social sharing to allow users to pass information they had found.
One such example of a popular modern-day forum making use of these features is: http://www.dreamincode.net/
They use tools such as ‘featured content’, ‘recent posts’, ‘unanswered programming topics’ and also ‘related topics’ in order to provide better content for their users.
Comparing the main facilities offered by two successful online communities
Two popular online communities I’d like to compare are LinkedIn and YouTube, they are both highly successful platforms and seem to have achieved success in entirely different ways. So let’s take a look at the main features offered by LinkedIn and the core idea behind its creation.
LinkedIn is essentially an online networking platform for businesses and professionals to expand their own professional networks. It was started in late 2002 with the core functionality of the site being just seven main features they initially thought up in a meeting in October 2002:
Image above is taken from LinkedIn’s ‘our story’.
They went live with this initial functionality and over the next few years expanded the core functionality to include things like address book uploads, groups, public profiles, recommendations and people you may know.
YouTube was created in 2005 as a simple video sharing website and since has grown to hold the market share in online video sharing. The original concept of the site has evolved massively over the years to include lots of different features.
For instance, watch later, add to favorites, thumbs up/down, video comments and add to playlist are all features that were added to improve the user’s experience.
Social sharing and the ability to embed YouTube videos into your web pages are both examples of features that were added to help extend YouTube’s influence beyond the initial restrictions of its own website and it now features heavily on other popular online communities such as Facebook and Google +.
Influencing companies through online communities
While it has become commonplace for businesses to use social media to try and influence potential customers into buying or using their products the situation can, in fact, be reversed and consumers can use social media to influence the companies themselves.
Take Audi for example:
There are several different ways that Audi could be influenced by different social media sites, a potential customer complaining about the treatment they received at the local Audi dealership on social media, for instance, could lead to further staff training at that particular dealership or if the matter is a serious one an internal investigation.
That link leads to a twitter feed demonstrating my point. A customer complained on Twitter about the noise the brakes were making on his Audi and the customer care team found it and got in touch offering to escalate it for investigation.
Another way Audi can be influenced by social media is the existence of trends. Audi has admitted tracking the popularity of its social media content on the different channels and using the results gleaned to dictate their future content. This shows that their marketing is heavily influenced by the popularity of previous content on social media.
Anyone can potentially influence Audi in this way as often the only requirement is to have an account on the online community you wish to influence them through.
Comparing file sharing sites with cloud storage sites
With over a billion users and the ability to access it in 76 different languages, YouTube is a world-leading video-sharing platform. There are several different ways YouTube can be used, whether it’s as just another distribution channel for advertisers or convenient hosting for a video diary its uses are fairly versatile limited by creativity.
YouTube is great for video playback but they do restrict users from downloading these videos in an effort to protect the copyright of the original video creators. While it is possible to download YouTube videos through various third party means YouTube themselves do not allow it and any third party making it possible is not supported by Google who purchased YouTube back in November 2006.
While YouTube has lots of different features the main principle of a video sharing site like this is that a user can easily share their own videos to YouTube’s large audience with minimal risk of people downloading and pirating their material.
While it is entirely possible for cloud storage sites like Google Drive and Dropbox to be used to share files this is not their primary function and the process is somewhat more involved than that of a site like YouTube. For instance, if Audi were to upload all their marketing videos to Dropbox instead of YouTube they would still be able to share these videos with the public via a link. This works but does have some major drawbacks, people would need to follow the link through to Dropbox to play the video and once there they would not be able to search for other content like they can on YouTube they would need to know the URL of the next lot of content they wanted to see. Audi could get around this by putting all their videos into one folder and sharing the link to the folder rather than a specific video but then there’s still the same drawback of having to drive traffic there rather than utilizing the already large traffic levels YouTube enjoys.
The reason cloud storage sites seem to have a drawback in this regard is because they are more tailored to personal data storage, synchronicity, and data protection. While they may not be a great place to run video marketing campaigns they are a great place for the employees making those marketing campaigns to store their work before it’s ready to be published. Storing your data in the cloud allows you to access it from multiple devices E.G. if an Audi employee worked in multiple offices and on multiple devices they would still have access to their work regardless of their current location or device. It’s also a great way of securing continued access to your data in case your current device gets lost or stolen.
How financing has changed for online communities and file sharing sites over the years
Online community sites like forums and social media sites have long been free for the user due to the fact that they don’t offer a specific service and need the users to actually want to actively participate in their online community in order to survive.
At the end of the day though they are still all businesses and like all businesses, they need to make money in order to be successful. They have overheads like the cost of servers, electricity bills, hosting and customer support to name but a few and they require some way of making money in order to not only cover those overheads but make the kind of profit required to allow them to expand. They can’t charge their users for the privilege of using the site as they only exist while people are still willing to use it and adding a charge is definitely something that will change people’s minds about wanting to use that site. They might retain a few diehard fans who’d be willing to pay a site membership but for the most part, they’d never achieve the level of worldwide popularity that free social media sites like Facebook and Twitter enjoy today.
Online communities like forums and social media sites rely heavily on advertising to their users to produce the revenue needed to continue their existence. Adverts have existed on websites for a very long time and nobody thinks twice when they see them at the side of a blog’s content or in the header of a forum. For a long time businesses have been designing adverts in the shape of website banners and then paying for them to be displayed on popular websites.
In fact, online advertising has proved to be such an effective money maker that over the years larger online communities like Facebook and Google have found ways to tailor which demographics see which adverts. Showing a user a relevant advert instead of a generic one makes them more likely to click the advert and thus more likely to generate advertising income for the site showing the advert. In fact, this new form of targeted adverts is the primary factor turning free sites like Google and Facebook into companies worth multiple billions.
The reason these sites are able to tailor specific adverts to people who are more likely to be interested in them and thus make billions from it is down to the staggering amount of data these sites collect on their users. Google admits to being capable of collecting and processing information like your search history, your YouTube viewing habits and what adverts you clicked on in the past. This alone has proven more than enough for Google to make billions from targeted adverts. However social media sites actually take this process further, the way people use social media sites is a lot more personal than they use a search engine and these social media sites have access to everything you do or store on these sites giving them a much more intimate insight into their user’s lives.
While many companies are funding these online communities through paid adverts Audi does not seem to be one of them. They are indeed advertising their products through social media sites like Facebook and file sharing sites like YouTube but instead of paying to display adverts they are promoting their products through clever content marketing. This has the benefit of being free to display and the potential to go viral when done right.