ByJay Bigford

What makes an effective online community?

As more and more of the world’s population are connecting and sharing information online, we take a look at what makes an effective online community and give a few examples of those that have got it right.

Community or social network?

First and foremost I want to clarify online community – it is not the same thing as a social network.

Social networks are held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships such as friendship, family, colleagues etc and people generally join a social networking site to maintain / strengthen old relationships and build new ones. Examples of social networks include Facebook,MySpace and Linked In.

Online communities on the other hand are often formed from people that have no relationship to each other at all but are instead brought together by a shared interest – a hobby / common goal / preference for a similar lifestyle / geographical location. A good example is flickr – a community of photography enthusiasts. People are brought together from all different walks of life because they share a common interest and they join the online community because they benefit from being a part of it in some way – they care about a common cause, they learn useful information from it, they can talk to people that share the same interest in their hobby.

So what does makes an effective online community?

The very nature of online communities, is that they reach out to people with specific interests, which means that there is no magic formula – they use different approaches to inspire people to get involved, depending on what it is that the community stands for and what they’re trying to achieve. We’ve picked three very different examples that we’re fond of and have distilled what they are doing and how they’ve got it right.


Cowbird is a community of storytellers – people come here to share their own stories and become inspired by others. They describe their goal as ‘to build a public library of human experience.’


The stories are shared through evocative photos, written words and/or audio. The design itself is very minimal – the spotlight is 100% on the content itself. You become instantly drawn in by the images – keen to discover the story behind it.

Building connections

If people wish to interact on the site, they create a profile which allows them to then make connections with other users, ‘love’ other people’s stories, ‘re-tell’ them through writing comments and even ‘collect’ them if they want to. The method that Cowbird uses to visually feedback ‘connections’ to users is fantastic – the grid of faces of people that have ‘loved’ your story makes it all the more personal rather than just a list of names.

Due to the evocative nature of most of the imagery and accompanying stories, people really connect with the content on an emotional level, meaning that people are far more likely to comment or interact with the user.

By categorising the stories with tags such as ‘Lost Love’ or ‘Addiction,’ people are able to explore stories that may be of interest to them at a certain stage of their life. In this way they may discover someone who has had a similar life experience and connect with them.


DIY is a community where children share the creations they’ve made with others. Here they can complete challenges and earn ‘patches’ for the skills that they accomplish.


In contrast to the minimal design of Cowbird, this site is a real visual feast! They have used fantastic illustration within the site which really adds a fantasy element to it and turns up the dial on excitement, really drawing the user in. The site is geared towards inspiring creativity and by the clever use of colour and illustration within the design does exactly that. Right from the outset when joining the site, users are asked to choose a beautifully illustrated mask / avatar for their online identity. This makes the site very exciting and other worldly.


Rather than simply providing a platform for people to share their work, DIY also inspires children with new ideas by setting challenges such as ‘Make a sundial’ and then pulls in examples to work with from all over the web. By adding the challenge element to the site, children are able to collect ‘patches’ once they have learnt the skill, much like you would at Scouts or Brownies – this is a great way of keeping users interested as they have something tangible to work towards and feel a sense of achievement when they’ve earned a new patch.

Users are able to ‘follow’ each other, comment on each other’s work and ‘favourite’ it if they really like it.

“GOOD is a global community of people who give a damn.”

Good website

It is an online community for ‘pragmatic idealists’ to connect with other like-minded individuals and organisations to discuss topics and issues that matter to them with the aim of inspiring positive change.


The site uses a very clean, assured approach in the design – this is effective in conveying the message that this is a trusted arena for discussing serious topics. This stripped back approach to the design enhances people’s messages and the content by showcasing it within a well branded, well structured manner.

Turning talk into action

GOOD is a great example of an online community of individuals who are passionate about making the world a better place. They come here to connect with others who share this interest and to discuss topics that they hold close to their heart. But how do you turn that talk into action? The approach that GOOD have adopted is to inspire people with challenges or doings through their DO Feature – here users can upload an idea of something people can DO to make a positive change – see the example below:

Users are able to invite others to join them in doing the challenge by sharing via active social media links.  By showing how many people are involved in this challenge it also entices others to join in – people like to feel part of something and if they see that other people are doing something then it’s likely they’ll want to find out what all the fuss is about! Most of the ‘challenges’ are featured on external websites which just demonstrates the power of an online community as a platform for sharing content and ideas from all over the world and the web.


Online Communities are spaces where people come to connect with others with a shared personal interest. Communities of any sort are a fascinating topic to explore since human relationships are so complex. We have only just touched upon the subject here by pinpointing how the three examples above have effectively engaged their target audience through clever use of design and features to build a thriving online community space where people make connections are share content.

Our next blog article will look more in depth at how online communities can be used as a tool to inspire community-led action.

If you’re interested in online communities then check out one of our latest projects, an accessible online community for the people of Gloucestershire: You’re Welcome.

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