Social Networks vs. Online Communities

Social Networks vs. Online Communities

I often find that when I mention the words online community to people, they respond with something like “Oh yeah, like Facebook.”

It is for this reason I thought it would be a good idea to clear the air and make a distinction between the online communities and social networks. This is especially important for businesses to understand these differences, as the objectives and strategies you use for both should be very different.  

Deep breath.

Let’s first just make a clear distinction. Social networks are not online communities.

However, social networks and communities do work together in some ways and they also share some common ground:

  • They both exist online
  • They both are places where people discover content and other people
  • They both fall within the blurry lines that define social business platforms.

Social Networks

This is the world of the individual and information. Social networks (such as Facebook) encourage connections, interactions and relationships between people. These people want Individual relationships with your brand and want you to listen to them and answer their questions. 

Online Communities

Online communities are a group of people with a common purpose. Online communities focus on bringing people together around a common interest, cause, industry profession or even product. A reason why someone may visit an online community is because they are looking to address a particular objective. For example, they have a question about your product and need an answer. They can join your online community and gain that answer from fellow members (experts on your product).

Telligent refer to social networks being focused around relationships and online communities being based around a business objective.

Survival of the fittest

Take Facebook as an example, you could ignore your Facebook account for a while and the social network would still thrive because your individual connections and likes are still intact.

Conversely, communities need activity to survive. Online communities need members of the community to start discussion around a variety of topics, and responses to these discussions, and to create content, with comments and sharing of that content.

In practice

We commonly use social networks to stay in touch with friends and family. Yet online communities are used to obtain answers to questions, help others and for a sense of belonging in a group of people that share a common interest.

In a 2012 study by the Society of New Communications Research (SNCR), called The Social Mind, research showed that 78% of people participate online to help others by sharing information, ideas, and experience. 66% said that they are members of online communities in order to participate in a professional community of colleagues and peers.

Offline similarities

Online communities also share some ground with how we build and maintain our offline communities. For example, our offline communities are also built around shared interests such as an interest in a sport or hobby and our values we hold, not around individual connections.

The fittest

In online communities, members have access to specific groups based on a membership type or interest. A great example of this is the TES community, the world’s largest online community for teachers.

Just like social networks, online communities do have activity feeds where you can see friend’s activity updates. Some do have personalised alerts and you can still track content, discussions, and people of interest in online communities.

Members of an online community can stay just as connected as they can in a social network. However, in online communities, that action happens in groups rather than on individual walls.

This is not to say that individual customers and members can’t connect or contact one another in online communities. The difference is that the focus is not on individual profiles. It is on group discussions, file-sharing, and collaboration over products and issues.


There are both similarities and differences between social networks and online communities and this is a huge area of discussion. However one thing is clear, if you are trying to bring customers or members together in support of a product, rally around a cause, or take a collective action, an online community may be the vehicle to achieve this for your business.