2016: Expanding online communities that embrace the best of both worlds

Transaction-based experiences have been leading the way to blur the lines between virtual and real life experiences. For example, a customer doesn’t really see the difference between a physical or online store – to them, it’s just a store.

  • 36% of us purchase online and pickup in- store
  • 62% want to buy online and make returns in-store

Beyond shopping, we use apps for other transactions, too: to book a car, read news, find restaurants, get a reservation, and more. Apps help us have the life experiences we want, when we want them.

But how do they help us build relationships and create online communities?

Like transactions, relationships require the best of both virtual and real world interactions. In the virtual world, you can communicate anytime, anywhere; real world, in-person interactions build trust. There needs to be a way to bring the two together with simple, easy to use apps to create the next step of online communities.

Trust for most people isn’t about privacy and security policies. Most people care about:

  • who they are buying from
  • who they talking to – and his identity (especially on social media)
  • the quality of the advice they receive from a forum
  • the credibility of a news source or information

There are a number of ways to build trust online, but the simplest and best way is to have people to meet each other.

When we form a first impression of another person it’s not really a single impression. We’re really forming two. We’re judging how warm and trustworthy the person is, and that’s trying to answer the question, “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” And we’re also asking ourselves, “How strong and competent is this person?” That’s really about whether or not they’re capable of enacting their intentions. Research shows that these two trait dimensions account for 80 to 90 percent of an overall first impression, and that holds true across cultures.

—Rob Capps, Amy Cuddy “First Impressions: The Science of Meeting People,” Wired

The shared economy builds trust by combining online transactions with in-person interactions. Companies like AirBnB, FlightCar, and North Dallas-based company, RentBillow, bring a personal element into the transaction—you know that there is a real person behind the transaction. This shifts the experience from being an anonymous money exchange to using something a real person owns for a fee.

At work, we have similar experiences with virtual teams. We connect to each other through video conferencing, phones, chat and a number of other communication tools that mirror the experience of meeting in person. We build trusted relationships knowing that there is a live person behind a voice or screen text. And yes, it doesn’t hurt to meet in person in these cases, either.

The Internet got its negative trust reputation because of its anonymity. It encourages some to think that it doesn’t matter how you treat someone online if you will never meet. Needless to say, phishers, trolls, virus builders and hackers found this thinking a haven for what they do.

And yes, in the real world, some people lie and steal, but those are exceptions. We need to remember that most people are fairly honest. That belief fuels the shared economy and virtual teams—and it will fuel online communities.

Just like real world communities, online communities are based on relationships and our need to connect with others. Social media does a great job connecting like-minded people, but it’s hard to build a relationship in 140 characters. Forrester predicted communities would grow in 2015, but I think serious growth will happen in 2016 and beyond if we think bigger and consider how to simply connect the best of both virtual and real world community experiences.

During conference keynotes, there are flurries of Twitter posts and there are always in-person conversations after, sparking networking opportunities. What would happen if there could be conversations happening in an online forum at the same time?

As an example, let’s say there is a Meetup event. Today, someone posts the event slides on the Meetup site. Imagine if there was the ability to also link to a meeting video on YouTube, allowing those who couldn’t make it a way to view the meeting later. Also imagine that there was a forum available to ask questions or share thoughts and perceptions from the meeting. If you have a great conversation in the forum or on chat, you could connect to that person on Linkedin. Such a better way to network! You can build trust online while talking about something you both enjoy at a convenient time for both of you.

The challenge with the experience described, however, is that it could include up to 3 separate apps, possibly more, depending on what you want to do. That’s complicated. Wouldn’t it be easier to have a single site or place to go to with APIs providing data?

To make it even simpler, what if there was a way to access a community through voice command? Let’s say you access the forum and your phone reads to you the conversations available to participate in. You then tell your phone which discussion you want to participate and where you want to respond (and provide a response). Or you could watch the video that sparked the thread. Or you could connect with someone you met the previous day on LinkedIn and set up a time to talk directly and have that conversation in real time. Having the apps more interconnected would provide an experience that mirrors and augments what happens today at a trade show, conference, or meeting.

I believe 2016 will be the year of communities growing. We’ll learn how to build trust online, bring the offline and virtual experiences together, and create simple, easy to use experiences that involve more speaking and less tapping. We will still be in a world where apps will help you get what you want, when you want it – but now it will include building relationships.

Mary Brodie

Mary is a Customer/User Experience strategist and implementation expert. She has helped companies of all sizes get results from their Web sites, Web/mobile apps, customer service organizations, lead generation systems and phone lines for over 20 years. She has managed teams as small as 1 and as large as 65, locally and worldwide. She founded her consulting company, Gearmark, to focus on these types of projects. When she’s not creating experiences, she’s writing about Agile, CX/UX, and women’s leadership. Her passions include: cooking, Egyptian-style belly dance, art, reading, and travel.