Business

The value of building online communities during COVID-19

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The current pandemic has impacted businesses in a number of ways — falling sales, remote staff, and drops in investment. In the battle to survive under new conditions, a huge digital shift has taken place.

Traditionally offline businesses are moving online to harness the surge in internet usage due to stay-at-home measures. In certain parts of the world, internet use has gone up by 50 percent due to the crisis.

Meanwhile, businesses that were already online before COVID-19 struck are finding new platforms to connect with the growing online user base.

As a result, online communities are emerging and proving to be extremely valuable for business. In fact, Dr Michael J Ryan from the World Health Organization, recently noted that “community engagement and acceptance is critical” amid the unprecedented scenario.

Whether showing new value, maintaining connections, or sharing knowledge and skills, online communities have become a necessary resource for businesses during COVID-19.

Showing New Value

In uncertain times consumers reassess how and what they buy. With COVID-19 costing the equivalent of 195 million jobs and a pending recession looming, people don’t have disposable income to purchase luxury goods.

Instead, businesses are having to prove their value and show that they are either essential or are a solution to a real customer need.

Online communities help businesses with their value proposition by creating a space to listen to, and respond to, emerging problems. With so many people now active online, a digital community allows businesses to harness discussions and engage the impact of COVID-19.

For example, online communities are playing a big role for freelancers. According to a survey by Payoneer, 32 percent of respondents say demand for freelancing has decreased since COVID-19 hit.

Established in 1995, Freelancers Union has been a leading support organization for freelancers for years, but has been quick to pivot away from its traditional political focus and is offering help tailored around the pandemic.

Its online community has a range of COVID-19 resources (including government aid), a survey for freelancers to express how the pandemic has affected them, and a donation fund.

Freelancers can also get details about health insurance, plus virtual networking events and training. Currently, more than 490,000 freelancers are signed up to the free online community.

Sharing Knowledge And Skills

Startups and small businesses are among the most vulnerable businesses in COVID-19. Many early-stage companies don’t have the expenses to compensate for the unexpected fall in sales, and many investors have been quick to pause their startup funding.

Forty-one percent of startups around the world currently only have finances to continue their processes for three months or less. In response, online communities are helping startups survive the sudden economic downturn by making the most of their most powerful asset – the wider startup ecosystem.

PR agency, Publicize has created Swap Shop, a free skill-share platform where founders and entrepreneurs can exchange services. The marketplace gives startups access to valuable resources without having to commit to a full service subscription or purchase.

Not only does Swap Shop support businesses hardest hit by the pandemic, it also creates an opportunity for those businesses to contribute back to others.

Anyone can use Swap Shop — there is no money involved, no long waits, and users’ personal information isn’t published or shared with third parties.

Maintaining Connections

Humans want to connect, regardless of the quarantine. Online communities are a way to build, maintain, and develop relationships with both consumers and other businesses when in-person contact is prohibited.

For businesses, online communities can be a way to communicate their response to COVID-19 — things like slower processes, limited supply, charitable donations, and staff wellbeing.

The online community can be a particularly powerful bridge for companies that were offline before the pandemic and now need to adapt how they operate.

For example, Shopify – a platform to help e-commerce businesses move online, find customers, drive sales, and manage day-to-day tasks – has seen its online community thrive during COVID-19.

The community includes a ‘reunite’ section, where Shopify hosts livestreams explaining new features on the site, as well as new trends in e-commerce.

There’s also a partner offer board where members post services to help other merchants through the pandemic, and forums to talk about feedback, design, apps, social impact, and more.

The Shopify online community has more than 656,000 members, many of whom are small business owners looking to connect and learn from other owners around the world.

Despite the physical and economic limitations of COVID-19, these online communities are paving the way for startups to converse and navigate the pandemic together.

Not only are the platforms creating real value at the moment, but with remote working poised to be the new normal, online communities are likely to flourish even further.

Particularly as small businesses become more accustomed to being online and being more active in digital spaces, the potential to share industry-specific insights, have more interconnected networks, and optimize value proposition, is huge.

Disclosure: Publicize subsidizes The Sociable

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Grace Brennan
Grace is a writer from the UK, interested in the changing relationship between technology and humans. She loves transforming difficult subjects into digestible stories.