As the digital evolution continues, publishers are discovering new opportunities to engage more deeply with their audiences, to develop new business models and reduce marketing costs by building online communities of interest for their end users. We have observed over the last several years that such verticals have been an emerging focus of many development and marketing efforts for publishers across segments.

In the scholarly sector, online communities coalescing around particular journals or journal series have long been held up as an excellent method of improving the quality of academic discourse, facilitating collaboration and even speeding up the peer review process.  But until now there has been very little research available that delves into the adoption of online communities in detail.  Two recent surveys initiated by Ingenta and PCG demonstrate the growth of trade and academic publishers’ online vertical communities and how they are used to connect with readers and raise brand awareness.

This new research set out to uncover why academic publishers build these types of communities, the perceived benefits of establishing them, and more broadly, how the market sits in terms of adoption to the online community movement. With findings shared on a panel at this year’s Digital Book World Conference, our survey specifically among academic publishers largely affirmed an earlier general study conducted in partnership with Bowker Market Research, which found that US and UK publishers wholeheartedly believe in the benefits of hosting online communities—expecting to double their number of online communities by 2015 alone.

What do we mean by online communities?  For the purpose of our inquiry, an online community is a publisher-owned website/platform that offers a common interest around which the community is themed, with interactive communication between the organization and community members and also between the members themselves. On the scholarly side for example, LibraryConnect (Elsevier) is a forum for the library and research community, STAR (Taylor & Francis) serves as a community for researchers in developing nations, and PeerJ is an online open access peer-reviewed academic journal.

Current Market

In our study, we found that online communities surpass the most obvious service as a channel for simply selling books or journals. These platforms help foster closer relationships with core readers, which in turn helps publishers better understand their needs. Specifically, the research addresses such questions as: How many academic publishers currently have online communities? What are their reasons for the development of online communities? What are the measurable benefits achieved from having online communities? What are some of the potential growth opportunities for online communities?

Motivation – Top 4 Reasons to Develop Online Communities

  • 40% Increasing direct relationships with end users

  • 40% Increasing audience engagement (social networking)

  • 35% Increased content usage

  • 35% Increasing knowledge and understanding of the reader

Benefits – Top 3 Reported Benefits of Online Communities

  • 37% Generated increased knowledge and understanding of the end user

  • 37% Developed direct relationships with readers

  • 32% Serves as a platform to increase content usage

Current Success & Future Opportunity

  • About 50% of publishers believe online communities have been successful in achieving the company’s goals

  • Nearly 80% of all publishers view online communities as an area of growth for their companies and the publishing sector as a whole

  • Early 2013 study showed that 84% of all publisher respondents think their investment in online communities will increase over the next two years

From these findings, we can conclude that publishers are increasingly embracing online communities as a method of getting closer to their readers by becoming more customer-focused, as a way to gain understanding of what audiences want through metrics, and as a supplemental tactic to enhance their marketing efforts. The presence of online communities around scholarly content is on the rise, as more publishers continue to shift their focus to relationship-building with end users. While many publishers are still experimenting with different strategies, it’s still safe to say that online communities will continue to prove their value as publishers refine their deployment of this useful tool.

Michael Groth is Marketing Manager for Ingenta and Publishers Communication Group.