Why Most Online Communities Fail…

David Churbuck linked to the Ben Worthen story in the WSJ yesterday entitled “Why Most Online Communities Fail“.  David points out that a simple typo from a Deloitte powerpoint managed the ruin the story and deflect the discussion from the matter at hand to a moot discussion on percentages.

1. Going out with the claim that 60% of businesses invest over $1 million in online communities thanks to a Deloitte typo that should have stated 6% is not a great way to get off on the right credibility foot. Worthen does the correction, but …

The point I’d like to make goes more to the point in Churbuck’s piece that will be overlooked – “This is bad research on a tired topic.”

You see, the thing that all of the social media gurus, wannabes, and willneverbes would have us believe is that community is easy. You build it and they will come.  The truth is so very far from there that if it was commonly known no marketer in his/her right mind would ever utter the words “let’s build a community, gang!” again.

Sounds harsh?  Well, it ought to.  There are way to many businesses committing to creating community development without the slightest thought of what the real ramifications of failure are.  And even worse, they judge the cost of creating their communities solely on the basis of what the servers, dev costs, etc. will be and routinely devote little or no resources to actually managing and developing that community.

I say it again, more clearly: a community will fail surely if you do not devote experienced people to building and moderating it.

Note that word, people.  I don’t say person.  And there’s a lot more that goes along with this.  There are ton of real, hard costs that you’re going to face in order to make a community successful.  Building in these terms isn’t development, it’s people attracting other people to your service, getting them committed, and giving them reasons to stay there.  This big myth is that communities build themselves.  When done right, it will look like they build themselves,  but there’s always someone helping the community get going.

This is where I see companies fall flat on their face time and time again (sorry, not gonna name names here, but I could).  They think that assigning a marketing intern to run the site they just poured a million in development and up front costs into, is going to be sufficient.  People come in once, if your lucky, look around, realize they’re essentially hanging out in an empty room and leave.  Eventually the company folds up shop, does a post mortem, fires the intern and promptly forgets every lesson they should have learned.  Then someone chimes in “hey gang, let’s build a user forum and share our brand.” Then the cycle starts all over again.

Most businesses have no business running communities.  They want to make “the brand more transparent” and in the end, they hurt the brand by creating a bad user experience that has nothing to do with their actual brand, but through association, it’s now taking the hit.

If you don’t have experts who can show you working communities they’ve built, and if you’re relying on consultants who aren’t cautioning you, you need to be very wary. Personally, I feel the best place to expose the brand to a community is through active sponsorship of existing communities.  You don’t need to own it, you get a ton of mileage for your buck, and the positive effects start right away, not a year from now when  your development cycle is done.

Think about it…why own a community when you can rent one…

More reading:

Helen Whitehead on Why Do Online Communities Fail? – a well thought out piece with some good advice.

R. Todd Stephens, Phd – making the point that communities struggle when there’s no good business reason to get involved.

C. David Gammel at High Context Consulting on the Three Reasons Branded Online Communities Fail

Update: Tom O’Brien at A Human Voice commented on the Churbuck post with probably the most important note of all “the community vendors were scrambling hard to pull the curtain back up..”  Darned straight, they have been scurrying to get the genie back in the bottle.  Tom’s own post – “Social Media Madness: Build it & they will come . . .” also puts the lie to to the maxim that brands need to develop communities.  As he puts it, the community often already exists, and “increasing brand value” isn’t their goal.

5 Replies to “Why Most Online Communities Fail…”

  1. Absolutely agree Mark !

    The staff investment is often the difficult part of the equation – additional headcount is taboo for many companies in today’s climate.

    Alternatives? Outsource to some agency? Matrix across a few employees who participate when they can? How about recruiting mods from other communities to help in yours?

    To your point, “why buy when you can rent an existing space?” Well, I think there are pros and cons. Sure, you can engage under someone else’s tent, but at the end of the day, they own the content. They can shut down and dis-band and your content is gone. Unless it’s a community about something really esoteric, there are likely to be others, with shared membership. I think a company should consider these various communities as nodes in a broader human network, and plan to engage in the epicenters of influence – whether their own community or someone else’s, or a combination approach. And then there is the point about language. Few communities not sponsored by an organization will be multi-lingual, so a global company might create multiple, parallel communities based on language and ensure relevant content is cross polinated.

  2. Here are plenty of good reasons to develop a community vs. sponsoring one. I think you’ve got a good list of reasons why a company might almost be forced to take that step.

    I think if at all possible, it’s best to be at arms length if you can so if it goes south, you can walk away unscathed…

  3. That is certainly a very pragmatic posture you suggest – the arms length bit. But, for me, failure is not an option. So my community goes, so I go….

    The first chapter has gone well, and I’ve had some great people helping me on the journey, coaching me, and keeping the nasties at bay.

    As we start the next phase, I need to crack the resource issue, and start to prove the ROI aspects in a way that supports the continued growth.

    If you haven’t already, please stop in. I’d welcome your feedback, as I know you have “Reel” expertise – and those years in the trenches give weight to your opinion – I’d welcome it.

    Mark

  4. Thanks – I wish I could offer a magic bullet for the resource issue, but I can’t. The best way is education up front, but that often falls short too. To some degree, there is a ribbon cutting mentality, throw the doors open and run.

    I’ll have another look and make suggestions. One way I’ve cracked the resource issue is by having volunteers do the work, but for corporations there are several valid reasons not to do that.

    I fight the same battle…

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