Do Most Online Communities Fail?

This is an interesting question. Fortune magazine seems to think they are failing. But the answer is never as easy as the question.

For instance, if you build a community targeting CFOs from the Fortune 100 companies what would determine your success?

  • Would it be 100 percent participation? Probably not since we know most people watch and listen online and getting 100 percent is unrealistic.
  • Would it be an increase in sales from the companies respresented in your online community during the year? Maybe, but they may do that regardless of your online community.
  • How about if you focused on just three CFOs in the group whom you know would receive value from doing more business with you? Bringing in increased sales from two of them could potentially be linked to your efforts.

So determining what you want to get out of a community from the start may not be what you actually get out of it in the end, but that depends on what your objectives are for your community. Adjusting your strategy along the way may help you achieve the results you want, but you may also need to adjust your strategy because the results you desired have changed (You are getting results just not the ones you expected). Yes, communities are complicated, ever changing and complex.

The trading floor community in Chicago

I’ve been lucky that even before the rapid growth in social media I was part of working with a large community — the trading floors.  To get a feel for that you can read some of Jeff Carter’s posts on social media and trading and why he likes Twitter better than Facebook for building his social media trading community.

So what can you do to be successful? One key part of building a good community is letting the community run it. As PR20/20 reminds us, it’s the conversations that make good communities function.  And running a community takes a number of skills – from adaptability to empathy — as the Business 2 Community points out.  Whether you are an experienced community manager or new to it, I would definitely recommend you read Community Spark from Martin Reed.

Having the right resources in place can make a difference in a number of ways for you and your team. Here are some thoughts on what you need to build your success:

  • My suggestion to you is not to spend an overwhelming amount of time choosing what you need. You should have a list of important criteria (e.g., does it have mobile capability, what are the metrics you will receive, etc.) and focus on those. In addition, there are numerous blog posting and online reviews of platforms that can help you speed up your decision process.
  • Not only should you focus on your own content to share, which should be unique, interesting and offer helpful insight, but you should also be a resource to find and distribute third party content that your community may find useful. A good mix of content is challenging but will make you more trustworthy; it also can spark conversations around the topic of choice and should lead you to develop more of your own content. Here were some thoughts on content curation and dealing with social clutter.
  • Have a vision. It’s easy to get bogged down in what you are doing today — posting stories, answering questions, finding new members, etc, but don’t forget to keep thinking forward. Not only will you need to understand changes to social platforms, but you will also need to understand the trends and issues of your business.
  • While not something you can create or build, you will need to enlist the people who believe in what you are doing. I wrote about this concept and motivation as a driver of success earlier. For instance, we’ve found that some people really understand and enjoy LinkedIn vs using another social platform. In this case, we are cultivating the “believers” and getting them to best utilize the platform to meet their needs. Here’s some help about how we use LinkedIn: Don’t Overlook the Power of LinkedIn Groups

Community management is not simple nor is it easy. It takes a lot of hard work, making personal sacrifices and a constant flow of ideas and conversations. In fact the worst thing a community manager can receive is silence. But if done right, a community will grow, network and provide you with valuable insights and relationships.

So what do you think? Are more communities failing? Or are we measuring them wrong? What do you think makes a community successful that I missed?

If you enjoyed this you may also want to read:

Don’t Overlook the Power of LinkedIn Groups

Content Curation: What Does it Take To Be Successful?

Social Clutter or Social Clarity?

Is Motivation the Key to Success?


7 thoughts on “Do Most Online Communities Fail?

  1. Many communities do fail but that’s really not the point – the majority of large organizations are still at the ‘paving cowpaths’ stage with their communities. What’s important is to recognize that customers are increasingly social and communicating and interacting with each other. Whether that interaction is taking place on YOUR community, your competitor’s community or a third-party community site (and often, it’s all of the above) what’s important is to structure your efforts in a way in which your interactions with them are as constructive & effective as possible.

  2. My pithy response is that all communities look like a failure before they look like a success… because they are not like light switches. The key to understand is whether you are effective at driving behavior change in the community you have (and like Chris says, all organizations have a community whether they choose to recognize it or not). If you cannot effect a change in behavior in your community that is more efficient or effective than your other means of doing so, you should not scale your community and yes your experiment in community building may have failed. If you can effect a behavior change but it’s not at a scale that is impactful to the organization, you have a different challenge on your hands – but it’s not one of failure – it’s a milestone on your path to success.

  3. Chris — Thanks for the note and really it seems to all come back to listening doesn’t it? I hate people judging success based on the amount of conversations. The foundation of all of this goes to just paying attention and understanding what is being said. I like your comment on be “effective” — and that is something to always consider when measuring success.

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