Is it time to give up on your online community?

by Martin Reed on 28 August 2009 in Articles

community building failure

Building an online community is hard work and there are never any guarantees of success. Most people give up too soon; the best online communities grow organically through word of mouth and recommendations. They contain members that consider other members to be their friends. This takes time.

Be patient

Too many people throw in the towel too early. They have the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. This is rarely true – and almost impossible when it comes to community building. Even if you have hugely passionate customers, you’ll be working hard to build, nurture and sustain your online community.

It will take months and years, not days and weeks to build a genuine online community. Relationships take time to develop. They take even longer when you take away face to face contact and replace it with a computer screen and a keyboard.

Time is against you

Not everyone has a lot of time to spend in your community. Parents are busy raising their children. Fishermen are busy fishing. Gamers are busy playing games. They need a reason why they should give up their spare time to contribute to the community.


You need to get the word out – this doesn’t mean paying for ads. It means going out and finding the type of people you want as members. Build relationships with them. Get them involved in the development process of the community. Give them influence. You’ll get ‘perfect members’ and great feedback.

Community building isn’t just about developing relationships with people inside your community – it’s about building relationships with people outside of it, too.

Canvass opinion

If, despite your best efforts, you aren’t seeing much in the way of activity you should ask why. Ask yourself (be honest and objective) and ask your members. Don’t sound desperate. Don’t sound accusatory. Be honest, and ask for honesty in return. You want criticism. You don’t want people telling you the community is great (you know it isn’t).

Rope in family and friends, too. Watch them use your community and take a note of any bottlenecks. After they’ve spent some time in the community, ask them for their honest thoughts. Make sure they don’t hold back. Make sure you get as much information as possible out of them. If they say they don’t like your community then you’re off to a great start – just remember to ask them why.

Get your members to tell you ten things they don’t like about your community (preferably in private – you want to avoid groupthink). If you think you’ll be hurt by this just remind yourself that you’ll be more hurt if they don’t tell you.

Work hard(er)

An online community is never ‘done’. It is always evolving – new members join, old members leave. New stories form and the personality of the community evolves. You should be involved throughout the lifecycle of your community. Don’t expect to be involved for a few weeks and then sit back and watch your members create all the value and content for you.

You need to be involved in your community. You need to influence its development. You need to be visible, known and dedicated. If you don’t want to be involved in your community, why should your members bother?

Be persistent

You might introduce a new feature (maybe your members asked for it) but it doesn’t get used. You might create fantastic content yet nobody responds. Don’t give up.

Community building is all one big experiment. There are no guarantees. Sometimes, things work. Sometimes, they don’t. As long as you continue to learn, nothing is a failure.

Be honest

It’s easy to be blind to the faults in your online community. It’s also easy to over-estimate the enthusiasm people may have for a certain topic. Maybe you were convinced people would be flocking to a community dedicated to the art of paperclip sculpture yet they failed to materialise? Maybe you thought people in a local village with a population of 250 would prefer to talk online rather than in person?

Sometimes your ideas may fail. Sometimes the entire concept of your community may fail. If the people are out there, but aren’t coming (despite your best efforts), try recruiting a community manager with better skills. Otherwise, you may need to seriously think about shutting the site down.

Not ready to give up yet? Great! Here’s what you need to do:

Your community needs to be:

  • Intuitive
  • Interesting
  • Fun

Your members need to feel:

  • Wanted
  • Valued
  • Respected

Good luck!

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Michelle August 28, 2009 at 2:38 pm

I’ve been wrestling with this question for the past year or more. My community is 2.5 years old and still very quiet. I’ve thought many times about just giving up. But I’m too stubborn. I’ve spent so much time to just throw it away. If nothing else, it’s giving me a lot of Drupal experience. :) I’ll probably never give it up unless I move away from the area. It’s hard to build a local community site for a place that isn’t local to you.


Nicole Price August 29, 2009 at 7:45 am

When members stop participating and new members are not joining in, it is time to reflect on why this is happening and to take corrective measures. It the measures taken do not stem the outflow and encourage new inflow, it may just be the right thing to do to shut down, just like in any other endeavor offline.

Khalil Aleker August 29, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Hang in there Michelle. First 2 years I guess are tough unless you Facebook or Twitter – :) Try and keep the interaction going daily and always ask members or visitors for feedback.

Danny Brown August 29, 2009 at 2:38 pm


This should be required reading for anyone wanting to build a community, personal or professional. Clear, concise and all effective and usable advice. I like how you encourage criticism as well – too many use this as an excuse and avoid like the plague, then wonder why they never get the growth and involvement they’re looking for.

Terrific stuff, fella – cheers!

YC August 31, 2009 at 2:09 am

How do you hire a community manager? Where do you find one?

Mr Woc August 31, 2009 at 5:13 am

Hi there

I think most webmasters know when something isnt working, the main reasons why communties fail is due to lack of knowledge by the owner themselves, as you have got to try to stay one step ahead of other websites, this isnt always easy.

I agree sometimes you need a lot of patience, but my advice would be if something isnt working, and uve tryed for a long time to make it work, my first advice would be to change it, if something isnt working change it, even if your sure im wrong do it anyway and see what happens !

A lot of webmasters suffer from the fear of change, this in my opinion is wrong you need to get rid of this fear and grasp change, instead of staring at the same webpages over and over and thinking this isnt working, do some research plan and go again!


Martin Reed - Community Manager September 2, 2009 at 10:16 am

YC – You can advertise for one, or try trawling LinkedIn – there are some great community managers there. Good luck!

YC September 2, 2009 at 10:18 am

Martin, thank you so much! I have been running things on my own so would be great to have a dedicated community manager. Thanks again!!

Michelle September 2, 2009 at 10:31 am

Thanks, Khalil, I will. I get blue when days go by and I’m the only one posting but I’m far too stubborn to give up. :)


Tom September 2, 2009 at 9:57 pm

In my experience, the community only begins to fail once the owner has already given up on it and/or has grown tired/bored of it.

My user numbers always drop when I take a break from the site. If I don’t update it for a couple of months, or don’t visit it regularly, or don’t bother posting and leave it up to my Site Manager & her Co-Hosts.

It’s tiring work sometimes, and sometimes I just need a break. However, when I return the user numbers always rise again and there’s always a rush of activity, the quizzes get going again, people post a lot, the site regains its energy.

So from this I can deduct that if the site owner is away from the site – so will the users. I only take temporary breaks to ensure I don’t burn out. So I should imagine those owners who take permanent breaks and don’t bother with their community at all, then of course it will fail.

It will also fail if you’re too strict, or too lenient. It’ll fail if you’re not offering something different from other sites.

It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication. But well worth it when you have a new user e-mail in a thank you.

After a year of hard work I’ve finally made it into the Freebie List, the web’s largest directory of web freebies, and of course the prestigious DMOZ. I’m slowly establishing relationships with other site managers.. persistence is the key.

When a community owner themself lose interest, or ambition, or drive, or the passion for their community – then that’s when I say “give it in”. But if they still have the passion, the drive and ambition, then keep on marching forwards. Change your design to make it more user-friendly, simplify your chat client and features so it’s not over-technical, work on your site’s SEO, and most importantly…………… get a good team of moderators, and get a lot of quality content on your site’s pages & forums. Help pages. Advice pages. Safety pages. Post on your forums everyday. Just get that essential content that is needed.

Don’t sit back and wait for users to use your site and then beg them to stay before developing it. Develop it now and encourage users to use your site! They’ll be the ones begging TO stay.

Nicole Price September 3, 2009 at 9:39 am

Tom’s take on this is fascinating. Unless you have a revenue stream that can support a substitute for you when you are away, this means that the site deflates. The dilemma is in getting enough revenue to afford the sustitue and how to keep the growth going!

Tom September 6, 2009 at 3:39 pm

My second in command is just as (if not more!) competent as I. She knows my personality inside and out. She’s been with the site for years, she started as a new user and rose in the ranks as my second in command. When I’m away she’s in charge – and it’s completely voluntary. They do it for the love of the community. They’re the “Site Manager”.

Nick September 10, 2009 at 4:46 am

Keep at it Michelle. Don’t give up! Take the time to talk to all members of the community and hear what they have to say. It might be that a key member (someone who was doing a lot of posting and interacting) has left, in which case chase them down and find out why!

Michelle September 11, 2009 at 11:14 am

@Nick: There is one key member that I can trace all the forum ups and downs to. She has a way of getting folks posting that I just can’t match. Unfortunately, when she leaves it isn’t because she is unhappy with the site. She just has a lot going on in her life. Happily, she’s back right now and I’m taking advantage of it to try and get the forum moving again. I’m hoping, eventually, the forum will keep going even when she’s not there.


Jean September 11, 2009 at 1:30 pm

Building an online community works for some and for others, it doesn’t. Keeping up with an online community requires hard work and can be demanding. Thanks for sharing these useful tips.

Nicole Price September 12, 2009 at 9:17 am

I know the kind of the member that Michelle is talking about. People who have a lot going in their lives are the ones who are most effective in the community. They can somehow motivate others to participate, particularly when they know what she is going through.

Daryl September 16, 2009 at 8:22 am

Building a strong foundation for your online community really needs lots of hard work and patience. It’s very true that success with online community doesn’t work overnight. It needs enough time to be successful. Moreover, try to meet the interest of all members.

Scott Prince September 17, 2009 at 5:31 am

I believe a lot of folks rushed to put together sites when Facebook & Myspace were growing, hoping to cash in on the social society craze only to find out how much work it takes to become successful. Now the internet is filled with communities that are wasting away due to the lack of effort on their owners who have moved onto other projects or have just given up.

Daryl September 21, 2009 at 1:56 am

You need to have the right attitude in building a good foundation for online community. Reaching out to your audience is the number one key for a successful online community. Adjust everything based on audience’s preferences.

kleansy September 21, 2009 at 11:30 am

This is true Daryl that creating and building a better foundation for your online community really needs lots of hard work and patience. As the saying says that patience is a virtue. If you are that dedicated, this is not a problem.

Diego October 13, 2009 at 5:03 am

Community takes a lot of time to build, whether it is online or in person. The same rules apply. Respect, support, discussion of topics of interest, and action are all required by participants in the community.

Gene November 6, 2009 at 8:02 pm

My question is, can someone still start a successful community? With Facebook taking over the market and growing exponentially, is there still room for another community site?

Gouri November 8, 2009 at 3:31 am

This one is very important: “They need a reason why they should give up their spare time to contribute to the community.”

You should ask yourself why should anyone join this community?

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