I just finished reading a really interesting article in the Wall Street Journal entitled ‘Why most online communities fail‘. The piece identified three main reasons for why online communities fail, all of which I have previously addressed on this blog.
Reason 1 – Being seduced by ‘bells and whistles’
When I launched Just Chat way back in early 2000, I paid little attention to having a fancy design or offering expensive features. Indeed, I thought paying a few pounds for the domain name was a major expense. I used free software for the first year or so, before investing in a chat solution solely for my site. Even then, I used off the shelf software – an ethos which I keep to this day.
Even now, when people take a critical look at Just Chat they frequently mention how ‘basic’ the site looks. Now, I will admit that the site is due for a redesign but even then the site will still appear simple, clean and basic. I am not interested in overwhelming visitors to my site – I will always choose function over frills. As for the software I use? phpBB (free), ParaChat (free and paid versions available), eMeeting (paid, off the shelf solution), Helpdesk pilot (free and paid versions available).
Even now, as the development of my new online community draws to a close and the launch draws ever closer, my earliest goal was to only use software that was already available and that could be easily customised to meet my specific needs. In the end, I chose ExpressionEngine and so far I haven’t regretted the decision one bit. I am not alone in having this opinion. Sure, some projects may need custom coding but you will be surprised how customisable off the shelf software can be if you use your imagination.
You don’t need to spend a fortune developing a new online community. As long as your site is functional, it has just as much chance of success as one with a $10,000 design and development budget.
Reason 2 – Not being committed to the success of the community
Successful communities don’t just spring up out of nothing. I think the reason why most corporations are finding their online communities failing is because money cannot buy human relationships. Corporations are used to financially investing in something in order to get results. Communities will not be more successful as more and more money is thrown at them. Online communities need nurturing. They need attention. They need time, and they need commitment.
As the Wall Street Journal identified:
30% of the businesses Deloitte studied have only one part-time worker in charge of their communities. Most other businesses put a single marketing pro in charge of their sites.
It is absolutely no wonder that these same businesses are experiencing high failure rates. If you want to develop a new online community, you need to work extremely hard on the project. Tending to a new community every now and then, or when convenient will not work. A new community should be thought of as a new born child. If it is to develop and be successful, it needs constant attention and nurturing.
Reason 3 – Not knowing how to measure success
In the article, businesses claim that they establish online communities in order to generate word-of-mouth marketing and to increase customer loyalty. Unfortunately these metrics are extremely difficult to quantify. Companies would find it far easier to measure success based on data that is far more measurable. An e-commerce site for example, could measure success based on its conversion or retention rate. Success could be measured by the number of active members in the community, or how many new links the site is picking up that point to the community.
The success of an online community varies according to the individual goals of the person or business developing that community. Regardless of what those goals are, they need to be measurable (and attainable).
A little comfort
Many readers of this blog are online community developers. Some are struggling to make their community a success. If this is you, be comforted by the fact that Deloitte found that 35% of the online communities they studied have less than 100 members and less than 25% have more than 1,000 members. All this despite the fact that close to 60% (corrected to 6% by report author) of the businesses studied had spent over $1 million on their community projects.
How much have you spent on your online community? I am guessing it is less than $1 million, right? In that case you are already more successful than many of the efforts of ‘big business’!
Why do you think most online communities fail? Why do you think many businesses struggle to make their online community projects a success? Share your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below.