The reasons why online communities fail

by Martin Reed on 23 April 2008 in Articles

Why online communities fail

I believe that online communities are the most rewarding type of website you can develop. Nothing can be more satisfying than seeing people interact, finding new friends and enjoying a community that you have created. Even though Just Chat is not a dating site, people have married after meeting there. What could be more rewarding than that? Unfortunately, the majority of online communities will fail – read this article to ensure you don’t meet the same fate.

It takes hard work

The simple fact is, making an online community successful takes hard work – if you aren’t convinced, you can follow my building a new community series to see what I am doing to get my new community established. Remember – nobody wants to join a community without members or content; if you don’t have these, your community will fail.

Easy to start, hard to establish

Online communities fail because they are easy to set up, but tough to make succeed. Want to setup a forum? Installing phpBB is easy to do, and the software is free. Want to start a chat site? ParaChat offers free chat rooms. Want to start a social network? Dolphin is free and easy to install. Unfortunately, the fact that such a wealth of free, easy to use software is out there means people that wouldn’t otherwise be bothered to setup an online community go ahead and try their luck. Most people don’t enjoy the vast amount of luck needed to get a new community off the ground without any effort.

People fail to realise the distinction between setting up an online community, and making it successful. This is why most online communities fail. They fail to realise that besides installing some software, they need to undertake some marketing, they need to create content and they need to work hard to attract members.

Don’t make the same mistake yourself. You are already one step ahead of the majority by reading Community Spark and learning how online communities are successfully developed. I can offer you tips and advice, but I cannot make your community successful – you need to do that yourself, by putting in the required work and effort.

Claiming your community is failing because it has no members is not an excuse. Claiming your community is failing because it has no content is not an excuse. If your site is not attracting members or creating content, you need to put in the work yourself. Create some personas, write good content. Market your website; this needn’t cost you money, but it needs to be done.

Think for the long term

Communities require long term vision to be successful. Don’t give up after a month if things aren’t going right. Don’t even give up after six months. Keep plugging away, work hard, generate content and the visitors will come. When they do, treat them like VIPs to ensure they stay. Once you have attracted members and they are generating content, pat yourself on the back. You are now on the first rung of the community building ladder. Don’t rest on your laurels though, as you can still fail if you don’t continue to pay attention to your community and its members.

Your thoughts

Why do you think most online communities fail? Have you given up on a previous project or considering giving up on your current community? Why? Share your thoughts, opinions and experiences by leaving a comment below.

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{ 19 comments }

Bernard April 23, 2008 at 12:53 pm

I have been working on two online communities the past 6 months, and both of the are a bit dissapointing. I have been filling them up with some personas to generate content, but so far I have been mostly talking to myself. I have had one or two posts from people, but it they were pretty spammy.

One thought I have had on online communities is that they work when the forum is about something technical, and people come to the forum to ask technical questions and get answers. Forums also work if it is a place for people to interact on a romantic level (like dating sites), or if it is about something that people feel very passionate about (like sports).

Communities built around general subjects such as finance, culture, local news etc. don’t seem to be working out so well.

Eric Martindale April 23, 2008 at 1:59 pm

Great post! This is going to become a pillar post for me, I’m definitely going to toss this one to anyone who asks me about starting new communities.

The bottom line is that it does take hard work, and you can’t just start one based on a couple brilliant ideas. You’re going to need to work constantly, and not just in spurts.

Smiley April 25, 2008 at 4:58 pm

I think I’m in a good position to agree with everything you’ve said here.

I set up Friendly Chat in September 07.

7 months later I have 10 simultaneous users chatting in the chat room at any given time, at peak times the user numbers can rise from anything between 16 to 30 users.

I don’t consider this a failure. Many community owners would be disappointed at such low numbers. But I think these community owners don’t realize just how big the internet is and just how much competition there is out there.

in 7 months I have 75,000 forum posts with an average of 600 posts per day. There’s always 8+ registered users logged in at any given time posting away.

So these numbers should not be seen as a failure. You should not throw in the towel and say “oh there’s no point, I give up” — you should keep at it. I went from 1 regular to 3 regulars, from 3 to 9, from 9 to 20 regulars and so on.

You should keep going, and going, and going. It doesn’t take a month to become successful, not even 6 months — heck not even a year. It could take 2 years or perhaps 3 years before you are at the level you’d be happy at. So when you start a community, you better make sure you’re in it for the long haul and you better be prepared to work hard every single day on your community for those 2-3 years until it IS a success.

The problem with a lot of people is they think it’s as easy as sticking a chat room up on a website and within a couple of weeks they’ll have hundreds of regulars. So after a month, they lose interest and stop visiting their own site, they give up. Disheartened, depressed, they just give up.

This is a huge mistake.

I was a very unpopular member at Just Chat when I started FC, so I started it by myself. Nobody else. Just me. It was an impossible task. Nobody thought I’d go anywhere.

All it takes is a little bit of determination, a lot of hard work and dedication, a personality change, a unique personality for your community, and you’ll probably develop carpel tunnel syndrome from posting hundreds of posts per day under 5-6 different persona’s, and it’ll drive you to become a borderline schizophrenic as you try and keep up with all your different personalities LOL.

A website is never finished. Everyday I’m finding something new to tweak, improve or change.. this is what people who want to start a community needs to read and take in and then really decide whether they have the patience and motivation it takes.

This post can be summed up in one age-old cliché — “you get out what you put in”

If you don’t put in 120% effort, you’ll get nothing out.

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 25, 2008 at 5:05 pm

Bernard – Creating personas and creating content is a great start, but are you marketing the site at the same time? You need to make sure you divide your time up between creating content and promoting the community.

General communities can be just as successful as subject specific, niche communities. You raised an important point in your comment; people respond to questions. It doesn’t matter what subject your community is based upon – ask questions, and you will be far more likely to engage members in conversation.

Eric – Thanks for your kind comment. I couldn’t agree with you more – online communities need continuous care and attention, not just a little work here and there!

Smiley – I think you are pulling in some great numbers for such a young site. The cliché you mentioned is bang on the money, though. You really need to put in a lot of effort, and refuse to give up!

JBourne April 25, 2008 at 10:12 pm

I think the biggest reason so many online communities fail is because they’re all the same. There can only be one Myspace and one Facebook. Many products can be a success by imitating market leaders, but that isn’t the case with the social network sites because you actually need thousands and thousands of people using the site at once. What’s the point in having a profile on a site if there’s no benefit to it? You’ll never be able to top Myspace or Facebook, so you really need something drastically different and original to be able to compete.

Sarah April 25, 2008 at 11:46 pm

I believe it is the easy to start hard to establish piece that seems to kill the communities. Just like in the world of blogging you can set up a page in minutes however bringing in traffic can take some serious time. It seems peoples mindsets are not long term. Everyone moves on to the next fad and it is partly our own fault because we all want the new magic bullet. It is tough for online communities to get their users to continue to participate and provide quality input.

Phil the Plumbing Course Expert April 28, 2008 at 6:33 am

I think online communities fail because of lack in promotion. Thanks for sharing this topic, very informative.

Smiley April 28, 2008 at 12:53 pm

Exactly, Martin. That’s how I see it. I’m pleased with the numbers. In 6 months time there’ll be 20 simultaneous users at any given time, in a year, perhaps 40-50 users, in 2-3 years, 100-200 users.. it’s a long process.

But what I don’t understand is, people think 6 chatters, 10 chatters, 16 chatters is “disappointing” — and that is where I believe they go wrong.

A self-fulfilling prophecy don’t you agree? If you think you’re a failure, then your site will fail because you just won’t bother with it any more.

But if you see multiple users in your chat room enjoying themselves, especially if they’re loyal regulars that have found you through a search engine and aren’t there simply because they’re doing it as a favour to you just because they know you, I’d consider that a success and because of that thinking, I carry on working hard to keep them happy and in turn they bring their friends, develop loyalty and then they themselves convince new users to stay.

Building a community takes a lot of positive thinking, there’s no room for negative thinking in community building in my opinion.

Simon Brown April 28, 2008 at 6:25 pm

~Bernard: You mention about technical forums having a strong chance of success and I have a question: How can you convince users to post their problems to such a site and make it a success – it seems counter-productive to post questions and answers under many usernames.

Adnan April 28, 2008 at 10:44 pm

Oooooooo man,

Talk about 6 months, I started a webmaster forum, well I would say close to a year ago, but finished it up I would say in Sept, 2007.

And still it’s sort of chugging along. I would say it needs another year to get off the ground.

Pinetop AZ April 29, 2008 at 9:46 pm

i think they fail because people just give up on them and dont have the patience for them to grow and evolve.
~Mike

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 30, 2008 at 4:38 pm

JBourne – I completely agree. Imitation may get you a few members in the short term, but as soon as they realise you offer nothing new, they’ll soon leave. You need to innovate and offer something new if you want to retain your members.

Sarah – You’re right. Many people fail to think for the long term when building online communities; as a result, they lose interest when they don’t see immediate results and the community fails.

Phil – You can spend thousands on promotion but if you have no content, no members and no community then every penny will be wasted as people leave almost as soon as they have arrived.

Smiley – As soon as you see people interacting in your online community, you have attained some degree of success. The thing you need to do then is capitalise on that initial seed; allow yourself to feel proud of what you have achieved, and continue to attract new members and more interaction.

Simon – You may like to take a look at my article entitled, ‘Why are active forum members like gold dust?‘. It may seem counter-productive to create content yourself, but as long as you are adding valuable, unique content you are still adding value to your website and consequently encouraging interaction.

Adnan – You may like to read my article entitled, ‘How to kick life into a stale forum‘. With a little bit of work, you can get things back on track. Good luck!

Mike – Yes, I would say the vast majority of online communities fail because the developer doesn’t have the patience of commitment to make them a success.

Bernard May 4, 2008 at 9:54 am

Simon

One way that you might convince people to post their technical questions to your forum is to advertise for exactly that. For example: buy advertising on an online camera shop, advertising your forum and asking people to post their questions on cameras on your forum.

If people then visit your forum and see that there is good technical content, they might post their future questions there.

John Walters May 4, 2008 at 1:43 pm

Online communities normally fail because people are not advertising them correctly. The majority of people start up a forum or chat room on a site which has next to 0 traffic. People add the forum as an extra to their site. People have to realise that they will only get involved if they get something out of it. If it’s a forum you need it to be a place where people can ask questions and then get a quick response.
Chat rooms are harder to establish due to the fact that it is an instant messaging type service. In a forum the posts can be days apart whereas in a chat room if there is not a listener then what you say is going unheard and will not have the chance to spark a reply.
John

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 5, 2008 at 4:09 pm

Bernard – That’s a fantastic idea; thanks for the suggestion, I am sure that both Simon and other readers appreciate it!

John Walters – Yes, many people fail to realise that the ‘build it and they shall come’ philosophy is rarely credible when it comes to developing successful online communities. Sites still need to be advertised and marketed if they want to attract visitors and new potential members.

Chat rooms are harder to make succeed, for the exact reasons you mention. I would always recommend someone new to online community building starts with a blog or forum before venturing into online chat.

Luis Narvaez May 6, 2008 at 4:08 am

Its sometimes really hard to get to the right people, some ads or marketing are needed especially with not so popular topics. In my opinion sometimes a low budget budget can make the whole community building process very slow still considering that there are many free softwares. A low budget does not completely limit your success potential but can sure limit some marketing options (ads, banner you know). I think that growing a community with a low budget will benefit a lot from from the social sites as most of them are free, like bookmarking sites and so on (viral marketing as some call it), not recurring to spam of course but growing a big friend list with similar interests, and gaining their trust, which is a little hard to earn these days over the net ,would sure help plant some interest.

Chat May 7, 2008 at 6:48 am

I think most online communities fail because the lack of user involvement and lack of traffic. A big reason also is big communities soaking up all the sun leaving little communities with no light.

I have had many failed communities in the past, but my current project is going okay and im going to keep working hard on it so maybe someday i can call it a success online community .

Eva White May 10, 2008 at 8:55 am

I began an online community for my family and extended family since all of us are in various continents across the world. It was a bit difficult getting the older generation to join in as they still prefer using phones, but now they are online as well. its a great place to keep abreast of family news and views.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 12, 2008 at 7:11 pm

Luis – Throwing money at advertising topics that aren’t popular isn’t a good idea; you need to work out why they aren’t popular, and fix things before paying to advertise them. You can make a successful community without spending any money on advertising; build links, and you can get yourself some free traffic. When you have the traffic, you need to convince those visitors to register, get involved and never leave.

Cody – Yes, online communities fail because people don’t get involved. People don’t get involved because there is nothing going on, or the content isn’t good enough. Having traffic is all well and good, but if you don’t have any engaging content, you have no community.

Eva – That’s a great idea, and it must be really rewarding having all your family involved. Perhaps you have a strong foundation for future expansion!