8 Reasons Why Online Communities Fail – and, how we can help

At conferences, I’ve heard speakers say that you must have an online community – a MROC, market research online community, as they are often called. That’s fine, but there’s no point trying to build an online community if it doesn’t achieve its objective or fails. Here’s 8 key things to consider so that your community has the best chance of success. And, indeed, how we can help to achieve that success.

Reason for Being

I liked a blog article that Russell Graham of Brand Learning wrote a little while ago. He talks of a community having to have a ‘reason for being’. That might sound obvious, but the psychology behind this is simple. Unless everyone is committed – the brand manager, the research agency and the participants – the community will fail. Just like anything else in life, there must be a common purpose. Having a clear plan is important. It doesn’t mean that the plan cannot change, but a neglected community will fail.

Putting in the effort

Managing a community is not something that happens magically. It’s true to say that some communities are easier to work with than others. I would be more enthusiastic participating in an online community about football than the shampoo brand that I use (others may be the opposite to this, I realise!). The point is, though, that managing a community takes time and effort. It’s not something that can be neglected when you are busy. It needs regular attention and as much time as it takes.

Building trust

Whatever groups you belong to, they are always more effective if there is trust. Building trust amongst community participants takes time and effort and it’s important to nurture this. I’ve found that sometimes this is confused with enthusiasm. Whilst enthusiasm in anything you do will produce better results, building trust is a must for a successful online community. Giving something of yourself, dealing with minor problems, acknowledging needs and being honest are just some of the things that are needed. If you make a mistake or ask participants to do something that is too difficult or important, it can be beneficial to admit your mistake. Suddenly, you become more human and trust will grow.

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Fear is a barrier that we all suffer from at different times. We don’t like bad news. We don’t want to be told we are doing something wrong. Brand managers, perhaps, fear that they may lose control of their brand if they let the general public loose on their products. It is the duty, in my view, of research agencies to steer against this. Feeling able to ask difficult questions and being prepared to get answers you did not expect (or, worse, still, want) will give your client richer data – or, insights to use the word that market researchers like to overuse. Not showing fear will also increase trust and that you are truly interested in your community members’ views.

There needs to be something in it for the community

Online communities like any other online activity need to give value. Some people spend a lot of time on social media – it might be thought of as an addiction in some cases – but there always needs to be a motivation for spending time online or, indeed, in any pursuit. An online community is no different. It might be rewards in terms of money, discounts, offers, but it may be something entirely different such as feeling valued in shaping a brand or being first to get some valued information. It may a topic that is motivating in some way, but essentially members of an online community must be getting something back in return.

You need to keep the members of the community engaged and feeling involved

If you want an online community that is anything other than short term, you will need to ensure that the members of the community are engaged, otherwise you will simply increase the time you spend recruiting new members. This means giving something back as well as taking information from them. You will need to give them varied activities that have a purpose. In addition to this, it is good practice to report something back so that they feel privileged in some way. Maybe you can tell them what outcome there was from a topic that was discussed a week or two ago or you can share some information that is not widely known. Such an approach will improve involvement and engagement. If you have ever joined a club and found that no one talks to you, it is likely that you left quickly. For a community, you have a commercial reason to make sure everyone participating wants to stay involved.

Wide range of activities

Member engagement will increase if you have a wider range of activities. Analysing what types of activities different members like can help you plan the right activities for a medium to long term community. There must be something for everyone and with the right amount of frequency. Monitoring the success or failure of each activity is time well spent. You don’t want a mass exodus of participants by repeating a previously failed activity. A successful online community needs a wide range of activities. These should usually include:

  • Wall conversations
  • Polls
  • Interactive bulletin boards/chat groups
  • Photo diaries
  • Video diaries
  • One-to-one engagement
  • Interactive surveys

Easy to use platform

The platform used for online communities should be easy for participants to use. It should be intuitive to use; welcome videos should be deployed for basic orientation. Some participants may be ‘tech savvy’ but in some target groups it may be a venture into a new world. It’s easy to say that the platform should be as easy to use as Facebook, for example, but, believe it or not, not everyone uses Facebook! Short videos can bring to life how tasks should be undertaken. You don’t want to lose a participant because they become frustrated early on when using the platform.

So many reasons to fail – should we just give up on online communities?

Don’t despair! I am biased, but I would say a definite ‘no’. They offer so much more than group discussions and can give greater opportunity to gain a real depth of data. The big 8 reasons for the failure of online communities have been covered in this article. What’s important may change from product field to product field, but it will generally be a case of emphasis rather than ignoring some of these recommendations. Yes, there are some communities which are likely to be more enthusiastic than others. At the same time, there is no substitute for thinking carefully about how the community members will feel and view your community is an important starting point.

8 Reasons Why Online Communities Fail Webinar

We also held a webinar on this very subject, you can view the recording of this here.