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5 Ways Online Communities Fail and What We Can Do About It

Posted on:October 30, 2023

Building a thriving, useful online community is a dream that many strive for, but the reality is that most communities we try to build fail. Whether it’s a lack of genuine engagement or a failure to stay relevant, communities often dissolve due to a series of common missteps.

This post highlights some of the main reasons communities fail and offers suggestions on what to do about it.

a spooky jackolatern on an empty playground. Scary font that reads Why Communities Fail

In this spooky Hallows Eve edition of my blog, we explore community failure! So scary…

1.) Didn’t Focus on Your Members.

Ask not what your community can do for you but what you can do for your community. Too often, we focus on what value community can bring to the business and not what value we bring to our members.

Is there a reason to gather? Are you meeting a need for people in the community? Give them a reason to come back and habituate engaging in the space. Change as their needs change and continue to iterate on making the space serve them more effectively.

Member Focus Activities to Consider

2.) Incorrect Measurement Metrics

It’s not really about how many people are coming through the door, it’s about what they are doing in the space. Are they building skills, finding collaborators, or excited about the community? What we measure and how we report that can be critical to success. It can help others understand why the community is important and is often required to justify its existence. Do we fully understand how the community impacts the business and brand and can we tell that story?

Metrics to Consider

It’s not always clear to others how valuable a community is so your ability to connect the dots between conversions, positive social testimony, social share impressions, content generation and other potentially important metrics can be critical to the community’s success. Don’t forget to also act on these metrics when you are considering improving your community.

3.) Lack of Genuine Engagement

Communities that are too self-promotional and don’t focus on member engagement tend to fail.

Ways to Encourage Engagement

It may be that genuine engagement can initially be spurred by less-than-genuine methods. For example, Reddit used a technique known as “flinstoning” to create the illusion of a vibrant community. This involved posting from fake user accounts managed by employees. While this approach may seem inauthentic, it eventually led to genuine engagement and community growth. The key takeaway is that modeling the behavior you’d like to see can serve as a catalyst for real engagement.

Continuing with the idea of modeling, actively promoting community members is a sound strategy to kickstart engagement. Make it a point to highlight and recognize member contributions. Showcasing member stories, milestones, or other contributions can inspire others to participate and make them feel valued.

In addition, consider using regular threads—weekly or monthly—for members to share updates, ask questions, or discuss challenges. For instance, The Community Community, aimed at community professionals, has a weekly “Happy Hour” event in a general text channel where people can engage informally.

4.) Didn’t Listen

Community managers are not necessarily the same as community leaders. Recognize the people whom others look up to and keep channels open for their feedback. Having a close relationship with your community champions and making sure they are consistently heard is vital to improving the community experience for everyone.

If input on product is a big value add to your members, ensure your community members know their voices are valued. If you’re asking for their input on feature requests, it’s essential to show that their feedback actually influences the product. You don’t have to implement every suggestion and go build faster horses like Henry Ford probably never said, but it’s crucial to show that their contributions have had some impact, no matter how small.

Consider Dell’s IdeaStorm as an example. It was created in 2007 as a space where users could submit ideas for new products or services, as well as improvements to existing ones. These ideas could be voted on by other community members, theoretically guiding Dell in its product development efforts.

The platform started off generating buzz and engaging customers. It received thousands of ideas and even implemented some of them. Dell gradually reduced the number of employees monitoring the site, so that by 2010, a single employee was monitoring a site with over a million users. Eventually, with fewer and fewer of those ideas implemented and listened to, the community faded.

5.) Lost Relevance

You could have all the ingredients to a successful community but if you are rallying behind a topic or product that is suddenly not relevant anymore, you will find your community start to fizzle out.

How to stay relevant - or not!

If any of these points resonated with you click the clapper a few times below! I’d love to hear your thoughts as well so please feel free to reach out.