Not all online communities for business succeed. In fact, many fail. The failure rate for online communities has been a popular research topic over the past few years and it is estimated that over 60% of online communities fail to thrive.
Failure can mean a number of different things to the business. Some examples of failure include: the community is not well used by its members; it doesn’t attract a critical mass of members or, worse, the *wrong* people join the community – people who are not at the right level or role for the membership to be valued by the company; or there are technical issues that prevent members from valuing the community offerings. Whatever your definition of failure is, if the business isn’t happy with the outcome, you have a big problem. A failed community often does more damage to the brand reputation than no community at all.
But all is not lost. If you have an under-performing community there are steps you can take to remedy the situation and, in some cases, recover.
First – diagnose your problem well.
Put ego and organizational politics aside and take a good hard look at what is not going as intended. Ask yourself and management what the vision for the community was at the onset. What did you/they hope the community would do for the company when it was started? Chances are you will find a wide variety of responses, many of which were unrealistic or unrealistic given the resources and effort dedicated to it. Too frequently, the business goals for an online community are not well defined at the get-go, so the online community never has a chance of meeting expectations because the expectations were not well articulated. If this is the case, back up the bus! Set time aside to work with key stakeholders to pinpoint the short-term, mid-term and long-term goals for the community. Then, assign clear measures of success.
Second – conduct an investigative needs analysis with members.
Find out what is working and what is not working from their point of view. Don’t ask about technical features and functions; instead focus squarely on identifying if the community meets their business needs. Does the community help them do their job better? What is the best part of the community? What is not meeting their expectations? If they could re-shape the community, what could it do for them professionally? These data can serve you well to refresh the site or to create more meaningful features or content. Taking member guidance into account can increase loyalty and use because the members will feel ownership over the ideas they generated that you put into action.
Third – Examine your current staffing and content creation processes.
Is the online community an ad hoc venture saddled with high hopes or is the staffing adequate to support the business goals? You can’t have a plan to be the go-to resource and have a part time millennial intern managing your site after he delivers coffee and mail. Resources and outcomes need to be aligned. This is a similar situation with content creation. You get what you give with community and if you are not creating valuable content on the site, not working with members to be content creators, not sharing thought leadership on the site then you will not benefit from the site.
Fourth – Ensure you have visit-triggers to get people to the site.
If your audience is business people, chances are we have better things to do than to remember to visit your community. If your target audience is over forty, we are lucky to remember our own names some days, let alone recall to log in to your community! In order to increase awareness of the community and be able to make the most of the members you have, a regular newsletter that has links to the site can significantly increase use. Do you have a weekly newsletter that drives traffic to the site and exposes all the good things that are happening there? Do you do regular outreach to members and is that outreach customized to their interests or personalized? Don’t forget there is more than email for this activity – the phone and paper mail still work too!
Fifth – Size matters.
Many communities don’t have a fighting chance to succeed because they never reach critical mass. If your community is under, say, 2000 members naturally there will not be a lot of activity on the site. Here is an opportunity to unleash the powers of marketing to create an effective member acquisition program. Size up your market of potential members and craft a compelling value proposition on why they should join. Engage WOM (word of mouth peer referral programs), and provide support for members when they first join. The level of personalized support will need to scale appropriately to the audience’s level of seniority. Execs need more support as their expectations tend to be higher. Create a member acquisition program that scales over time, analyze it, and make changes in your approach based on the outcome. For example, you could run a survey and share the results in the newsletter or link to specific member questions with a call for participation.
Not all communities will be victorious in the long run. But, if you can provide a point of connection between your members – focusing on member-to-member collaboration in addition to member-to-company communication, have well defined business goals, features that serve the membership well, and a critical mass of engaged members, you have a powerful recipe for success.