Why branded online communities are doomed

We need a radical rethink in how we develop online communities for brands. The approach we’re taking at the moment isn’t working.

At the moment, most branded community efforts fail. Few attract more than a handful of active participants. Even those that succeed, barely deliver the ROI they promised.

There are three broad problems at work here:

1)       We don’t really know what a community is.

2)       We’re taking the wrong approach to developing a community.

3)       We don’t know we’re taking the wrong approach.

What is a community?

Lets tackle the first one. What is a community? Simply, it’s a group of people who have developed relationships around a shared interest. That sounds broad, but that relationship element excludes most activities we usually take for communities. Most Facebook fan pages, for example, aren’t communities. They are an audience. That audience rarely builds relationships with each other.

An audience interacts with you; a community interacts with each other. Most brands probably want audiences, not communities. Most brands want to build a big audience they can promote their products/services too. That’s fine, but it’s not a community.

An online community is a unique approach to achieve specific goals. If you want to achieve unparalleled insight, engagement and feedback from your audience, a community is often the right choice. If you’re trying to reach new audiences, a community is the wrong choice. Why would people join a community for a product/service they don’t buy?

You should only try to develop a community if you need your audience to interact and build relationships with each other.

Big Launch Syndrome

Next, we’re taking the wrong approach to building a community. Most brands go for a big launch with all the expensive and time-intensive promotional efforts that entails. No successful community today began with a big launch. A big launch actually does more harm than good.

A big launch gives most of your potential audience a bad first impression, wastes a lot of time and money, focuses on getting registered members over active members and sets impossible expectations for success.

Communities don’t need a big launch, they need a small launch. Every big community began as a small community. When brands launch a community they need to be focused on building a small group of highly active members, not a huge group of inactive accounts. This group can be small, around 50 – 100. They need very high levels of personal contact. They need to be directly invited. Most importantly, they need to be prompted for the first few weeks to participate in discussions.

Over a period of time this will become a habit and members will begin initiating discussions on their own behalf. Soon you will reach critical mass – where most of the activity, content and growth is from the community itself.

It’s a lot easier to have a big community for your brand once you have a small community. Almost every successful online/offline community in history has followed this approach.

We don’t know it’s wrong

Finally, we need a mindset change. We need to know the traditional marketing-led approach which aims for a high amount of attention for a short period of times needs to be replaced by a mantra of slow, steady, growth. Communities take time to develop. We need to understand that a community wont have 5000 members in its first month and 50,000 within three months.

Or think of it another way, companies who want to reach parents pay six-figure sums to advertise on Mumsnet – the UK’s most popular parenting community. For a far less figure they could have created Mumsnet years ago and nurtured it to the powerhouse it is today.

We need to understand that communities take time, but it’s an investment which pays off many times over.

Further information on The Pillar Summit intensive community management courses is available at http://pillarsummit.com . The Pillar Summit brings proven academic theory, practical tactics and clear standards to the world of community management and provides participants with a clear framework for developing a successful community.