Top reasons communities fail

by Venessa Paech September 27, 2019

More businesses and organisations than ever are discovering the power and value of building a community. But many stumble and fall before they realise their potential.

Thankfully, between industry research (like the Australian Community Manager annual surveys), collaboration with our international colleagues, and decades of experience, we know where they’re going wrong.

Lack of purpose

The most common reason communities fail is they don’t have a compelling reason to exist. Compelling – that is – for the members you hope will join. Growing your profits doesn’t motivate members (unless they share in them). Figure out which problem you’re solving and what value you’re offering prospective members – and how each aligns with who you are as an organisation.

The more specific, the better. You can’t be all things and if you try, you won’t succeed at any of them. Without a strong, clear purpose directly motivating to your desired participants, you’re dispensable. Then you can align it with your internal business case and benefits for maximum punch.

No clear strategy

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll need dumb luck to get there. You don’t need a detailed five-year plan (far too much will change to make that practical), but you need an idea of what you’re building, milestones you expect or need to see, how long you think they might take, and how it feeds back into the business.

Are you building a knowledge base? Facilitating peer-support? Trying to change behaviour? Inviting idea generation?  You also need a view on what success looks like and how you’ll measure it. Your strategy is allowed to evolve. In fact, it should. But setting out without one is a recipe for failure.

Lack of internal buy-in

Another common issue for communities is a lack of internal support for their success. A community may be conceived and launched by an enthusiastic individual or team, but it needs the endorsement of the highest levels of an organisation to succeed over time. That executive sponsorship means you can institutionalise support for the community and get the resources you need to do the job well.

If buy-in and the resourcing to prove it isn’t present in the early life of community, it’s highly vulnerable. When priorities shift, or managers move on, the community is a frequent casualty – struggling to justify its existence, win essential resources, or reinvent itself against new, badly matched goals.

No community management

It’s staggering that companies could spend a fortune on a community platform and marketing campaign, but not invest in professional community management. Yet it happens.

Communities do not manage themselves. After they’re established (which can take years), they can self-govern alongside a community manager. But in their inception phase, daily, proactive community management is essential. Community managers recruit and mobilise members, cultivate behaviours, establish social norms, motivate engagement and steer the community towards its objectives. Without it, efforts and investment will be wasted.

If you can’t afford to engage community management, you can’t afford a community.

No moderation

No community management usually also means no moderation, which is a risk you can’t afford to take.

Sometimes a business will hire moderation as a service separately (often off-shore or low cost). This means that the community isn’t getting the steering it needs to drive desired engagement and outcomes, and that moderation decisions happen inconsistently and ‘in the background’ without public comment (Facebook’s model is an example). This can lead to paranoia and dissent in the community.

When prospective members see a community is unmoderated, it says the organisation doesn’t care about creating a safe, welcoming place for members. Worse, it opens you up for serious legal risks.

Read more: How to recruit volunteer moderators

No pre-launch seeding

‘If you build it they will come’ was a great movie moment, but it’s no way to start a community. You need a recruitment plan to ‘seed’ your space with the right type of members and content before any unveiling.

Without this you’ll face the ’empty disco’ problem – people uncomfortable being the first to dance. You need a dynamic model for what the community is and does up and running before you launch to the wider world.

Just like proto-typing, this process doesn’t just model the community you want to show off to new members, but it gives you the time and space to test assumptions, ideas and processes before normalising them into community practice.

Choice of platform

If you do all the things above right, where you build your community is less important. But it still plays a role in determining whether your community will get off the ground and sustain over time.

Platform can’t be an afterthought or assumption. It’s a part of your strategy and needs to line up with purpose, target membership, and how you want or need to conduct interaction and activities.

Think about the features your community will need to fulfill its purpose, for example, anonymity or real names, ability to upload video content, real-time chat, permissions for user moderators, and so on. Your purpose and member needs should dictate your platform set-up.

Read more: Community 101 tips for Facebook Groups

Expecting fast growth

The world of social media has spoiled us. We’ve watched the fast growth of certain follower counts, and how quickly information spreads across our platforms and networks. It’s just not how it works with community.

Social media are a growth and speed machine. Communities are the opposite. Their fuel is trust and shared purpose, which take time to set foundations for and nurture. Communities take years to grow and mature, not months, weeks or days.

If you’re not in it for the long haul, readjust your bearings or get ready for disappointment.

One chance?

With community, you may only get one bite of the cherry. If you go out to your market or your audience with a big launch and big ask – get involved in this community to do X, Y, Z – and you get it wrong? They’re less likely to give you a shot when you try again.

So before you start your community-building journey, engage community professionals and carefully plan to avoid these common mistakes.