Ten Warning Signs That Your Customer Community Will Fail

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

The conversation on failing online communities and social networks continues on blogs and news sites around the web.

In these stories and in comments from readers, you'll find much good advice, some that is vague or harmless, and some that is outright wrong.  I sympathize with any company out there trying to harvest some actionable steps from this bewildering welter of data.


Back in May, I presented at Community 2.0 on how we help our customers create successful communities on the Lithium platform.    I won't rehearse the whole presentation here - it's available on Slideshare -- but I thought I'd pull out one slide that captures some of the common mistakes that companies make: in short, these are ten warning signs that your customer community will fail.  

As someone charged with helping our customers be successful, I often worry when I hear certain things in our early conversations with customers.  None of these would strike the average person as foolhardy.  Some, in fact, seem to be good, prudent management practices.    So why do they make me worry?


Let me explain.


"We want to do a pilot."


Pilot projects typically have two characteristics:  they involve relatively small numbers of people, and they run for a limited time.  These are not the characteristics of successful communities.   Community is a numbers game.    Running a traditional pilot with a community is like saying, "I'm going to run my car without gas for a few weeks to see if I like how it runs - then I'll fill ‘er up." 


What you should do instead:  bill your efforts as a pilot or beta, but promote it broadly and keep it open to all.  


"We want to use this primarily as an acquisition tool."


Some companies confuse community efforts with traditional advertising and marketing efforts, thinking that they will drive their own traffic initially and don't require traditional promotion and outreach.   In fact, in my experience, lack of promotion is the number one reason communities fail.    I often get calls from people telling me "I can't get my users to interact."  When I take a look, it's clear what the problem is - not enough users are there in the first place.


What you should do instead:  View acquisition as second-order effect rather than a first-order effect.  Communities are actually quite effective for driving customer acquisition - but only after you have reached critical mass.  Then, the power of user-generated content will kick in.  Many companies tell me that the organic search traffic generated by their community well outperforms paid search.


"You will have to register in order to see the community."


Once again:   community is a numbers game.   Any barriers you erect to seeing and participating in the community will reduce your likelihood of success by orders of magnitude.   In addition, people are unlikely to register for something if they can't see what it is.  


What you should do instead:   Consider private areas for topics or groups whose discussions might include information that can't be shared publicly.   In most cases, however, companies are choosing "open" rather than "closed."


"We need to keep this under the radar for the first few months."


Perhaps you see the pattern here.   No people = no community.  Sounds prudent, but it's the riskiest thing you can do.   Generally it's a sign that you're not ready as an organization to engage with customers in this way.


What to do instead:  Anything but this.


"We don't know who will be serving as our administrator/community manager."


This indicates a problem of a different order.  It means that you haven't thought about what will happen the day after you launch the community to your users.  Having a person who will operationally "own" the community gives you a shot at success.   Having that person involved from day one in the launch process will help ensure it. 


What to do instead:  Put a priority on identifying this person as early as possible in the process - preferably before you select a technology.


"We think networking is the primary reason people are going to use the community."


Funny thing - most people don't put "meeting other people" high on their list of priorities.   Relationships emerge out of existing relationships - remember that your customers have a relationship with you even before you launch your community - and out of interaction around topics of common interest.     I suspect as well that pure "friending" networks also require the kind of scale that few companies have in their customer base - perhaps as much as ten times what is required for successful forums or blogs.


What to do instead:    include networking features in community platform alongside other elements such as blogs, forums, etc.


"We want to start with 20 (or 200) forums."


You may be wondering - if community is a numbers game, why do so many experts say "start small"?    Well, small refers not to the number of people, but to the initial scope of the topics and features in your community.    Users need to feel that the community is "active" in order for them to participate.  Some companies begin with such a broad structure that, no matter how much activity they generate, the community always feels "dead."


What to do instead:  start small.



"We want people to pay to participate."


One reason this worries me is that this is, by definition, a community that people have to register for before they can see.    And we've previously discussed the issues with that.  But the real reason is that over a dozen years and more than 300 companies, I've never seen it succeed.


What to do instead:  make it free.


"This is a marketing community, not a support community."


What this often means is, "Our conversation will be about me, not about you."    I don't know how that works for you in real life, but I do know I should avoid you at cocktail parties.   But seriously, two problems here:  first, ongoing conversations with customers meet them where they live - in the problems and questions that arise as they purchase and use the products and services you provide.  You can take this conversation many places from there - but that's the best place to start.  Second, you can have a good conversation about you, but it's generally a time-limited conversation, not an ongoing one.  Your customers don't wake up every day with new feedback for you - mostly they just want you to fix the stuff they already told you about - but they do wake up every day with new problems - you can bet on that.


What to do instead:  make your conversation customer-centric.


"We are targeting the CXO level."


This can also apply to any situation where a company is targeting a specific level or segment of their audience rather than the level or segment that most wants to interact with them.  On one side, the challenge is scale - reducing your audience size reduces your likelihood of success.      On the other, it's a question of realism - often this is an audience you'd like to have a conversation with today, but don't.     A new mode or channel is not necessarily the answer here.   


What to do instead:  understand the real opportunities that exist within your customer base, and pursue those instead.

A final word:   It's quite possible to succeed by ignoring my advice on any of the items above - it's just incredibly unlikely.

Message Edited by JoeC on 09-12-2008 06:35 AM
I'm an administrator (just got promoted yesterday from moderator!) at a pretty popular forum with quite a few members, and I plan on forwarding this great blog to our head admin. We've gone through a few rough moments, including a couple of swaps between the ownership of the domain and hosting.

We've managed to endure all of the hard times, but there are a few times when our activity plummets. I'm hoping that this can help our staff with any ideas they may have; we've been able to abide to staying away from those warning signs, but there are times that some pretty bad ideas arouse. I'm hoping that this will douse any of those "register to see" or "pay to use" ideas that may pop up at anytime.

This was a very, very good article, Joe. I logged onto the blog for the first time in a while, and I was quite pleased to see such an article.

The host idea that was mentioned in a previous blog article months ago was quite nice. It's not a new thing, but our forum is planning on making use of a similar position! 🙂
Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Thanks for the good words, Colton, and congratulations on the promotion!
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