Launching a private online community for customers, members, employees, or partners is a big undertaking and you want to make sure all your hard work pays off. However, in the excitement of the planning and launch process, it's not uncommon for companies to get ahead of themselves and neglect crucial details. When you're just starting out and everything is new, it's easy to laugh off the question of, "What could possibly go wrong?"
Unfortunately, it does take hard work and careful planning to make sure your online community is successful. There are several areas of research, strategic elements, and community management processes that, if not addressed during the planning phase, can lead to the derailing of your community down the line. With all that needs to go right, planning for the best and the worst at the same time can get a little overwhelming.
That's why we've decided to borrow the simple tactic of conducting a premortem. As a common practice in business projects and product management, it only seemed sensible to apply the same strategy to building a successful online customer or member community.
What is a Premortem?
You're probably familiar with a postmortem, which is most often used in medical settings to refer to the process of investigating a patient's death. The term has been borrowed by the business world to conduct a focused look-back at a product, project, or campaign. Essentially, a postmortem asks, "What went wrong?"
While this might make sense for business or medical purposes where some level of ending is inevitable and there I nothing you can do to change the outcome, you don't want to wait until your online community fails to find out what caused the death.
Enter: the premortem.
The Harvard Business Review defines a premortem as, "the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem." However, premortems are not to be confused with a discussion centered on the question of, "What might go wrong?" Instead, premortems are conducted under the assumption that the community already has failed, and participants present realistic possibilities for an answer to the question of, "What did go wrong?"
By identifying the potential pitfalls of your community ahead of time, you can safeguard your launch and better ensure your success. You won't only have an answer to "What could possibly go wrong?", you'll have a plan to prevent it.
Why Premortems Make Sense for Online Communities
While it's impossible to predict each and every potential problem your private online community strategy might face, many community managers find themselves with a struggling community at various stages of the community's lifecycle due to things that could have been addressed much earlier in the planning process.
Unfortunately, by the time you convince all the involved parties and stakeholders that launching an online community is a good idea, the last thing you want to do is present a list of problems that might talk them out of it. That's where a premortem comes in handy.
Rather than reading like an unprepared list of issues you won't know how to handle, a premortem identifies scenarios as if they already happened, allowing you to seemingly have a crystal ball. Instead of weakening your launch with potential problems, you can fortify it with plans to avoid failure. Premortems allow you and your community team members to voice your concerns without fear of undermining the goals and intent of your online community strategy.
In order to ensure your premortem is a productive part of your planning process, we've outlined five necessary steps below.
How to Conduct a Premortem for Your Online Community
Step #1) Gather Your Team Members
Bring together everyone who has had a hand in building your online community and everyone who will interact with it during and after the launch. Try to gather a diverse group of stakeholders that can bring a wide range of ideas to the table. However, bear in mind that it might be best to keep your group relatively small to avoid unnecessary repetitions.
Step #2) Tell Them the Community has Failed
Make the announcement that, despite their best efforts, your private online community has failed. Next, ask them to write down a list of what happened to lead to the community's failure. Stress that the reasons why the online community failed need to be plausible.
Step #3) Present the Possibilities
One by one, ask your team members to present their findings on why the community failed. Collect the reasons in one list and make a note when more than one team member identifies a reason. This could indicate that a particular situation is more probable.
Step #4) Review the List and Look for Trends
Once all of the reasons are collected, look over your list to see if any patterns or trends emerge. For instance, if several of your team members identified low engagement from longtime customers as a reason for why your community failed, that might point to a weakness in your outreach plan or value propisition for that audience.
Step #5) Make a Plan to Strengthen Your Community
Use the list of premortem downfalls as an opportunity to revisit your community strategy and launch plans and make them stronger.
Ask yourself: what can we do to make sure that doesn't happen? If there is a reasonable answer to that question, don't wait for a potential problem to occur before taking action. Find as many ways as possible to safeguard your launch and secure your community against the possibility of failure.
Online Community Success Takeaway
It can often seem counterintuitive to think of all the ways your plans for an online community can go wrong. However, identifying pitfalls and problems ahead of time doesn't have to be viewed as negativity.
Instead, take the time to hold a premortem with your team members and put your heads together to identify the holes in your plan. By planning for the worst, you'll be able to strengthen your plan and give your online community a much better chance at thriving.