Private online communities are not a universal business solution. According to Gartner, at least 70% of all online communities fail.
Lack of planning, poor business integration, unattainable market share, unaligned organizational motives and unrealistic expectations are all factors that impact community viability. However, you can avoid being a statistic by ensuring your online community has a foundation for success before making a costly investment.
Here are four prerequisites every organization should consider first:
Essential #1) Proof of Concept
- An isolated, niche common identifier
- Audience inclination
The common identifier for your target audience should be specific enough that potential members will easily grasp a sense of inclusion, but not so specific that the total feasible audience size would be too narrow to reap a return on investment. Hobbies, industries, professional associations and other general interests, in combination with a geographic location or a niche specialty, is a good way to define an audience.
Once you know the common identifier that will define your online community, understanding how and if that specific audience will gravitate to an online community concept is critical.
Look for proof of social spaces on the web where people who fit your target audience are already interacting. Is there evidence of ongoing participation? If you can't find or access an example of a similar social concept, (or even if you can) reach out to individuals who meet the profile in offline groups or via LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
Collect feedback from enough people to ensure you have a reliable sample size to decide whether or not audience inclination exists.
Essential #2) Market Share
When you researched social spaces that aligned with your target audience, did you see other pre-existing, well-rooted online communities?
Be wary of being just another fish in the sea. Even if you pick a platform that has all the newest bells and whistles, well established online communities have one big benefit you don't â€“ an ingrained sense of community. The loyalty and attachment between members of your target audience elsewhere will make it difficult to convince them to spend their limited time somewhere new.
Every type of audience has a total feasible market size, so if the market is already saturated with other online community options, you might not be able to get the share in which you were originally hoping.
(Note that one exception is brand-owned online customer communities. Big brands can typically beat out independent brand-oriented user groups over time.)
Essential #3) Bandwidth
If you hope to succeed, online community management is not an option, it's a requirement.
No online community grows 100% organically. In order to obtain audience buy-in, the online community needs to illustrate value via content, audience engagement and strategically communicated value propositions.
Establishing, implementing and executing processes for each is a full time job. Budgeting for this type of role might seem hard to justify at first, but betting on a platform without a process is like betting on half a horse.
Having someone in place who can constantly focus on driving growth will not only make revenue generation a possibility, it will lead to a positive return on investment much quicker. If your organization wants to commit to a private online community, commit to staffing it as well.
Essential #4) Executive Buy-In
Successful online communities happen when they are part of a fully integrated and widely supported business plan.
If future community members sense that the online community isn't a priority for the organization, they won't feel like their participation, insight and feedback are valued. Without executive buy-in, online communities lose audience buy-in. This makes championing the community concept a key role for your organization's decision makers.
According to the Community Roundtable's 2014 State of the Community Management report, "data suggests the critical role executives play in both supporting the community and in modeling behavior." Comprehensive survey results showed that executive participation does not only significantly impact online community engagement rates, but also factor in to whether or not the community has a fully funded roadmap.
Abandoning ship too early by dropping staff overhead or platform support kills far too many online communities before they are ever given a chance. If your organization's perception of an online community doesn't have total buy-in, proceed with caution.
Private online communities are a fantastic solution for an organization's long term customer retention, acquisition, and brand awareness objectives. Companies and membership organizations who properly plan and align the right support system have seen remarkable results. You can find success too.
Before launching your very own private online community, vet your audience, market space and key decision makers to ensure a secure foundation to build a thriving online community. (And if you need help, we'd love to lend a hand!)
Katie Bapple is a senior online community strategist at Higher Logic. She works with businesses and nonprofit membership organizations to develop effective customer community strategies and implement online community management and growth plans.