The 2008 Tribalization of Business Study that was released last week led a lot of people to conclude that online communities do not work and that companies are spending too much money on making them happen.
Well – there is some of that and then there is a whole other side to the story that we uncovered as part of the study.
Let me use this post to clarify some of the misunderstandings in the interpretations of the business community study results.
Do most online communities indeed fail?
In fact we found many very successful community examples in the companies that participated in the study – many of them well known and well documented case studies, some less so. We should also point out that most communities that were part of the study are less than 1 year old – so we do not really know whether they are successes or failures.
It is true that many communities fail, and will continue to do so. When they do, however, they do so for very similar reasons – so you’d think it should be fairly easy to avoid the pitfalls.
The first reason is that many companies who embark on community initiatives are putting their company or product at the center of the effort. As many pointed out, that is obviously WRONG – you need to put the community member at the center and make sure that there is some passion around the initiative.
Do companies spend too much on Technology?
The second main reason for community failures, and one that got misinterpreted by many, is that companies are starting community initiatives by focusing on the technology first. It’s not that they are spending too much on technology, it’s that the technology platform is not what is going to result in the dynamics of increasing return that characterize successful communities.
Should all companies have community initiatives?
If you can create a place for your customers and prospects to come and share their passion, and that place does not yet exist, then you should absolutely try to have a community initiative. But don’t be blinded by “the not invented here” syndrome – maybe the best way for your company to leverage communities is to go on Facebook, MySpace or some other community that is user controlled, like the Tivo community used to be.
As some pointed out, there is another big reason why companies should always think about affiliating with other communities – and that is that people will only participate in a limited number of communities. I won’t participate in a Bank of America small business community and a Microsoft small business community and maybe a few others – I only have so much bandwidth.
When is $1M too much to spend on a community?
Many jumped on the bandwagon that it is unbelievable for companies to spend $1M on customer communities…[update 07/21 @7:45pm ET - only 6% of the companies who participated in the study spent more than $1M on their communities]
Maybe yes, maybe no…
If you are small startup, then $1M is definitely way too much. If you are a bigger company and spend $1M on designing a slick community with worthless technology bells and whistles, then that is too much to. But as I wrote by using the example of Bank Of America, in some cases companies are not spending enough to make a difference with their online community. If you are a Fortune 50 company with billions of dollars in revenues, and routinely spend multiple millions of dollars on advertising media, then only spending a few hundred thousand dollars or even a million dollars on your community will just not move the needle. And if the goal of everything you do is to create new customers in a way that will make a difference for your company, then you need to invest appropriately.
Now if you are going to spend $1M – you have to make sure that the investments need to be made in content creation, moderation and awareness development (no, I did not say advertising or direct mail ) to support large numbers of users.
Do CMOs get it?
Talk about a loaded question…but since many were quick to dismiss the capabilities of marketers it is one that I thought should be addressed.
And the answer again is – some do, some don’t, and many are trying to figure things out.
Some are indeed looking at communities as another channel through which to interrupt their customers and prospects with product messages – and most of them fail fast and miserably.
Some don’t quite get what they inherited and keep it small and contained so that it does not make it on their radar screen.
And some know that it is transforming their role and giving them a renewed chance to be the key market strategist at the executive table and the representative of the voice of the customer within their company – and those are the ones who are reaping all the gains.
So, again – do most communities fail?
Our study did not show that. But yes, many community initiatives do fail – either because nobody comes (or they come once and then never come again), or because they fail to move the needle for companies and do therefore not receive the executive attention that they deserve. As I said before, the reasons why they fail are very similar from one case to the next and should therefore be avoidable. But there are many case studies where companies delivered game changing results to their company’s bottom line – and the reason why they succeeded are very similar as well.