More clarity on branded online communities ‘failing’

There has been a lot written this last week about the Deloitte report into online communities (the 2008 Tribalization of Business Study), in particular driven by a Wall Street Journal blog entry discussing how online communities fail. I wrote about this on our blog (here) and that article was also republished by FutureLab and Experientia.

At FreshNetworks we build online communities for brands, we help clients with their strategy, technology and platform. I have to say that my experience of working with clients and of online communities jarred with some of the things the Wall Street Journal blog seemed to be suggesting as it’s analysis of the report. In particular the fact that so many communities were ‘failing’ and the cost cited. The latter figure was later clarified as a mistake (6% and not the initially reported 60% of firms studied had spent in excess of $1 million on their communities). The former has been clarified thanks to Francois Glossieaux at EmergencyMarketing.

The study included a large number of cases where the community had been running for less than a year – a relatively short period. Whilst we see and help clients to realise some direct benefits of having an online community they take time to build and to develop. This changes the analysis of the Deloitte report quite a bit. At FreshNetworks we take communities through a process from infancy to maturity. For different audiences, different brands and different communities this process takes differing amounts of time. One thing that is common, however, is that considerable effort (on the part of all parties) is needed to build the community to a stage where it looks mature.

I would venture that although a business or brand may see siginificant and tangible benefits of the community from the very early days, running an evaluation of a range of communities that are less than a year old may lead to perverse conclusions. Maybe it isn’t that many online communities fail, as the Wall Street Journal blog suggested, but that many online communities are in their infancy. This is a conclusion I could relate to.

Online communities can have an impact on the business from the beginning, especially those built by brands are designed with specific business objectives in mind. But any longer-term evaluation of success really needs to allow for these communities to develop and mature and then take place.

I would be interested in any data that judges ROI or success of online communities against the stage of development for the particular community. This more detailed and segmented approach to success would have greater insights for those of use who build and manage online communities and advise clients on how best to engage with their consumers or stakeholders in this way.