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What Is A ‘Successful’ Online Community?

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

The ComBlu report was released yesterday.

Amongst it’s many perplexing elements was the assertion that BravoTV is a brand that gets it? Why does Bravo TV get it?

Bravo does a great job of giving consumers a ritualized experience across programming landing pages and communities. Ritualized content and experiences are an important aspect of community life, and are an important return motivator.”

You might imagine from such a statement that BravoTV’s community would be thriving.

Only it isn’t.

In fact, they struggle to get more than 10 members participating in a community at any one time. Try the boards for TopChef, Millionaire Matchmaker, What happens now, My Life On The D-List (just change the number at the end to find a variety of dying communities).

If simply posting a standardized thread each week and leaving people to their own endeavours is seen as good community management practice, what exactly is bad community management? This is community management by autopilot.

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It gets worse, BravoTV ritually abandons communities with the rise and fall of each show.

My point isn’t to demonise BravoTV so much to highlight that much of what is considered good community practice bares so little relevance to what makes a community a success.

Ritualized content and standardized platforms do nothing to help a community, they might even prevent a community from developing a unique identity.

You judge a community’s success by it’s stage in the life cycle, the number of interactions it generates, it’s members sense of community and the ROI it offers the organization. ComBlu defines success by what features the platform offers. By that assessment, nearly all of the most successful communities would be considered failures.

ComBlu credits Bravo with an array of successes which have no impact on the community’s success. Only one suggestion is offered:

[..] On our Bravo wish list? A better gamification or reputation management system.”

There are a variety of things the community needs, a better gamification system certainly isn’t one of them.

How about hiring a community manager to take responsibility for stimulating discussions, getting members to respond, sustaining high levels of activity? How about allowing off-topic discussions? How about letting members initiate their own discussions? How about interacting with members and building relationships with them? How about developing a sense of community between members?

This isn’t just limited to BravoTV. WholeFoodsMarket is struggling to sustain activity, American Express’ Top Flyer looks quiet and Business Travel ConneXion’s has had 3 participants in the last 10 days.

Throughout the report we see the communities deemed successful are very much the opposite. In many, you can’t find where members can interact. Content sites branded as communities are still content sites.

And this is the crux of the problem. Too many brands don’t care (or don’t know) if they have beautiful, if little-used, content-based sites they can call communities or if they actually have a thriving online community. It’s far easier to develop content sites. Those in the ‘community space’ know this. It requires little skill to create and publish content. You can’t really fail, it’s all about your actions.

But building a community is much more difficult (and more valuable).

We must peel back the layers of content and see if people are actually participating. We must stop classifying success/failures by what features the platform offers. We need to find a proper criteria for success and useful case studies to follow. At the moment, we appear to have little of either.

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