ghosttownHave you ever been exploring online and found yourself in a virtual community where crickets chirped and tumbleweeds drifted by? Message board tallies show the last comment was made in 2007 and any newer threads got a couple of views and zero responses. Welcome to the ghost town, a languishing community where there are few signs of life. Perhaps it was once a brand community launched with high hopes, a substantial budget and ambitious marketing objectives, but it was later abandoned, both by its inhabitants and its founders. The once-promising gold rush moved on.

Gartner reports that 50% of brand communities will fail. And by “fail,” I believe they mean “shut down.” That leaves the other 50% still live. But are they successful? How many “ghost town” communities are out there? Over the past couple years many progressive brands have explored social media and community marketing initiatives — Twitter, Facebook, blogs, viral videos, forums or fully-fledged online communities. With the comeback of the term “community” and the hype and buzz of Facebook, many other brands are likely contemplating everything from establishing a Twitter account to launching a Facebook-like community within their site. The promise is high customer engagement — which the CFO could care less about, but marketers often believe drives sales and loyalty.

I applaud exploration, experimentation and “fail fast” initiatives. But now we’re entering into a time where the key phrase is “show me the results.” The focus on measurability is leading many brands to take a hard look at what they launched, and step away from things that didn’t work. It’s a critical time for these brands, and for any others considering a move into social media. These failures don’t mean that online community-building is a waste of time, or that it can’t be done. But it’s complex, and the appropriate strategy could be markedly different from one brand to the next. Before beginning the virtual barn-raising in a new community initiative, tread carefully and consider what success means to you.

Jake McKee, chief strategy officer at Ant’s Eye View, likens the whole process to personal relationship building. “We date many more people than we marry — i.e. There’s bound to be plenty of failures in our question to create something grand,” he says.

The Community Concept Isn’t to Blame

You should know I’m not anti-community. I’ve been involved in “community” my entire career. In 1995 wrote a book on marketing with computer user groups (the analog to today’s online communities). In 1997 I launched and managed the ThirdAge.com community (chat and forums for baby boomers), I led product management for Dell Support Forums, and I’ve been a participant in Compuserve, eWorld, AOL, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. From these experiences I’ve concluded that communities succeed if they solve a need, share an interest/passion and/or connect me with people I care about. Facebook works because most of your and my friends are there — it solves the need to connect and stay up to date, thus carrying more weight as a “social resume.” Dell support forums work because they allow asynchronous conversations to solve a technical problem for a frustrated computer user. The ThirdAge community (chat and forums) worked in certain topics where there was passion and birds of a feather could discuss that passion.

From a marketer’s perspective, the idea of a brand community sounds great. The expectation is that it will be a petri dish which will virally grow customer engagement, and this type of engagement will lead to sales. The problem is, few customers jump into that petri dish, fewer still will stick around, and the community interaction usually has no contextual bridge to purchasing. That’s three strikes. Most brand communities serve a very, very small set of customers (in relation to their customer base or market size) with either a lot of passion or a lot of time on their hands. And let’s face it, not every brand has the potential to inspire lasting passion and sustain a Facebook-type community. Exceptions are cult brands that have passion and community built into their product ethos, such as Harley Davidson or Apple. But you can’t create that by putting up a community. That starts way upstream, with the product and the brand.

What’s a Community For?

Brand communities are configured to create social interactions between customers, allowing them to share opinions and interact via blogs, wikis, polls, forums and private messages. There are a lot of technological bells and whistles that the product manager can get excited about, but let’s look at it from the customer’s point of view. I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier…the reason people participate in communities is to:

  1. Solve a problem / need (or help others do so)
  2. Share an interest or passion
  3. Connect with people of interest (develop social capital)

#1 is the reason support forums exist, and these reduce support costs, but don’t drive sales. #2 and #3 are usually what Brands are looking for, expecting community to drive engagement and sales. But when visitors are not passionate about the topic, they are less likely to jump in. If the community audience is small and unfamiliar with one another, a prospective visitor’s motivation to build social capital or help others dissolves. In both cases, the vibrance and participation in the community are next to go. This causes the next visitor not to join, which in turn decreases the passion and audience size of the community. This domino effect leads most brand communities to turn into a ghost town.

A study from Deloitte reports that two of the top three obstacles to making communities work have to do with getting people to engage or visit — and the remaining issue doesn’t help solve this problem:

  1. Getting people to engage
  2. Finding enough time to manage
  3. Attracting people to the community

The solution may lie in reframing the objective. A fully-developed Facebook-like community with thousands of regular participants is probably an unachievable — and in some cases undesirable — goal for many brands. I say undesirable because the resources required to build and maintain such a community may not be in line with the returns that they produce. Something smaller scale may not be as glamorous or provide as many opportunities to brag to your digirati friends on Twitter, but it may be just right for your brand and your customer base.

There are a few potential ways to go small. Ask yourself some questions. If you have a million customers and there are 100 community members posting occasionally, is that success? Or is it a ghost town? Gartner may be reporting that the community sticks around, but how much impact can those 100 people, or the few thousand that “watch” the interactions, have on your business? And even if those few thousand are more engaged, is the conversation related to your product or service leading to sales influence? Or is it unrelated?

Research from Communities

There’s nothing wrong with creating a community with the purpose of interacting with the few. A hundred or a thousand participants in a community may not make a sizeable impact on your sales, but they can provide valuable insight. If your objectives are for research or product co-creation, then a community that facilitates that interaction between your brand team and your customers can be very successful. Customers are much more engaged when they know the purpose of the community is for the company to listen to their ideas. A very focused version of this is Dell IdeaStorm or MyStarbuckIdea.com, where customers post an idea and others vote it up or down. Simple. The measures of success there are insights gathered in a much more scaleable and frequent way than traditional market research.

Communities like this have their place, but they don’t necessarily have a direct impact on sales. At least until that product co-creation happens — and most marketers probably have a shorter time-horizon to show ROI, especially in the current economy.

Sales from Social Commerce

commerceTo build a boom town — community features with a direct impact on sales — marketers need to pursue a strategy that creates interactions and contributions around the product or service they’re trying to sell. This Social Commerce model fosters opportunities for the creation of content that helps others make purchasing decisions, driving more sales and resulting in a quicker ROI. This type of strategy needn’t require a person to register or become a full-fledged member — they should be able to write a product review, ask or answer a question, or write a story without feeling like they have to make a commitment. Whether that contributor feels like they’ve joined a community by participating is not the point. Their contribution is useful for the visitors to the site, who came to learn more about the brand and get their questions answered — not to “friend” people or help others. And yet, once a critical mass of content is shared, a community of shared interest will start to form. People will write the 101st review because there’s a community around a product! This “accidental community” starts to form, which amplifies the engagement to the content and profiles.

It’s a challenging time in the social media world. Marketer interest — fueled by hype over Facebook and Twitter — in community-building is rising, just as consumers begin to tire of joining yet another social network. Rather than spending time and energy developing something that’s destined to be the next brand ghost town, consider smaller ways to use social media techniques on behalf of your brand. Perhaps you want to build a community of brand loyalists to act as a focus group for product development. If you’re looking to drive immediate sales, incorporating a user contribution system — reviews, Q&As, and storytelling — around products on your own Web site is the path to success (especially in the eyes of your CFO!). The trendy Facebook-clone route, however initially exciting and attention-getting, may lead to crickets and tumbleweeds, while a more measured approach may result in a thriving little settlement.

17 Responses to “Warning Signs of “Ghost Town” Brand Communities”

  1. Jon makes a key point here as do several others–there’s a big difference between customer service and community and while all brands can and should provide the former not everyone has the right to do the latter Rather than thinking from a brand centric point of view about how a community can support it, marketers should identify the insights, informaton and assistance their brand can naturally provide. Higher involvement products and services may spark a community from there but many brands can’t and shouldn’t stretch beyond the service model. To your point, Sam, it’s potentially a use of resources that could generate greater sales and profitability elsewhere. Notice how we always point to examples of “passion brands” when we talk about successful communities? There’s a reason for that. Great post, Sam, but next time use a Forrester stat. :)

  2. Jon makes a key point here as do several others–there’s a big difference between customer service and community and while all brands can and should provide the former not everyone has the right to do the latter Rather than thinking from a brand centric point of view about how a community can support it, marketers should identify the insights, informaton and assistance their brand can naturally provide. Higher involvement products and services may spark a community from there but many brands can’t and shouldn’t stretch beyond the service model. To your point, Sam, it’s potentially a use of resources that could generate greater sales and profitability elsewhere. Notice how we always point to examples of “passion brands” when we talk about successful communities? There’s a reason for that. Great post, Sam, but next time use a Forrester stat. :)

  3. Sam, great post. Many companies are rethinking about creating their own community in hopes they can create the same buzz and stickiness on their own website. The core problem solved can’t be commerce. I will share this post with some of my customers.

    Mike D. Merrill
    Chief Bacon Maker and Marketing Strategist
    @mikedmerrill

  4. Sam, great post. Many companies are rethinking about creating their own community in hopes they can create the same buzz and stickiness on their own website. The core problem solved can’t be commerce. I will share this post with some of my customers.

    Mike D. Merrill
    Chief Bacon Maker and Marketing Strategist
    @mikedmerrill

  5. I think there’s some confusion here about what constitutes “community.” Facebook is a crowd, not a community. It’s a social network system where people can connect, but not everyone is in relationship to everyone else. Communities form within Facebook, but they often don’t work. In general, true communities mean persistent relationships over time, and shared history, and they don’t scale well. One way to scale is by creating a context for community “chunks,” as sometimes occur within Facebook, and as you have on the WELL.

    One way to get early passionate engagement that drives adoption and vibrant conversation is to seed the community early with members who will commit and persist, who care about the subject(s) of the community, and who are articulate. Start small; as the community grows, it will chunk into subcommunities rather than scale as one large conversation.

  6. I think there’s some confusion here about what constitutes “community.” Facebook is a crowd, not a community. It’s a social network system where people can connect, but not everyone is in relationship to everyone else. Communities form within Facebook, but they often don’t work. In general, true communities mean persistent relationships over time, and shared history, and they don’t scale well. One way to scale is by creating a context for community “chunks,” as sometimes occur within Facebook, and as you have on the WELL.

    One way to get early passionate engagement that drives adoption and vibrant conversation is to seed the community early with members who will commit and persist, who care about the subject(s) of the community, and who are articulate. Start small; as the community grows, it will chunk into subcommunities rather than scale as one large conversation.

  7. Well said Sam…you have circled something I talk with EVERY client about who wants to build a community. Most brand communities will fail because they are buildt as BRAND communities – and therefore immediately don’t offer a fair exchange of value to the participants. A recipe for doom. Instead, I encourage people to focus on the task and then consider if you can build community around the task – a la your point #1 – meet a need/solve a problem. I’ll pick on Dell again as a good example. Dells Digital Nomads (http://www.digitalnomads.com/) is a good example of this…instead of around the brand and focused on the latest mobile devices/products from Dell, they took a scenario – in this case a lifestyle and built around that – smart. It seems obvious, but somehow it’s not…product companies seem to LOVE to build product communities vs. thinking of the scenarios and services their customer want and need. Probably why product companies can succeed with support communities (because it is a task) and struggle with engagement communities.

    Anyway, good food for thought.

    sean
    CEO, Ant’s Eye View
    @seanodmvp & @antseyeview

  8. Well said Sam…you have circled something I talk with EVERY client about who wants to build a community. Most brand communities will fail because they are buildt as BRAND communities – and therefore immediately don’t offer a fair exchange of value to the participants. A recipe for doom. Instead, I encourage people to focus on the task and then consider if you can build community around the task – a la your point #1 – meet a need/solve a problem. I’ll pick on Dell again as a good example. Dells Digital Nomads (http://www.digitalnomads.com/) is a good example of this…instead of around the brand and focused on the latest mobile devices/products from Dell, they took a scenario – in this case a lifestyle and built around that – smart. It seems obvious, but somehow it’s not…product companies seem to LOVE to build product communities vs. thinking of the scenarios and services their customer want and need. Probably why product companies can succeed with support communities (because it is a task) and struggle with engagement communities.

    Anyway, good food for thought.

    sean
    CEO, Ant’s Eye View
    @seanodmvp & @antseyeview

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