The Rules of Online Community Engagement: If You Build It, Will They Come?

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Why Online Communities Fail

A study of more than 100 businesses with online communities found that 35% had less than 100 members, and less than 25% had more than 1,000 members. This was published in the Business and Technology section of The Wall Street Journal's website on July 16, 2008. The headline was "Why Most Online Communities Fail." According to the article, Ed Moran, the Deloitte consultant who conducted the study, indicated that most of the sites failed to attract visitors because businesses focused on the value the community could bring rather than investing in the actual community.

That was a big mistake, and most of the people who took the time to leave comments with that story agreed. A blog poster by the name of Mitch Bishop wrote, "The success of online communities is directly related to the passion of the participants, not the money invested by the underwriter." Susan Salgy of WebWise Solutions, a company that creates corporate websites and web communities, wrote, "We have seen this time and time again-companies want the benefits of a community without ponying up the content and attention that will deliver the core value to community members." She went on to mention that her organization's best clients understand the scope of the commitment and provide the necessary long-term nurturing that will make it a success.

The key phrase in that statement is "long-term." Success will not happen overnight, and anything short of a long-term commitment will produce mediocre results. Communities fail when no one is tasked with providing that long-term nurturing. Communities fail when they are neglected and taken for granted and when the assumption is made that it will always exist or that if you build it they will come. Communities fail when the endurance needed for success is underestimated or misunderstood. The recommendation made by Moran, the consultant with Deloitte, was dead-on: "Put someone who has experience running an online community in charge of the project." I'm convinced that this is the best solution. In fact, it's the only solution. Enter the community manager.

What Is A Community Manager?

What exactly is a community manager? And what does this person actually do? Well, it depends heavily on the goals of the individual, group, or organization behind the community. The goals of a company looking to grow brand recognition, connect with customers, and grow its customer base will differ slightly from an organization or individual interested in bringing together cancer survivors or music enthusiasts. A blogger working to build a video-gaming community will have a different set of goals and perhaps a different approach than a retail store such as Pottery Barn, a cable giant such as Comcast, or a nonprofit organization such as The American National Red Cross. These differences make the role of a community manager very unique and underscore the importance of having clear goals and knowing what constitutes success.

With GOLO, WRAL.com's online community, I strive to attract new members who live in or have strong ties to the Raleigh/Durham (N.C.) area. I want them to feel that GOLO is the best local community on the web, where they can make friends, learn from others, and voice their opinions about the things that matter most, the great majority of them being issues that are geographically relevant. The original job description for which I applied stated the following: "Energetic, community minded person needed to oversee all aspects of content creation and editing for new community based internet product. The ME will provide vision and long range planning/direction for all content areas while managing balance between staff, freelance and community generated content related to the Raleigh/ Durham area."

The job also involves cultivating relationships, and with the tagline "Go Local. Talk Local. Share Local." It's easy for me to stay in line with the day-to-day mission and long-term strategies. That tagline guides almost everything I do within the community. Without a clear-cut mission, you will find it difficult to reach your goals. General goals such as "reach out to the community and communicate" will only get you so far. What are you reaching out to the community for? What are you communicating about? Those are the questions that have to be answered so you can gauge your success.

FreshNetworks, a European firm that builds, manages, and moderates online communities for brands such as Microsoft, HSBC, and Procter & Gamble, stresses the importance of the community manager and the need to focus on the skills and strategies needed to build, grow, and manage an online community. In a call for participants for the International Online Community Management Association, German blogger Sascha Carlin describes online community management as a challenging profession that involves facilitation and moderation and refers to community managers as product managers of a special kind with a potential audience of millions. The challenge, according to Carlin, is knowing how to reach these people, what services to offer to them, and how to get them involved in our companies' business goals.

Community strategist Connie Bensen characterizes the position as "broad and encompassing," with this definition: "A community manager is the voice of the company externally and the voice of the customers internally. The value lies in the community manager serving as a hub and having the ability to personally connect with the customers (humanize the company), and providing feedback to many departments internally." While Bensen's definition seemingly applies to enterprise only, phrases such as "personally connect" and "humanize the company" are far from corporate. They bring personality into play, and that resonates across the board. The rules of engagement are the same for Ford, Comcast, and JetBlue as they are for Pottery Barn, The New York Times, bloggers, marketers, business professionals, and entrepreneurs. They just have to be tailored to meet individual and specific goals. Some of the 18 rules laid out in this book will be more helpful than others, but each rule should be practiced at some point to determine which ones deliver the best results.

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