Why digital communities fail (and what you can do about it)

Everyone around you seems to be talking about digital communities. You’ve seen the impact communities have on creating a moat around a business, increasing brand value, improving customer retention and bringing in the best customers.

So you might be wondering, Can I skip the strategy and go straight to building my community? I want to start inviting people to my Slack room!

This is problematic for a few reasons. First, having a Slack room does not equal a community. (That’s a topic for another post.) Second, you can skip straight to execution, but you might end up building the wrong thing. Third, you could invest several months and thousands of dollars into a digital community that no one wants to be part of.

Many startups do post-mortems, in which teams discuss what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening in the future. A “pre-mortem” is similar, except you identify the errors most likely to occur. It’s worthwhile to do pre-mortems for large marketing initiatives, like embarking on building a digital community. In the long run, you’ll save time, money, head count and emotional labour.

Here are the top reasons your digital community might fail—and how to avoid these common mistakes.

Problem #1: You expect a community to grow organically.

“If you build it, they will come.” Sounds reasonable, right? Wrong. This is the biggest myth in digital communities and anything involving customer traction. The product-centric trend in today’s startup discourse means you’ve probably heard the axiom that “good ideas sell themselves.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Communities that seem to grow organically are a bit like ducks floating along the surface of water. They look as if they’re just gliding effortlessly. But under the surface, the ducks are paddling feverishly. When you look at other successful communities, you only see their traction, not the work behind the scenes—in this case, the effort spent on securing and retaining new community members, encouraging word-of-mouth referrals and investing in programs that fuel community engagement.

No community grows organically. The ones that are bustling are those that were intentionally designed and curated to offer irreplaceable value to community members. To grow a community, you need to keep a close watch on what is helpful for your members and why they’ll tell their friends about you. In other words, you need to provide value and a sound bite that’s easy for your existing members to share.

Communities are built one person at a time. You might want to get to 10,000 members, but first you need to find 20 people, 50 people, 100 people. Focus on initially adding value to a small group, and one day, you’ll have a lively community outsiders are eager to join.

Action: What micro-experiments can you launch to maximize learnings, minimize costs and learn from tight feedback loops about what your users want from your community? It might be connection with like-minded fellow leaders, feeling heard and recognized, access to new tools and tips, or the pride from being affiliated with a well-respected group. You need to know what you can provide to your community and why they’ll want to share it with their peers.

Problem #2: You don’t take community culture seriously.

It’s easy to think community culture is a “nice to have,” but the truth is your community culture is the only thing you’ve got. When someone joins your community, they’ll instantly get a sense of what it’s like around here. So what is it like in your community?

It’s not enough to have written community guidelines. For example, you might emphasize that your community is an inclusive, safe space where participants can get to know one another, share their thoughts and respectfully debate. But it only takes one bad actor to show your guidelines are empty words. If someone breaks your community guidelines—for example, by being overly promotional of their own work and creating a slimy environment—you need to firmly take a stand.

What can you do to enforce your culture in this example? Communicate with the person one-on-one because you don’t want to shame them. At the same time, post publicly to let the rest of your community know what kind of behaviour is unacceptable.

The bottom line is this: You’ll get the behaviour you celebrate. If you want to see more community members evangelizing your product and referring customers, then you need to make these active referrers your heroes.

Action: What behaviour do you want to see in your community? Jot down who performed those actions and how you can celebrate them where your community resides, whether it be in your Slack room, LinkedIn page, email newsletter, Facebook group or in-person meet-ups.

Problem #3: You weren’t sure what kind of community you wanted to begin with, so you built the wrong type.

The challenge with building a digital community is that it takes a certain level of activation energy. You won’t see results overnight, and during this incubation period, you’ll put in effort without much to show for it. It’s easy to wonder whether you’re spending your time wisely—or you should change direction.

That’s why thinking rigorously about your strategy upfront is important. Creating a strategic road map is a way to plan for success: You’ll have an assertion of who to target, the amount of resources available to maintain your community and how to keep participants engaged after you launch. You don’t have to have firm answers, but you do need a hypothesis and point of view before you get started.

For example, if your CEO says you can only spend a few hours per week managing your community, this constraint will shape what you can offer your members. If your CEO is enthusiastic about investing in your community, you can design offerings that take more overhead to maintain and offer more engagement.

Action: To get a sense of what kind of communities your users could benefit from, consider doing customer development interviews. Schedule phone calls with three to five key internal or external stakeholders to capture a 360-degree view of what constituents value most. This will inform the design of your community and ensure you have buy-in from day one.

Thinking about what could go wrong helps you prevent avoidable mistakes—while it’s still cheap to make changes. You can create an ecosystem that’s much more likely to grow and attract the type of customers you want to be part of your digital community.

By Wes Kao