Why do online communities fail?

Despite the tremendous value that an online community can bring to a organisation or business, it’s never really true that “if you build it they will come”.
There are all sorts of reasons why online communities may fail. Recently many commentators have been covering the The Wall Street Journal Article by Ben Worthen titled “Why Most Online Communities Fail?” including Mike Gotta and Patrick O’Keefe. Ed Moran comments that “A disturbingly high number of these sites fail”.

While those of us who work in online communities might dispute the “high number” or “most communities fail” statements it nonetheless is useful to look at some of the reasons why online communities fail.

  • The biggest reason for failure is relying on technology – whether it’s websites, forums, Web 2.0, social media, social networks or any of the buzzwords. Too many businesses spend massive amounts of money on the technology rather than the plans and processes and people that are what make up a community.
  • Lack of proper strategic planning and management typically comes before failure. Community strategising, management and facilitation are key skills, and they don’t come from nowhere. Years of research and experience in community management have gone into Reach Further’s community model for example.
  • Getting the wrong people to run it. If you ask a web designer or developer to design a site that’s what they’ll do – design a site – they’re probably not experts in running communities. Many companies then put their communities in the hands of an administrator or marketing officer. Again, these are not necessarily the people to run the communities successfully without the training and mentoring – the kind of training that Reach Further offers in e-moderating, for example.

Of course, an online community is still one of the most potent tools for a business to connect with its customers, employees, partners and other stakeholders.

Beeline Labs » The 2008 Tribalization of Business study and others show that
  • Communities can increase revenue per customer dramatically, i.e., 50%.
  • Communities will increase product introduction success ratios.
  • Communities amplify everything a company does – increasing effectiveness and decreasing costs.
  • If done properly, communities will transform the way marketing works (reduced costs, improved effectiveness, new opportunities).
  • Communities can revolutionise working practices within and between companies and organisations.

A community can establish and maintain a brand, provide feedback from users and purchasers, generate ideas and save time and money.

But anyone setting up an online community needs to be clearheaded: they will need to focus less on the initial technology and building of the site and much much more on planning and facilitating continuing community engagement.


  • Thanks for the mention.


  • I will continue to stress the importance of the community manager’s role. This role should be filled by a committed individual who will reach out to the community, encourage them, value them and make sure they know their presence is appreciated. If there is no one actively engaging with users, and doing so with a purpose…the community will cease to exist.

  • Great to see this discussion on what makes communities work, or not. Angela, on your community manager point — a really interesting insight came out of the Tribalization study interviews. One big company who’s had a large scale community going on for awhile is now on their third generation of community managers. Here’s how the role evolved: First, they picked an internal enthusiast. Essentially, someone spunky raised his/her hand and got the role. Next, the company chose an active member from within the community — a power member, if you will, theory being that he/she found a lot of value and could help others get involved and keep things lively. But third, and here’s the real insight: Now the community manager is someone who not only “gets” the community but who can navigate the corporation to take action on ideas and issues that are raised in the community. That’s when real benefits and change can happen. What else do you find makes a great community manager?

  • I absolutely agree with Angela about the key role of the community manager or moderator.

    Janet – so interesting you raised those particular points about the community enthusiast being appointed the manager – we were just talking today about how to facilitate this in a particular community and how to encourage and make use of community champions. I still think that there is an aptitude that some people have that makes them great online communicators and facilitators – and it’s not something you can spot from their offline behaviour.

  • I am actually brainstorming at the moment about ways to take some of my best members and “deputize” them so to speak. I’m intrigued with this third generation of community managers mentioned above and how someone who was a major player within the community eventually took the lead. I have given a few users abilities to pull bad images in sort of a trial run to determine whether or not the power would go to their heads, but I nixed it. I don’t think that’s the method I should adopt.
    But in terms of additional attributes of a community manager, I would add: A thick skin, sense of humor and an iron hand when hard decisions need to be made. Empathy would help, and a willingness to be an advocate for users.

  • Great post. Communities are so powerful – for their members, audience and brands. Like the old saying \