Why online communities die

Even the mighty Facebook, the world’s third largest ‘country’, and one that constantly gets press as an addiction, is no longer impregnable. A recent survey found US teens are ditching Facebook for Instagram; the latter has become the most preferred social network for the teenagers. Reports predicting Facebook’s demise have been surfacing for many years, variously observing how the network has alienated teenagers or how user interaction is going down. Twitter in the meantime is grappling with issues of its own. The world’s leading social networks are mortals too.

In fact, the reason why US teens today prefer Instagram over Facebook can be inferred. As we previously explained, social networks like Facebook and Instagram primarily deliver value on the ‘social interaction’ attribute (please refer to this post for an explanation on the three types of value that online communities generate for their members). Now, for the teens, Instagram is perfectly serving their ‘need’ for social interaction; teens are able to post pictures that tell their friends (followers) what they are doing.

Unlike Facebook that asks you to write a status update, Instagram asks you to post a picture (or a video) as your status update (and we know that clicking and posting a picture or video is way easier than composing a status update). Further, Instagram does not erode its own value for its users by pushing ads down users’ feed; it does not even curate a user’s timeline. Voila! Instagram has just pushed past Facebook in offering the US teens better value on ‘social interaction’.

Other online communities – particularly the online forums or groups that deliver value through ‘information sharing’ – follow a predictable lifecycle that roughly coincides with the net value they generate for their members.

  • In the inception stage, the community has few members, and is still establishing the identities of experts. Correspondingly, the information-sharing as well as social interaction value for its members is limited.
  • This value starts to grow exponentially in the growth stage, as new members join and bring richer discussions, increasing the value of discussions for all members. Further, the community experts have been identified; they often act as valuable guides to the absolute newcomers and therefore the community delivers value in the form of intelligent discussions and highly useful information to all users, new and existing.
  • As time elapses, the discussions in the community have evolved and reached to a higher level in the maturity stage. Disagreements on many topics have been amicably resolved among the existing users, many of whom are veterans. However, the community continues to attract new members who still ask elementary questions, therefore diminishing the value of the forum for the veterans. Community veterans often respond by asking newcomers to read up FAQs or search for the requested information in archives, unwittingly reducing value for the new members. The result is an all-round value decline for a majority of members.
  • As the members’ value continues to erode, the community enters the decline stage. Many veterans stop using the community altogether. New members on the other hand can still not easily ‘ask’ for answers and therefore, they quit too. Slowly, the community grows largely silent or fades into oblivion.

What can marketers do to postpone the slide of their community into decline, or prevent it altogether? First, they must reliably predict their community’s journey through the pre-ordained lifecycle. Answering the following three questions can help them forecast and validate their community’s life.

  • Will there always be a steady stream of new users joining in? All communities become more valuable as they gain new members, and the net additions to a community (the number of new members joining minus the number of existing members quitting) should always be positive in any given period. A community can in fact progress straight from inception to decline stage if the net additions are negative. Unless this question is answered in affirmative, the community stands ill fated.
  • Will there be a steady stream of new ‘information’? As we explained above, communities lose value when veterans start believing that everything that they need to know or discuss, has already been discussed, or when they start to point new members to archives instead of actually answering their questions. This scenario does not arise if a community serves a topic that continues to generate a steady stream of new information. For example, a product support community for a brand will be able to prevent information stagnation if the brand has a fairly robust new product pipeline with upgrades or new product categories being launched on a regular basis (therefore feeding new topics for ongoing discussions).
  • Can the core essence of discussions be distilled and curated? Communities can proactively be more welcoming to their new members by curating the best discussions as standalone features, articles or wikis (see how well J&J Baby Center does it). This exercise helps the newcomers come up to speed and participate in higher-level discussions. The community benefits from retaining its higher order discussions.

Finally, we have the following two recommendations for marketers keen to preserve the growth and vibrancy of their online community:

  • Activate dormant value levers: To retain the interest of existing members and continue to attract new members to their community, managers must deliver value on all three levers. This means that information-sharing communities must find ways to increase social support and interaction among their members (offline events for members can be a great tool). Simultaneously, the social interaction communities must evaluate if there’s any new value in information-sharing that they can generate for their members (notice how easy Facebook and Twitter have made sharing of links on their feeds). Often, activating the right lever requires making changes to the community user interface (a Facebook community moving to an online forum to enhance information-sharing).
  • Restrict your own interventions: As counterintuitive it may sound to those responsible for managing a community, it is absolutely critical to let the normal community and group dynamics evolve organically, if a community must retain its good health and vitality. In fact, possibly the worst way to manage a community is to cast your own big brotherly shadow over all discussions. While a community manager, being a representative of the brand, may have a legitimate role in steering discussions in the right direction, it is our advice to limit this role to a minimum. On the contrary, managers should allow community members earn their reputation and trust as experts.

Note: This is the third and concluding part of our series on building online communities. Read the first part here, where we explain the dreaded network effect and provide tips on how to overcome it, and the second part here, where we provide a list of questions to help marketers evaluate if their brand needs an online community in the first place.

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