"The facts were all there - we should have known what to do."
The sentence too often uttered at meetings discussing online community failures.
And the fumbles too often made? Premature spending, unbalanced resourcing, negligent community management, and the list goes on. Communities need to ripen and mature under great care, and their needs will vary throughout every stage.
FeverBee's illustration on the Online Community Lifecycle lays out key descriptions for each phase and is useful in gaining a basic understanding of the life cycle.
When an online community fails, the decisions made about spending or resourcing can come back to haunt us. And it's easy to place the blame on the community manager or leadership for not having the foresight or devoting appropriate bandwidth for maintaining and growing the community.
But remember, there is no guaranteed path for online community growth; no one-size-fits-all solution to broadcast to the vast sea of associations throughout the world.
But most of our favorite business books are avid proponents of life cycles, curves and stages to explain the journey of a consumer, business or product. And while you can maintain a cadence of content, there is no guarantee for it will be received. That's why we need to turn to patterns and best practices to build an engaged, sustainable online community.
Launch and Finding your Footing
In this stage you should be frequently and effectively spreading the word about your community. Prior to launch, you should have completed various planning and positioning exercises that clearly define what your community will be, who it will be for, and what it will ultimately offer to its users.
Remember, a good launch does not mean a big launch.
Start with a good core and focus on getting the execution right, no matter how small the scale.
As we noted in our blog Framing Your Community Launch into a Battle Cry for Engagement, an online community launch should be focused on:
1. Promoting Your Purpose
2. Encouraging Staff to Seed Conversation
3. Engaging Frequently
4. Securing a Stream of Compelling Content
These initiatives carry over into the community management aspect of your online community and might continue to redefine themselves throughout the life cycle.
Steady Growth (Content and Member Population)
How a community grows in the long term is largely determined by how it grows in its earliest stages. This is not to say that a stagnating community can't be refurbished or reengaged, but if you are in the process of migrating or launching a new community, then you need to take full advantage of the position you're in.
What lends itself to strong, steady growth? Diversity. While it's tempting to become focused on superusers, communities that have a wider spread of semi-frequent or even infrequent users are healthier in the long run.
Developing Critical Mass
The bedrock of community is meaningful relationships between users and shared value in the community's success. Achieving engagement on this level ultimately means frequency of interaction - something that you can encourage and master by taking into account your responsibilities throughout the community life cycle.
You want an appropriate amount of activity for the number of members you have. There is no "perfect ratio" for this so to speak, but rather the findings would speak for themselves. This goes beyond the number of users and is in fact dependent on several individual factors. "Activity per member" is a huge indicator of this and includes micro-conversions as discussed in our blog Measuring Online Community Success: Lurkers Deserve Your Love Too.
Ongoing Growth, Complexity and Duplication
Over time as your community matures, it will inevitably begin to specialize and restructure itself based on content and interests. This is a natural and healthy process for it to go through.
As this occurs, be sure to keep and ear to the ground and ensure that there is a willingness for old members to engage with new ones. You should continually be introducing new types of ideas, people and content into the mix, even as things are improving and evolving.
At the end of the day, this is about giving your members the power to build content around the things that they care about in an effort to inspire them to learn more.
Whether you're reading this after an online community mishap or you are about to embark on your own community journey, many growing pains can be easily avoided by laying out a clear plan for your online community growth. This means avoiding tunnel vision towards your long term goals and laying out short term goals in relation to the online community life cycle.