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Online communities no free lunch

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Marketers love the idea of branded online communities, and why shouldn't they? In theory, the concept is great. Customers share tips and stories, and solve each other's problems. Support costs are reduced, marketing can mine the conversations for leads and testimonials, and it's all free. Build it and they will come, right?

Wrong. The reality is that online communities are probably the most difficult social media trick to pull off, and it's only going to get more difficult in the future. Here are four reasons:

The world has already chosen its preferred online communities. They're called Facebook and LinkedIn and, if you're competing with either of them, good luck. Today, the first question you should ask about any community you plan to build is why you wouldn't use one of those two platforms instead.

The 90:9:1 rule. Community managers all know this term. It refers to the percentage of visitors who contribute nothing, contribute a little and contribute a lot. As a rule of thumb, only 1% of your members do most of the talking, which means you have to get an awful lot of people to visit your community in order to build any momentum.

Communities require lots of care and feeding. The perception that they're self-sustaining is a myth, particularly during the early stages. You need to actively seed discussions with content, beat the bushes for members and encourage members to come back. That takes a lot of time and effort. Even then, it doesn't work a lot of the time.

Most of the content people contribute isn't very good. The fact that people can talk doesn't mean they have a lot of interesting things to say. You have to manually pick and promote your stars. Sometimes you need to pay them.

With 34,000 members and 330,000 posts, RIDGID Forum is about as close to running on cruise control as an online community ever gets. But it took a lot of work before the community of plumbers and woodworkers reached critical mass.

In the years following its 2000 launch, RIDGID Forum required constant promotion and attention, says Wyatt Kilmartin, director of RIDGID branding at parent company Emerson Electric Co. Activity took off once membership reached about 10,000 people, but it took more than five years to get there.

And the folks who built RIDGID Forum had a big advantage: There was no Facebook in 2000.

I don't want to imply that branded online communities are a lost cause. They work well for customer support, and there are still opportunities for highly focused, content-rich communities to develop around targeted professional interests. But a cheap and easy source of quality content? That ship has sailed.

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