17th January 2009

Why so many community initiatives fail to take flight…

posted in Uncategorized |

As we move from an era of experimentation (flush budgets) to one with much higher accountability for results (frugal investments), it’s even more important to look at why projects fail – and conversely why projects succeed.   Plenty has been written on this, so I’ll focus on what is becoming the most common conversation for me with clients – I call it the “general purpose” problem.  It’s a derivative of many of the same sorts of issues:

  • Tools before strategy
  • A lack of clear objectives
  • Poor or non-existent governance – that is to say that the person driving it had a goal:  “We need a wiki” or “we need a blog” or “we need a discussion board”

I call it the general purpose problem because too often I see brands that are wanting to build general purpose communities for their brand.  So, let me ask the why question once again – I feel like I’ve done this here before…

Why are you doing this?  What is the specific task that your are trying to enable users to do?  If you gave a set of users that task today and watched over their shoulders, how would they do it?  Where would they go?  What would they find?  What would cause them to “turn right” or “turn left” in that discovery process.  If you don’t know this and you are trying to build a community – I wish you luck.  You have to know the tasks and then you have to make sure that whatever you are going to do with community dramatically improves success with those tasks.  The more specific you get your tasks/scenarios the more likely you will succeed.  The more specific you define your audience, the more likely you will succeed. 

I’m all for a great vision, a clear mission and measurable objectives…but it is time to start writing narratives and your narrative should describe exactly what the task(s) are and how users accomplish them today.  Then write the narrative for your “to be” state that articulates both the user and company benefits.  If you do this well, design will be sooooo much easier and, even better, that dreaded ROI debate may just go away!  How?  Well, a well written narrative will explain the benefits to the user and to the business which will help you instrument and measure success in the change. 

How do you know if you aren’t quite there?  Consider the following dialog:

Bob:  “Tell me about you community project".”

Joe:  “Well, we are building a community to connect our users and engage our fans”

Bob:  “What will your users be able to do there?”

Joe:  “It’s an online destination where they can connect, learn and share with each other and us”

Bob:  “Connect, learn and share about what?”

Joe:  “About our products?”

Bob:  “I get that, but which product.  Tell me, what are they going to learn there?”

Joe:  “Our Flo-Gen product.  It’s our best seller.  It’s a complicated product, so we are going to have recommended content from us, as well as forums for some of our top users to answer questions about how to set up, install, and get up to speed on the product.”

Bob:  “Ok.  How do users get help on set up and installation now?”

Joe:  “We have a call center and a web site.  A few employees blog and I guess there are some 3rd party sites.”

Bob:  “Ok, what are the 3 most common set up/installation issues you want to address?”


Hopefully you get the idea.  I’m not trying to be obnoxious (I hope)…but this is what you have to do…keep asking the next question and really nail the exact tasks or set of tasks you are committed to solving for.  Ensure the “juice is worth the squeeze” – meaning, the benefits to you and users is significant in improving it.  And frankly, when you think you’ve asked all the questions to understand the tasks, do 4 more things:

1)  Ask 3 more questions – just to make sure.

2)  Write it all down – seriously!! Write it down.  Nobody writes this stuff down.  Write it down as a narrative.

3)  Validate it and observe it!  Make sure these tasks really are the most important, then go watch how users accomplish the task today (and write that down too!)

4)  Envision – what are you going to do to improve on what you observed in #3?  And it should be a relatively big improvement or it’s likely not going to succeed or be worth doing.

That’s a good start for now.  No more general purpose communities – build purpose driven experiences!

good luck!


Popularity: 15% [?]

This entry was posted on Saturday, January 17th, 2009 at 11:33 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There are currently 9 responses to “Why so many community initiatives fail to take flight…”

Why not let us know what you think by adding your own comment! Your opinion is as valid as anyone elses, so come on... let us know what you think.

  1. 1 On January 18th, 2009, Marc Sirkn said:

    Love this post - it’s a good check for anyone thinking about, or currently running a community. For me, specifically, it’s a good gut check and reminder.

    I think I’ve got it but need to find a piece of paper to write it down :)

  2. 2 On January 19th, 2009, Mick Leyden said:

    Hey Sean,

    Great post with excellent food for thought heading into the new year. Thanks :-)

  3. 3 On January 20th, 2009, Marcus Coghlan said:

    Hi Sean,

    Interesting post, and as Mick has said, it’s definately food for thought.

    Having a clearly defined audience is, I agree, a must, but I need a bit more convincing about the rest. In my profession, Interaction Design, user research and observation, task analysis and scenario creation are all core activities leading into the design of a system. So don’t get me wrong. I think the insights you can gain here are extremely valuable. However, after distilling all of that input I am left with a set of features, functionality and desired user experiences to use as the basis for designing a new system or evaluating between available alternatives.

    That is the step I failed to grasp from your post. What is it you distil from the scenarios and task analysis? What are the actionable outcomes from all of this?

    This is probably just the way I read it, but there seems to be a slight contradiction in your post. At the beginning you stated that ‘tools before strategy’ is not a particularly good thing. Totally agree with that. You suggest that by analyzing the member’s tasks and creating scenarios we should be able to better design or select the tool to allow the member to achieve their tasks, right?

    I would have thought that selection of a ‘community’ as a solution would not come until after all of this when we could weigh communities up against other tools the business has at its disposal. Yet, you seem to be suggesting we use scenarios and task analysis to validate the use of a community (a tool) by the business. Isn’t that kinda putting the tool before the strategy?

    Looking forward to you setting me straight. Marcus

  4. 4 On January 20th, 2009, sean odriscoll said:

    Fair enough. Had the title of the post been about creating more effective customer experiences, than I think I’m with you 100%. But the frame of reference I was writing from was why community initiatives fail. Another very valid reason they fail which I think you are highlighting is companies trying to use communities to solve problems for which community is a poor choice. That would come out in better fundamental research. I appreciate what you describe as your space and would heavily advocate - unfortunately, I think too often companies don’t invest in the research you’re talking about because they already “know what their customers want.” If I can get all of my clients to invest in interaction design that includes both user and observational research - I will be one happy guy.



  5. 5 On January 20th, 2009, Marcus Coghlan said:

    Thanks Sean. It makes a lot more sense to me within the context of an existing community.

    I totally support your suggestions for getting people to dig deeper and understand the user better. Any attempt to do so is better than none and the tools you’ve suggested are good ones.

    I think your question, “What is the specific task that your are trying to enable users to do?” is what’s throwing me the most. I’m sure its because of my own lack of experience in this domain (and/or overlaying my experience from another domain), but I’m really struggling to come up with examples of specific tasks you would be trying to enable within the context of a community.

    Would you mind sharing one or two examples of such tasks? It would really help. Apologies if I’m asking you to spell out the obvious.

    cheers. Marcus.

  6. 6 On January 21st, 2009, Sean said:

    Sure Marcus:

    I’ll use one from my background. I used to run product support communities for Microsoft.
    So, here is a bad “task” (or at least very insufficient) for designing a community:
    - I want to create a support community for Windows - a place where Windows customers can come and learn and share how they are using Windows and get tips and tricks to common issues.

    This isn’t a bad idea or objective - but it is a not a specific enough task - it is too general.
    A better task would be:
    - I want to create a support community for Windows users. Within that support community, we will empower Windows home(consumer) users with guidance on sharing & managing digital memories (video/photos) amongst multiple computers and devices and across extended family members in a safe and secure manner.

    Given that it is a support community - the task is not technology, but education, tips, instructure, user to user discussion, etc - whatever “content” will support the goal. But now, the editorial objective is much more clear and how to measure success is much more clear. In a way, I’m just talking about utilizing Personas - but I find many people don’t have much experience with personas either and at times personas aren’t rich enough to dig into the task beyond the audience.

    Hope this example helps.

  7. 7 On January 21st, 2009, Marcus Coghlan said:

    Thanks Sean. It makes a lot more sense in that context. I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

  8. 8 On January 26th, 2009, Building On-Line Community Starts Off-Line | Social Media Explorer said:

    […] Why So Many Community Initiatives Fail To Take Flight […]

  9. 9 On January 27th, 2009, Building On-Line Community Starts Off-Line - Online Media Managers said:

    […] Why So Many Community Initiatives Fail To Take Flight […]

Leave a Reply

rss posts
  • Categories