6 Stupid Mistakes Companies Make with Their Online Communities

Or, The Barkeep and the Bouncer. Call 'em social networks, discussion forums, blogs, whatever. Some businesses have never learned to distinguish between participating in a conversation and trying to sell an online audience. Here's a free clue: the latter doesn't work.

User-contributed content is big business nowadays. The whole notion of community is far more common than it was when I started posting on BBSes and when I was a CompuServe sysop. There are now several online community and social network business models and justifications, including online advertising (as it is here at CIO.com), review/rankings that can encourage product sales (Amazon is the prime example), membership upselling (as at Flickr or LinkedIn), brand-building corporate blogs, open source projects that want to encourage more developer involvement, product support sites and probably a few that slipped my mind. This is a major change. At an online community conference I attended in 2000 (where Craig Newmark discussed his intention to maybe take Craigslist beyond San Francisco), most of us community leaders were fretting about how to demonstrate community ROI. While that's still a concern, I think Management is already sold on the necessity for online customer interaction, even if they aren't sure what they're going to do with it.

But "doing community" doesn't mean "doing community well," and I'm sad to say that plenty of businesses have screwed it up (and often pointed to the wrong source of failure). In the 25 years I've shared myself with the world online (I live more in TCP/IP packets than in a physical community), I've seen entirely too many dumb mistakes made, over and over, usually by businesses that should know better. Here's some of the stupidest errors. We'll pretend that your company hasn't made any of them.

1. Trying to control the conversation.

Actually, the problem here is that the company generally doesn't recognize that they're in a conversation. They think of the online community as part of a "marketing message," which has a defined target audience, on-point theme, and so on. All of which can and should be controlled by a marketing department. And which completely misses the point of community.

As my friends Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger wrote so many years ago in the Cluetrain Manifesto, the Internet has helped to make the world an ongoing, always-on conversation. Conversations do not happen from a podium. They rarely happen from a panel discussion, even if audience members can ask questions of the Authorities. Conversations happen around a table, with everyone on more-or-less equal footing (though some people will always know more than others... and that's one reason people show up).

Still, far too many businesses set up an online community and then insist that they have to control the conversation. Criticisms are removed; questionable language rejected; conflict discouraged. All very Happy-Happy-Joy-Joy. And always a complete flop.

People don't come to a company's community because they want to see only good news. They participate because they want to share successes and failures. Because they want to solve a problem, or to help someone else avoid one. (And for several other reasons that I won't go into.)

If avoiding the problem of "I wasted 50 bucks" means they'll write, "I hate this product and I'm sorry I bought it," they're going to share that passionate response. They might write it on your site, or they'll write it on Amazon, but they will write it. Your only option, on a company-sponsored site, is to conduct the conversation in a venue where you can respond. And by "respond," I mean, "You have an open and public conversation." Simply by permitting (and encouraging) the transparency, you admit to the world that your company pays attention to what its users and customers think. That is never a bad thing.

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