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The Online Community Hangover

The term “online community�? has gotten a bad rap in the business world since the late 90’s and I think I know why.

“Community�? was held up as a cornerstone of online businesses in the late 90’s. Influential books like Net Gain got executives excited about all the possibilities. The thought was that the Web would enable communities of loyal customers to form and once they do -- the cash would start rolling in. Or so they thought.

In the aftermath, “online community�? has become a bad word- something that has come to mean “something we tried in 1998 that didn’t work.�? The reputation was well earned in a lot of situations.

What Failed?

Community often failed because of poor implementation- an underestimation of what it really takes to reap the rewards of “community�? in a business setting.

In the past (and now), social tools were implemented as an application that would immediately start creating value after being installed. The tools were seen as an end instead of a means to an end. “I thought the message board was going to create a community!�?

This view of social tools (message boards or email lists at the time) often created a mismatch between the tools and the needs of members/customers. The IT folks put a message board up and moved on to the next application.

What was missing was a plan of action- an understanding of how to design and implement the tool around the needs and capabilities of the customers. A plan was missing for giving “community�? a fighting chance to get a foot hold.

When online community failed, it often failed because it was an end without a viable means.

Here we go again

The business world is changing, community is back on the radar and businesses are once again looking for ways to reap the rewards of building “online community.�?

New tools like blogs, wikis, RSS, social networking, etc. represent new tools for bringing people together on the web- but the same questions still exist:

  • Where do we start?
  • What are the capabilities, limitations and appropriate uses of the tools?
  • What concepts and designs will work for our customers?
  • What are the best practices for using these new tools?
  • What is the ROI? How does it impact the bottom line?
  • What does success look like?

Social Design for the Web

Social Design for the Web helps answer these questions. Social Designers can guide organizations through the process, acting as a translator between the technology, customer needs and business goals. If community is a goal, Social Design for the Web is a step toward understanding the right set of considerations and inputs to get moving toward it.

Maybe this next time around, community will become a good word.