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If you google for ‘Online Communities fail’, it won’t take long before you find a headline attributed to Gartner, the leading research and advisory company. In fact, the snippet taken from the Gartner report is more specific than that ‘70% of online communities fail’. In researching for our recent webinar ‘8 reasons why online communities fail’, I kept finding this claim – it just seems to have proliferated and, frankly, it is doing online communities in market research no good at all.
The attribution to Gartner was made in 2012, which in terms of the digital age, is a long while ago. There’s been plenty of time to fix things that may not have worked so well seven years ago, both through technology and learning. But what was the claim? Actually, it was that online communities set up for support purposes – to save costs effectively and act as peer to peer networks – may well fail and the company setting up this type of community should be prepared for that. So, how has this negativity about online communities transferred to market research and is it all relevant?
I probably should have called our webinar ‘8 ways to make online communities succeed’, but I didn’t call it that and, to some extent, I regret it. But, it has led me to a deeper question ‘does market research fail?’. And, then, to the question ‘do online communities fail more than other types of market research?’ My best answer to these questions is sometimes, but, firstly, let’s explore success vs failure in market research.
To me, failure in market research means worthless or close to worthless research (or, worse still, providing wrong and harmful findings). What is success, though? I am not sure every market researcher knows that. Is it accuracy? Is it providing something truly insightful that the user of the research didn’t know? Is it articulating the findings clearly? Is it asking the right questions? Is it all these things and more? There is no easy answer. This splitting of success and failure might be convenient for newspaper headline makers, but I would argue that no market research project is ‘perfect’ and no market research project is a ‘total failure’. Well, alright, one or two online questionnaires that I have seen have been so bad that they should be deemed total failures. But, like most things in life, there is a spectrum of success/failure.
This brings me back to the failure of online communities. I think there are some mistakes that you can make, which can seem like small mistakes that don’t seem to matter too much. However, they can have a greater impact than you might expect. The webinar, in my view, looked at some of these things. Nurturing your community is important and, particularly with smaller communities, worrying individuals can be important. Also, I think taking the time to look objectively at what is going on because a community is not like a questionnaire respondent. Questionnaire respondents just answer what you ask them (or refuse, of course), but they rarely ‘wander’ off into other areas – and that is the beauty of a community. Things might arise that are unexpected and you have let some of the control go.
I am sure (or would at least hope) that no one in market research honestly believes that some market research studies do not work out as intended. There is a temptation to say that ‘it worked’ because even the worst survey will produce some results. A badly designed questionnaire can still provide a figure showing the level of satisfaction, for example, which might be deemed better than a failure however the data is derived. Again, it comes back to my point that the quality of any research project will be somewhere between ‘perfect’ and ‘failure’.
Communities may have more reasons to be less than perfect. In the worst case, if the whole community is disengaged or its members walk away quickly, there will be a reason. In a sense, that is a learning. I like the idea of a community having something like a business plan as to how it will work, but like the best business plans, there is room to manoeuvre. This may be to take risks, explore something unintended or to let the community have some control. If you try to retain total control, it is like belonging to a club where the wrong chairperson gets elected and has an agenda which is totally out of sync with your wishes. What do you do in such a situation? You hang on for a while, possibly, but probably walk away.
So, having admitted that our webinar should have focused more on success than failure, I do believe that it can be the small things that make a difference to its success. I don’t believe the misused Gartner quote that ‘70% of online communities’ fail and I don’t believe communities fail any more than any other type of research project. The difference with communities, I believe, lies in the fact that it’s much easier to point the finger at who or what caused any lack of success.
This brings me to the, perhaps, a conclusion which is not really stunning at all. In the right professional hands with the right software platform, an online community will be successful. Which is the same as quantitative research projects, in fact.
We’re here to help and to provide the right software for a successful community. Speak to firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how to get started.