7 Harsh Truths about running online communities

Paul Boag

In ‘10 harsh truths about corporate websites‘ I highlighted some of the problems I perceive in how companies run their websites. However, many organisations are not content to simply run a website, they want to run an online community too.

Don’t get me wrong, I am excited to see organisations embracing the idea of community. I have been involved in running virtuals communities since 1996 and in 2004 I wrote about the business benefits of community. To this day I encourage Headscape’s clients to build relationships with their users.

A well run community can…

  • Drive traffic to your site
  • Generate a passionate, evangelistic users
  • Encourage repeat traffic
  • Help develop your products and services
  • Save you money

This is not a ‘rant’ against community, or even corporations running communities. It is an argument against the way they sometimes choose to do so. I continually see the same mistakes being made by organisations. It is time that they faced the harsh realities of running an online community.

1. Technology does not create community

When clients ask for help to build a community, they almost always talk in terms of technology. “We want to add a forum to our site” or “can you create a profile system”.

In ‘10 harsh truths about corporate websites‘ I write about how a CMS will not solve your content problems. In the same way a forum will not create a community.

Vanilla Website

Community is about people and relationships, not technology. The technology is the easy part. You can have a forum like Vanilla up and running in minutes, but it will take months of hard work to build a vibrant community.

If you implement the technology and just sit back then your community will fail. The technology merely allows you to engage with your community in the same way as a telephone lets you talk to your friends. It is a tool and nothing more.

2. Show some commitment

I have already said that building a community takes time, but it also takes commitment.

Too many website owners start communities only to give up when they do not see fast results. A community can take months to get off the ground and years before it shows real returns.

It also takes ongoing input. To make your community successful it must be nurtured on a daily basis. When a user posts, you need to replying promptly. Until your community is well established it will need monitoring multiple times a day.

You also need to demonstrate commitment to the individuals that make up your community. You need to take on board their input, address their concerns and encourage their contributions. You need to show you care.

3. Learn how to lead

As well as caring for your users, you also need to know how to lead them.

This is not leadership in the ‘managerial’ sense. These people are not obligated to listen to you or do what you say. You need to inspire, excite and encourage them.

Running a community requires you to be more like a politician or preacher than a manager. You need to mobilise people around a common cause and stamp your personality on the community.

Unfortunately there are few course that teach these kinds of skills. However, I would encourage you to look at great leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and even Barak Obama for inspiration. These men can teach you a lot about engaging with people and encourage others to follow your direction.

Photograph of Barak Obama

4. An antisocial community is your fault

As the leader of your community, your personality sets the tone. As a result if the community behaves in ways you do not want, then you only have yourself to blame.

I have seen many bloggers write about the negative comments they get on their posts. In most cases this is due to the tone they themselves strike in their writing. Although there are exceptions I believe that users will respond in the same voice you yourself set. If you are irreverent, then so will your users be. If you are rude, expect rude responses.

A good example of this is the social news website digg.com. Digg has developed a reputation for its ‘harsh and juvenile’ comments. I believe this comes from the leadership of founder Kevin Rose in his associated podcast Diggnation. This irreverent, comically and highly entertaining podcast has set a tone that has been carried across by users into the comments.

Diggnation Homepage

This is not a criticism of diggnation. Digg.com has become very successful because of their passionate community. It is merely an observation that you reap what you sow.

5. You need to swallow your pride

Another aspect to leading a community is the need to learn humility. No matter how well you run your community, you will mess up. When you do, how you respond is of crucial importance.

Because of the ‘distance’ that the web affords, people are often more critical than they would be face to face. Feelings are overstated and there is an inability to read the non-verbal signals we normally rely upon. This can often lead to confrontation and disagreement.

I have seen communities fail because the organisation alienated its community by responding badly to criticism.

If you want to run a successful community you must swallow your pride and never respond defensively to criticism. Instead acknowledge the comments and thank people for their honesty. Ask others what they think and hopefully they will come to your defence. If not, then you must seriously consider whether the criticism is valid. If it is then you need to admit your mistake and correct it.

By admitting you are wrong, it is possible to heal a relationship with your community and actually leave them even more enthusiastic about your brand than before.

flickr blog post - Sometimes we suck

6. Stop trying to control the message

If you work in marketing some of these points may make you feel uncomfortable. It feels messy and you do not have control over your message. Unfortunately that is the reality of community.

Community is not marketing in the traditional sense. It is not a broadcast medium, it is a dialogue with your users. Failing to grasp that will rip the heart from your community and force it underground.

I have seen unsuspecting companies experience a terrible backlash from a community simply fed up with being sold at rather than listened to. Users do not want a sales pitch or a feature list. They want the opportunity to feedback and a chance to help shape the future of the product or service they use.

Another tactic for controlling the message is to moderate. In extreme cases I have seen organisations moderate every single user contribution that appears on their site. However, I have also seen companies quietly remove negative comments made about their products and services. This is enormously counter productive because people feel censored and will go elsewhere to express their feelings.

That is the trouble with community, you simply cannot control it. If you do not allow it to flourish on your site and engage with it there, then it will pop up elsewhere where you have no control over what is written.

Adobe complaints on Get Satisfaction

7. Nobody likes to be alone

The final harsh truth I want to raise is that “users don’t want to be alone”. Too many organisations launch a forum with a plethora of topics and discussion areas only to have it lay dormant and unused. The reason – it appears empty, so what is the point of posting.

Before you can even consider adding community features to your site you need a critical mass of users that want to get involved. A lot of companies add community features not because users are asking for them but because management wants it. Communities like that rarely succeed.

Also there is a tendency to go straight for a forum. However, a forum requires a substantial number of users to work. Contributions can often become buried in some thread or topic and remain unanswered because it is never seen. If your community is small you may be better starting with comments, reviews or a mailing list. User contributions are much more likely to be noticed using these tools.

Finally, make sure you are seeding the discussion through new topics of your own. Asking lots of questions is a great way to stimulate discussion and prevent people from feeling like the only kid at the party.


After reading this you might feel that running a community is too much like hard work. You may decide not bother at all. However, that would be a mistake.

The ultimate harsh truth is that your users will be talking about your website, services and products, whether you want them to or not. The only question is whether you want to engage in that discussion.