Monday, June 10, 2013

Who owns the online community?

The biggest online communities are businesses that tap into people's general or specific interests and offer great value to users and contributors.  In today's world they often do not charge any money for the use of their services, instead making money from selling adverts on their sites or from services sold to premium users or to companies providing add-ons.  Think of Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn for example.

Looking at these communities today, it is hard to think of a future without them, but they face constant pressures not to go the way of previous stars such as MySpace (now growing again slowly), AOL and SecondLife.  For example, Facebook experiences considerable pressure from younger rivals as it tries to maintain growth and the amount of time users spending on the site as noted in this CNBC report on Facebook growth from May 2013; while it is growing fast in emerging markets, there are signs of a loss of interest by users in established markets such as the USA and UK.

These pressures highlight the fact that the communities depend on their users who are free to go elsewhere if something new grabs their attention (for example Tumblr or Pinterest), if the site annoys them (e.g. not addressing privacy concerns) or just if they grow bored with the activity on the site.

Are there ways to combat this and create longer-lasting online communities?

One possibility would be to involve the community itself much more in running and setting the direction for the site.  Could the community actually co-own the service?  A real sense of ownership would increase loyalty and should also ensure that the site develops in ways that the community wants.  But if the online site was run as a business, this would inevitably create tension between the profit-motive of the company running the service and the demands of users.

There are two other drawbacks to the idea of community involvement or co-ownership.  Firstly, most users do not want to get involved.  They want a service, one that is useful and is used by their friends but do not want to spend time or effort on working out how it should be run; if it stops meeting their needs, then they will just go elsewhere.  Secondly, the active members who would be willing to participate in setting direction are not necessarily representative of the majority, let alone new users whom the business might want to attract.

All of these drawbacks can be overcome, in my opinion, (after all, two of them exist in democratic governments) by adhering to three principles

  • clarity on the aims of the community and how both the company running it and the users will benefit
  • balance of benefits between operator and users with limits on both sides
  • realistic controls that meet the long-term objectives and concerns of the users while allowing the business to operate commercially from day-to-day

I am working on building these principles into a new community for the travel industry.  By focusing on a specific part of the travel industry, the community should also cater to a long-term interest that will help the community to survive (as long as it is well-run).  I will share my plans in more detail in future posts.

Maybe you have any experience of building or even just participating in communities that have long-term success in maintaining user commitment or enthusiasm?  If so, it would be great to hear your experiences.