Steve Rubel had an interesting post this morning, titled “Historically, Most Online Communities Haven’t Stuck”
Only a handful of community sites over the last dozen years have had staying power. If you study them you’ll find moats to protect them from competitors and fickle users. These barriers to entry include peer-to-peer commerce (in the case of Edelman client eBay), robust user reviews (Amazon.com) and deep entrenchment in vertical markets (BlackPlanet.com).
I think the spirit of Rubel’s post rings true, and I think that in general he was trying to make the statement “don’t bet the farm on Facebook”, but I think the post misses the mark on a couple of points.
First, (as commenters like David Binkowski state) there is a difference between an online community destination and an online community. Many communities of practice, interest and support travel from destination to destination over time.
Second, I’m not convinced that most marketing and PR firms are best suited to mediate long-term relationship building between companies and online communities. I say this with the utmost respect to both Steve (whose blog and twitter feed I read daily) and his firm Edelman. I think that if the “center of gravity” for community building and engagement isn’t internal to an organization, that organization’s efforts are likely in a lot of trouble.
I think John Hagel did a great job in his Community 2.0 post of assessing the community-related carnage of the bubble, and setting expectations for the period we are currently in online:
I am deeply encouraged about the commercial prospects for virtual community. When I published Net Gain ten years ago, it unleashed a huge wave of investment – there was a period in 1998 when virtually every business plan submitted to VCs in Silicon Valley claimed to be establishing a virtual community.
Of course, few of these ventures were actually virtual communities and even fewer had any real understanding of what was required to build sustainable virtual communities. As a result, much of this investment was wasted, consistent with the broader pattern of the dot com bubble. An inevitable backlash set in – virtual community became a suspect term. Lots of interesting initiatives continued to be pursued under the radar screen without much publicity or visibility, but helping to build skill sets, experience and performance results.
The net? Communities that don’t provide value, don’t stick. Those that do will grow and evolve. And there will be a lot more than a few.