Don't Let Your Community Become A Ghost Town - InformationWeek
10:47 AM
Rachel Happe
Rachel Happe
Connect Directly

Don't Let Your Community Become A Ghost Town

Knowing who is likely going to be part of your community will help ensure it's well attended.

When you throw a party, you definitely don't want it to feel under-attended or empty. The same is true for communities. Low participation is potentially embarrassing, and not the way to ensure ongoing support and attract new members.

Ghost town communities happen primarily when the host doesn't

-- know the target audience;

-- budget and plan for content and programming;

-- appreciate the need for ongoing cultivation of participants;

-- understand the dynamics of how communities start and grow;

-- have an awareness of the social context in which members operate and the skills and power they wield.

My alma mater, for instance, over the years has failed more than succeeded in engaging an audience that already has some level of affinity. There are two reasons for this: the lack of investment in true online programming, and the dramatically changing needs of the audience, which is causing a disconnect between those managing the community and what community members find relevant. Online is treated simply as a way to share things being done in other channels and formats.

Empty parties are embarrassing, but it's another thing entirely to have a small one. Small parties--and communities--are some of the best because there's an intimacy and connection you can never have at a large event. Still, it's much better to have planned for a 40-person event and have 50 people show up than to plan for 500 and have only 50 attend. It's the same number of people, but the perspective of the attendees is much different.

In planning a new community, you'll want to set a size goal that you're confident you can achieve. This may not be the size you want the community to be when it's mature, but one that works at the start. To help determine your initial goal, figure out

-- what competes for the target members' time and attention;

-- how isolated potential members are from one another;

-- the total number of potential members and the concentration of strong interest within that group (i.e., are only a small percentage likely to be heavily involved, or is a high percentage of the group likely to participate but not consistently?);

-- how strongly aligned your target members are with the community's goal.

In some cases, driving community membership is quite easy. For example, BabyCenter has little trouble aggregating new moms into communities because its target audience is large, has an extremely high level of interest, is often isolated, and often has plenty of time to participate. BabyCenter is almost all user-generated content.

In contrast, CardioExchange, which provides connections among cardiologists, must be structured differently. Its target audience is much smaller, has little extra time, and is very goal oriented--seeking primarily to find trusted information and get feedback on specific issues. The content on this site is set up to let members quickly establish trust, indicate favorites, and comment on content. It doesn't require them to create a lot of content in order to get value from the site.

Both of these communities are driven off of attendees' shared interests, but they have different characteristics, including size, goals, business models, frequency of activity or cadence, content types, atmosphere, and participation criteria.

Having the self-awareness and understanding to know what your community is likely to look like will ensure that you plan accordingly and in doing so, maintain support for your initiative over time. If you plan for BabyCenter's community and instead have an audience more like that of CardioExchange, you'll expect a lot of activity too soon, build the wrong tools, invite too many people too early, and likely end up with what feels like a ghost town.

Rachel Happe (@rhappe) is a co-founder and principal at the Community Roundtable, a peer network for social media, community, and social business leaders. You can reach her at or 617-271-4574.

Employees have more ways to communicate than ever, but until the mishmash of tools gets integrated, productivity will suffer. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek: A buyer's guide to enterprise social networking. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
User Rank: Apprentice
6/16/2011 | 4:18:40 PM
re: Don't Let Your Community Become A Ghost Town
Alex -

That is a great point and most successful communities have lots of sub-groups. The caveat is that building sub-groups (or too many of them) too soon can also fragment the activity in a community and make it seem much less active than it actually is... so it's a balance.
User Rank: Apprentice
6/14/2011 | 1:39:23 AM
re: Don't Let Your Community Become A Ghost Town
"Empty parties are embarrassing" - well said. All parties need a host to introduce people, start the conversation, make sure the wine glasses a full......this is the role of a community manager - every online community needs one to be successful
Alex Dunne
Alex Dunne,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/9/2011 | 5:00:36 PM
re: Don't Let Your Community Become A Ghost Town
Excellent observations Rachel! Something else I've noticed is that building strong subcommunities can improve the dynamics, and participation, over the larger overall community/site.

For instance, I think Reddit has had a lot of success because anyone can carve off a subcommunity of like-minded individuals (whose contributions often bubble up to everyone else on the site).

Or, in the case of a site like BabyCenter (which I haven't been to, so pardon my ignorance), the site might see more activity with subcommunities for parents of multiples, parents of special-needs children, and so on, vs. trying to build one overall community for all parents.

Sometimes dividing a community into smaller parts (creating a "smaller event", to use your analogy) can increase overall member affinity and community participation.
How Enterprises Are Attacking the IT Security Enterprise
How Enterprises Are Attacking the IT Security Enterprise
To learn more about what organizations are doing to tackle attacks and threats we surveyed a group of 300 IT and infosec professionals to find out what their biggest IT security challenges are and what they're doing to defend against today's threats. Download the report to see what they're saying.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
2017 State of IT Report
In today's technology-driven world, "innovation" has become a basic expectation. IT leaders are tasked with making technical magic, improving customer experience, and boosting the bottom line -- yet often without any increase to the IT budget. How are organizations striking the balance between new initiatives and cost control? Download our report to learn about the biggest challenges and how savvy IT executives are overcoming them.
Twitter Feed
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.
Flash Poll