Posted by: Andrew Hemingway | November 22, 2010

What to ask before starting an Online Community

Sheep are multi-purpose animals, raised for their meat, milk, wool, hides, and skins. While they have been used to control unwanted vegetation for centuries, grazing as a fee-based service is a relatively new opportunity for sheep producers. Sheep are also a popular research model and some producers have developed businesses supplying animals or other products (e.g. blood) to bio-science.

Thus, one of the first and most important decisions a shepherd must make is to decide which aspect(s) of sheep production to focus on. While most sheep breeds are multi-purpose, most are best suited to either meat, milk, or wool production — seldom all three. Production practices tend to vary according to the purpose of the flock.

The number one reason why online Communities fail is because there is no clear definitive reason who the community was built for, or who will benefit from it. I have visited communities online where they have a tab for Moms, and a tab for Childrens Games, and a tab for Advice on Sex. Does that make sense to you? When somebody visits your community they should not be left wondering who this community is for, or whether or not they are the right fit for this community. I can tell you 100% of the time the user who is unsure will leave.

Before you start a community clearly identify your target market and tailor make the community for them. This sounds easy, but I know it is not. With a large soft goods provider I was working with this was extremely difficult as their products spanned several genres of communities. But after some careful planning, and some very difficult strategy sessions it became obvious just who this community was for. And it has been nothing short of an amazing success.

Here are a few questions to ask before starting a community. If you do not have rock solid answers on these, I would advise you wait on launching a community.

  • Who is the community for?
  • Does this target use online communities?
  • What do they want out of an online community?
  • Can you provide what they want?
  • Will the community help them or is this just about you and your brand?

Once you have settled your target market the next steps are very simple. Find those in your market and demonstrate to them the value of your community. Knowing who you are going after will determine how you go after them, and retain them.

Bring value to your community and members will never leave you.



  1. Great blog title. We often say that our role as consulting strategists is akin to shepherding our customers and partners through our process. Your list of questions to ask about a community development project prior to launching a community are good ones. It looks like you are talking about public facing customer communities. Both customer and internal employee communities are failing mostly due to poor strategy and planning (according to Gartner). There are many questions that need to be asked prior to launching a community and/or purchasing enterprise social business software. These are not just about the community but also what the workflow is around feedback. What is the process when you hear negative or positive sentiment? How do you connect what you’re learning to action and change?

  2. Thanks Jeff. Great point on the internal and external communities lending different questions. I was thinking only about external or public facing communities….but you have me thinking now about internal communities.
    Shepherding really has so many similarities to what we are doing trying to do in our communities. I have found that there is so much to learn from the oldest profession known to man.

  3. Jeff,

    I think analogies are very helpful and this is a good one – specifically the notion that you need to know what you’re trying to do both in the long-term and short-term. There are tradeoffs, and it really isn’t easy as you say to build a healthy community.

    That said, I think you need to add another dimension to this: what value is the community to the company? Specifically, what’s the ROI? I’m biased as this is what my company is all about, but the truth is that too many communities aren’t delivering tangible value to the company running the community. This leads to short attention spans, increasingly little value to the community, and ultimately unhealthy communities that provide little value to anyone.

    Something to consider adding to your methodology.

    – Herb

  4. Herb-

    EXACTLY!! ROI…so funny you mention this. the very next post I put up was about ROI and communities. See that here:

    Also over on Linkedin I have been having a great discussion on ROI and Community with some great Community Managers. With many of the same thoughts as you have shared.

    I realize that building a healthy community is not easy, and did not mean to insinuate such. I was simply stating that without asking these questions up front a difficult task is turned to impossible.
    Thank you for your great insight!


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