How to stop branded communities from becoming ghost towns

Most branded online communities are ghost towns, so can we stop a PR-hyped launch from becoming an abandoned failure a few months later?

Most branded communities end up as ghost towns, argues Richard Millington
Most branded communities end up as ghost towns, argues Richard Millington
In 2008, BA launched an online community, MetroTwin, to connect frequent travellers between London and New York. 

The PR team gained coverage in The Telegraph, the Daily Mail and many other publications. 

The site received good reviews and attracted 40,000+ early users. 

It didn’t last. 

In 2011, the site was shuttered in favour of a Facebook page and mobile app. Today the page is gone and the app is history. 

Bluenity by AirFrance suffered a similar fate, as did Vtravelled by Virgin Atlantic and easyJet’s community.

It’s not just the travel sector that’s getting it wrong; Sony failed with VAIO Nation, Dell failed with Digital Nomads, Lurpak failed with BakeClub, and the BBC failed with the Soup community for comedians.

Here’s a quick exercise. 

Go to a press release distribution site and search for "launches an online community". 

Count how many the communities launched in the press releases still exist. Most of them have long since disappeared. The rest attract a handful of posts per month. 

I have some bad news: we are terrible at building branded communities.

We repeat the same mistakes. We do a big PR push, attract thousands of members, can’t sustain the activity and watch it peter out. 

Most communities are ghost towns six months later. 
Three things are going wrong here. 

First, we get the concept wrong.

No one wants to spend their spare time talking about brands. They will spend their spare time getting help on sim cards (GiffGaff), becoming a better handyman (Bosch - BeThePro), and sharing gardening tips (Homebase – GetIntoGardening). 

The community always has to be built around the benefit, not the product (think home productivity tips rather than a community about washing machines). 

Second, we push too hard too soon. 

Every big community begins as a small community with a core group of active members. 
You begin by connecting a small group and growing steadily. 

You have to build that initial group, not just the platform, before you promote the community. A flood of traffic kills your chances of that happening because relationships take time to forge and develop.

A flood of members quickly trickles away if there’s no core group to build from.

Finally, don’t promote the community; promote what’s happening inside the community. 

Mumsnet is fantastic at this. It does incredibly interesting things such as live chats with celebrities, campaigns on behalf of parents, hosting hilarious discussions and then telling the press about them. 

This gets it a flood of people looking to do something specific within the community. 

Building a branded community is a powerful tool that leads to greater loyalty, retention, and advocacy.
Don’t fall victim to big launch syndrome. 

Start small, grow steadily and promote the really interesting things happening in the community.

Richard Millington is the managing director of FeverBee

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