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How to determine when your online community has served its purpose

How to determine when your online community has served its purpose

By Tamara Littleton, CEO of moderation and community management company, eModeration.

The last 12 months have seen the rise of the branded community of purpose: an online environment where people can work together towards a common, clearly defined goal.

The purposes of these communities are as diverse as the people that join them - from fundraising initiatives such as Cancer Research’s Race for Life to support communities such as Weightwatchers. These communities are not confined to brands’ own websites: they can also exist on third-party social networks such as Facebook and Twitter – in short anywhere that people come together online.

Successful online branded communities are built around a specific goal or purpose, but what happens when the community has met that purpose? Goal-orientated members need a reason to stay with the community after they have reached their target. Why stay in the community once you’ve achieved your goal? How can brands encourage people to stay, contribute and keep the community alive?

Weightwatchers is a good example of a community of purpose that successfully retains members who have reached their goals. These people are given gold membership and can attend monthly weigh-ins for free, whilst still being able to contribute to the community. In turn, these members provide inspiration to those yet to meet their personal goals, and so the community as a whole benefits.

Most communities have a small group of members at their hearts that drive discussions, debates and content generation. These people often act as ambassadors who bring other members and experiences into the community, and they are the most likely to want the community to continue.

Other members may leave once the goal has been achieved. Losing members because the collective goal has been met isn’t necessarily a reason to chuck in the towel on the entire community.

But what if the community has achieved its collective goal? For example, a fund-raising site that has raised its target amount? Or a campaign to bring about change? Do you let the community drift? Create a new purpose? Shut it down? Communities that have evolved to include general or off-topic discussions may have developed beyond their original purpose and be able to exist as a community after the initial goal has been achieved.

Perhaps the funding has died away now that the goal has been met? Or it could be that someone has determined that the community has come to a natural end with few interactions and low traffic spelling its demise. If traffic and the lack of interaction is a problem, there are solutions that should be investigated to prevent closing the community.

Has a dedicated Community Manager been in the community to interact with its members, engage them on their profiles and within other community forums, and to welcome all of the new members? Have the 'Power Users' been identified, encouraged and provided with incentives to keep the community engaged? Is the content fresh and engaging?

If a forum is part of a larger site, has it been properly integrated and signposted from the rest of the site? Has the marketing team promoted the community externally? Have you Tweeted, Facebooked and, generally, shouted about your community? If not, perhaps this could resolve your traffic woes.

But, sometimes, closing a community becomes inevitable. In these circumstances, proper consideration should be shown for the people who have contributed to and supported the community through their membership. 

Give community members notice of your intent to close down the community and a timeframe. Point them in the right direction for finding other similar communities which they can join.

Give them an opportunity to continue the conversation. The message can be posted throughout the community by your Community Manager, posted on the front page of the community, or sent via a newsletter to all of your registered community members.

Communities of purpose don’t have to grind to a halt just because the original purpose has disappeared. Communities where people have individual goals and that exist as support mechanisms can continue to encourage new members to join and encourage those that have already reached their goals to stay on.

Communities that have a collective purpose really need to plan ahead. Even if the creators never intended the community to continue after the goal had been achieved, they need to realise that this may change as the community develops and relationships are forged.

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