5 things that can go wrong in online communities -- and how to avoid them

Credit: Photomorphic

If you're setting up an enterprise social network, you have to take care to make sure it's doing more good than harm.

This week at the Gilbane Conference in Boston, Rachel Happe gave a presentation on online communities and how they can help an organization. Happe is the principal at The Community Roundtable, an company that helps organizations implement online communities and social networks internally and externally.

Happe said one of the big problems facing workers these days is being overwhelmed by technology and information, and online social communities are a way to help us deal with this. She said when we form strong online communities, it humanizes a situation that sometimes seem out of control for us and helps us connect with others to help us find answers and prevent us from constantly reinventing the wheel.

But Happe said there are pitfalls when it comes to setting up online communities. Here are the five big things that can go wrong -- and how to avoid them.

  • 1. Ghost towns.The biggest thing that can go wrong is you build it and they just don't come. Online communities don't just build themselves inside most organizations. It requires a concerted effort. She recommends you start at a small scale, and build up after you get a core group of early adopters excited about it. If you can develop some people who will evangelize the benefits of the community you shouldn't ever face this problem. It happens most often when an organization tries to roll out a community to too many people too quickly.
  • 2. Land of Thousand Flowers. This is precisely the opposite of the Ghost Town. Instead of nobody coming, a lot of people come but contribute a lot of crap content. Prevent this from happening by creating a role of community managers who can weed out material that's not relevant and help establish community norms for acceptable content.
  • 3. Drama Central. This involves a company with bad employee morale where the community suddenly becomes a huge online bitch session, with upset employees airing their grievances. Again, a good community manager could steer the conversation in more positive directions without completely shutting down dissent. The key is not letting the negative voices take over the community and turning it into place to complain, instead of a place to help and share.
  • 4. Circling Storm. This is similar to Drama Central, except the community becomes a place to discuss actual problems...and then the company allows these problems to fester and develop into much larger issues. People need to have an outlet for legitimate complaints and the online community is a proper place to air these grievances. The trick is to provide that outlet and use it as a way to find solutions, rather than just letting people feed of one another's angst with no end.
  • 5. Clique. Sometimes a small group starts the community and the personalities are so strong, the core individuals become a barrier for other people to join, instead of an impetus. You can avoid this by promoting the community across departments and getting a lot of different individuals in the company involved.

Online communities offer so many benefits for an organization: they can help reduce employee stress, identify experts, share information, build on work that's already done instead of constantly starting from scratch and so much more. But you have to manage these communities and nurture them because they don't just happen. The good news is if you do the work, you can avoid these problems and have healthy online communities that contribute in positive ways to your organization.

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